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Putrajaya must calm ‘Allah’ socks storm before tensions erupt, extremism experts say

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 — Government and political leaders must defuse unrest over the “Allah” socks controversy before extremism can take root in multiracial Malaysia, experts warned

Preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) expert Altaf Deviyati said such action was also needed to prevent the simmering tensions from boiling over into ethnic and religious conflict within Malaysia.

“From the PCVE perspective this is a classic case of how a local issue ignites and allows for violent acts to be so called permitted in the name of defending religion.

“To contain it, this is when local (community) leaders (non-governmental organisations, school or religious leaders) are needed, to dampen the tension,” Altaf told Malay Mail when contacted.

However, she noted that in this instance, incitement has originated from leaders linked to the government, which some may interpret as tacit approval for the violence.

On Sunday, a KK Mart outlet in Kuching was targeted with Molotov cocktails, making it the third outlet of the convenience chain to be attacked since the start of the controversy.

The incident in Sarawak has caused additional concern as the state is considered to be a bastion of multiculturalism in Malaysia.

“By right local leaders who understand their local community and know when something is not right such as local ethnic tension increasing, can do an intervention.

“I strongly believe in building local resilience because this will continue to happen.

“Local engagement has to start but this is tough since as Malaysian we are not used to it, but nevertheless we can restrengthen local mechanism such as rukun tetangga (neighbourhood association) for example,” she said.

Altaf said that since the attackers in the three incidents were likely local, there was a high probability that members of the community would be able to identify the perpetrators.

“They would have shared info with friends or their sentiments. Plus I would also like to look at the local community itself, why those two locations?” she added.

Explaining further, she said there could be many reasons for violent extremism — ranging from local to global — and all would share a common element of dissatisfaction.

“But everyone has grievances so why would you resort to violence? To me there are simply two reasons for that — you feel there is no other platform for you to be heard or vent out; or you simply believe violence solves problems.

“I believe majority of the people are the former,” Altaf told Malay Mail.

Due to the seismic shift in Malaysia’s political landscape since 2018, she said there was a perception among some sections of the country that the Malay political hegemony was in decline.

“Unscrupulous politicians and personalities are without doubt riding on this and TikTok influencers (are) using it for bait, too.

“A mistake, albeit a serious one, is deemed unworthy for an apology which is why KK Mart’s apology was not accepted. But couple that with lack of community resilience, then you get individuals resorting to violence.

“If this is not curbed it will spill over to ethnic-religious conflict. For this not to happen the government needs to do something.

“The minister for national unity needs to be more visible and be seen to be doing something,” Altaf said.

On Wednesday, National Unity Minister Datuk Aaron Ago Dagang and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Mohd Na'im Mokhtar said they would organise meetings to find ways to calm tensions from the socks controversy.

According to Munira Mustaffa, who is an expert in counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE), authorities must root out those responsible for fuelling the unrest, either directly or tacitly.

“The situation can be mitigated by identifying the source of instigation, which seems to involve dog-whistling on social media related to what appears to be a manufacturing error, thereby animating and emboldening the perpetrators.

“It's prudent for political figures (to) exercise restraint in their public comments that could exacerbate negative sentiments and instead issue messages that promote calm and encourage unity,” Munira said when contacted.

She added that as a society, Malaysians must endeavour to be less susceptible to rage-baiting malicious speech or actions designed to foster divisiveness that could promote acts of violence, especially when it involves coded messaging.

“By embracing a more measured and thoughtful approach, we can shield ourselves from incitement that weakens our collective resilience,” she said.

At the moment, she said it is difficult to determine whether the arsonists were linked or acting independently.

“The second incident, in all likelihood, could just be a copycat.

“We cannot confirm whether these two incidents are part of a coordinated attack until police investigations are complete. With that said, these attacks bear the hallmarks of vigilantism; where individuals, perceiving a failure by the state to address a social transgression, decide to take direct action themselves,” she said.

The first attack took place in Bidor, Perak, last Tuesday, when a KK Mart branch there was reportedly targeted by a failed Molotov cocktail early that morning.

This incident came even as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had urged the public against vigilantism, in a message meant to calm anger from conservatives who saw the controversy as an act of provocation.

Tashny Sukumaran, an independent researcher specialising on human rights, among others, said authorities must send a clear message over the Molotov attacks in order to remove any doubt over their position.

“The firebombs thrown at KK Mart in several states speak to an unchecked violence among extremist pockets of the Malaysian populace. The police should investigate these crimes and the perpetrators, who have clear intent to cause harm, must be charged.

“At the same time, the state action taken against the founders of KK Mart — who have apologised and taken immediate action to address a purported shipping error — underscores the double standards inherent in Malaysian society.

“The authorities should ask themselves if their definition of ‘hate speech’ is truly built on fairness and protects minorities or merely emboldens and bolsters conservative narratives,” Tashny said when contacted.

“The government should act swiftly, not against the founders of a homegrown brand, but to address the spread of racial tensions including taking action against those responsible for stoking these sentiments.

“Similarly, politicians should not be stoking the fires of hatred by encouraging boycotts and, tacitly, vigilantism — rather, leaders should be promoting and prioritising peace and moderation.

“Anwar’s Madani administration should speak to Umno Youth (as a member of this unity government) to warn against triggering further attacks. The issue should not be used to incite hatred for political gain,” she said adding that a strong and firm message should be issued by the prime minister.

In March, chatter emerged online about socks printed with the Arabic word for “Allah” being on sale at a KK Mart outlet in Selangor.

Authorities eventually found five pairs of such socks that were imported from China by a firm based in Johor.

Umno Youth chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh then called for a boycott of KK Mart, saying he aimed for the action to drive the company out of business.

KK Mart’s founder and KK Group executive chairman, Datuk Seri Chai Kee Kan was charged under Section 298 of the Penal Code for deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of others, alongside his wife. Both claimed trial.

Chai had apologised soon after the start of the controversy while KK Mart has also sued the company responsible for distributing the offending socks to its outlets.

Yesterday, after His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim, King Of Malaysia, said the country should not prolong the controversy, Dr Akmal insisted on maintaining the boycott by contending that Sultan Ibrahim did not expressly say to stop the campaign.