My Malaysia ordeal shows how religion can fuse with populist nationalism to silence dissent

Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

And while former U.S. President Donald Trump did not establish a cathedral, he did give a photo-op holding up a Bible at a crucial moment – during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 – as a sign of his religious politics against the protesters.

In such acts, populist leaders aim to incorporate religion and nationalism to serve their political agenda. Yet, for religious minorities, this symbolism may imply that they are secondary citizens.

In several countries, the alliances between religious forces and populist nationalists have threatened minority rights.

One such case is Malaysia, an ethnically and religiously diverse country, where Muslim Malays are the majority, while Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities constitute a third of society.

As I learned during my recent visit, Islam is at the center of political debates about nationalism in Malaysia. For example, on Jan. 13, 2024, Mahathir Mohamad, the once powerful former prime minister, said ethnically Chinese and Indian citizens of Malaysia are not fully “loyal to the country” and offered assimilation as a solution.

Assimilation of ethnic minorities into the majority may not be limited by language and culture, because the country’s constitution connects Islam and the Malay identity, stating: “Malay means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom.”

For Malays and converts, leaving Islam officially is not an option – both civil courts and sharia courts have rejected that in various cases.

The strong connection between religion and Malay nationalism has helped Islamic authorities, such as sharia courts and sharia police, expand their influence. Increasing Islamization of Malaysian government, however, is a worry for non-Muslim minorities.

Meanwhile, Muslim minorities are worried about their rights in several non-Muslim countries ruled by populist nationalists.


According to democracy watchdog Freedom House, in India, Modi’s government has pursued discriminatory policies against the Muslim minority of about 200 million people. These policies have included the destruction of Muslim properties to the extent that bulldozers became “Hindu-nationalist” and “anti-Muslim” symbols in India.

In the United States, Trump’s anti-immigrant policies included the so-called “Muslim ban” – an executive order that barred nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. While campaigning for the upcoming 2024 elections, Trump vowed to bring back the ban in an expanded manner.

As the experience of many countries around the world shows, the trend of advancing a religious-nationalist agenda restricts minority voices. This trend constitutes a major challenge to the ideals of democracy and equality of citizens worldwide.

These concerns are also personal for me: As a Muslim American, I want to both keep enjoying equal citizenship in the United States and give talks about Islam in Muslim-majority countries without being harassed by the police.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University

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Ahmet T. Kuru does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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