Malaysian society is now gripped by a fundamental question: is the country, which is more than half Muslim, an Islamic state? In practice, various religious and ethnic groups give Malaysia a distinctly multi-cultural character.
But the Malaysian constitution provides room for arguments on both sides of the question, and the relatively secular status quo is facing a serious challenge.
Drafted by a group of experts in 1957, under the auspices of the country's former British rulers, the constitution includes two seemingly contradictory clauses. On the one hand, Article 3 states that Islam is the religion of the federation, and that only Islam can be preached to Muslims.
On the other hand, Article 11 guarantees freedom of religion for all. As a result, Malaysia has developed both a general civil code, which is applied universally, and Islamic law, which is applied only to Muslims in personal and family matters.
Recently, however, some Muslim groups have pressed the government to proclaim Malaysia an Islamic state, on the basis of Article 3 and the Muslims' population majority. Ultimately, they would like Malaysia to be governed by Islamic law.
For years, there was little need to resolve this constitutional issue. For example, if a Muslim decided to renounce his faith, the matter would be handled outside the legal system, or conversion records would be sealed.
Religion - a matter of public concern
Today, however, every Malaysian must declare a religious affiliation, which is registered with the government – a requirement that has made it difficult for a Muslim to leave Islam without formalising the change of status through the legal process.
The country is now riveted on the fate of ordinary citizens like sales assistant Lina Joy and former religious teacher Kamariah Ali, who are trying to change their religious affiliation through the legal system. Muslim professional organisations and the Islamic opposition political party hold the view that renunciation of Islam is punishable by death.
Likewise, the defense by Malaysian civil reform movements of individuals' freedom of conscience has been denounced by some religious leaders as an attack on Islam.
Currently, Malaysia has no law that would impose the death penalty on apostates. Yet public movements have been formed to highlight this Islamic tenet. If it is not applied, the argument goes, there will be a massive exodus of Muslims to other faiths. The immediate goal is to keep the courts from allowing Lina Joy or Kamariah Ali to convert.
Attempts by other democratic civil society groups to debate this issue in peaceful public forums have been thwarted by threats of violence from a coalition of Muslim non-governmental organisations calling themselves BADAI (the Malay acronym for Coalition against the Inter-Faith Commission).
Ethnicity as much a factor as religion
Concerned about sparking an ethnic clash, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has proclaimed a ban on open discussion of these issues, threatening to arrest Internet news providers and activists if they continue to fan such debates.
Badawi is right to be worried. Since independence, national politics in Malaysia has reinforced group identity, especially among ethnic Malays, an exclusively Muslim community. Identity politics allowed ethnic Malays to assert their claims to control over land, language, and religion.
All attempts to reduce Malay influence serve to mobilise this community – in both ethnic and religious terms. Malay politicians have learned how to play this card very effectively.
Ethnic Malays' special status has long been codified in affirmative action policies giving them special economic benefits. However, as Malaysia engages with the global economy, these privileges may eventually be removed in order to heighten the country's competitiveness.
As a result, many Malay-Muslims increasingly worry about the loss of familiar economic and political safeguards. In particular, tensions have grown between the Malay majority and the country's large Chinese minority, which has been quicker to benefit from Malaysia's economic opening to the world.
The impact of the Middle East crisis
Moreover, efforts to Islamise the state comes at a time when conflict in the Middle East has further politicised Muslim movements in Malaysia. They view themselves as counter-forces to cultural domination by the West, asserting their religious identity in the face of what they regard as imperialising ideas like secularism and human rights.
Small disputes are magnified by this underlying conflict. Disagreements are increasingly depicted as being rooted in an East-West divide, as a struggle between believers and apostates.
Many Muslims are wary of this brand of identity politics. They recognize that the intolerance of Islamist groups can easily be turned against moderate Muslims. But all Malaysians must learn how to manage pressures that seem to be pushing their country's constituent communities away from one another.
Defending a multi-cultural national identity in the face of religious intolerance is thus the great challenge facing Malaysia's state and society.
© Project Syndicate 2006
Maznah Mohamad is deputy dean of graduate studies at the School of Social Sciences of Sains University Malaysia