09/03/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

When Religious Jingoism Rules

Would you believe that anyone could get arrested and have his or her resident status revoked because of a simple act of genuine hospitality to people of another faith? This senseless drama just played itself out in Malaysia. While I live in Hawaii, I return frequently to Malaysia, beloved country of my youth and early professional life. A recent visit gave me a close-up view as events unfolded.

Amidst the affirmations of "oneness" from politicians were stories of lives being torn asunder by order of the state. When Ahmad, the Singaporean Muslim owner of a resort in the southern Malaysian state of Johore allowed the surau (prayer room) on his property to be used by Buddhists needing a place to meditate, it seemed like a lovely, spontaneous expression of the spirit of "Malaysia Truly Asia" -- for years the platform of the country's tourism advertising.

You would think that Ahmad would be applauded for living out the teaching of Islam that "instructs us to be kind to our neighbors." But no. Ahmad was arrested and remanded for four days. Then the Home Minister weighed in. Not to restore sanity but to revoke the permanent resident status of a man who had demonstrated real muhibbah (goodwill) towards his neighbors. You see, Ahmad had committed a religious offense. The Chief Buddhist High Priest of Malaysia issued a public apology for the offense caused by the use of a place normally reserved for Muslim prayer. That act is seen under Section 295 of Malaysia's Penal Code as "injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion." The surau is now scheduled for demolition by local authorities with the cost to be charged to the resort owner.

When did this kind of religious jingoism become acceptable in "Malaysia Truly Asia"? When did Malaysia become so insecure as a nation that an act of kindness invites this kind of over-reaction?

The good news is Malaysians genuinely get along with each other. Regardless of what they call God, or how and where they worship, they join in celebrations of Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas and other festivals with goodwill and feasting at each other's homes. The bad news is the speed with which politicians pander to the lowest common instincts of those who do not know any better and squander the opportunity to raise the level of public conversation about religion.

Malaysian leaders might want to consider what the world concludes when the surau incident is set against the example of a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in India that opened its doors to several hundred Muslims because they needed a place to pray. What should people think when they compare what happened in Malaysia to St. John's Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, Scotland that welcomed Muslims who did not have enough room to worship in their own mosque? According to the BBC, "Muslims from the Syed Shah Mustafa Jame Masjid mosque next door share this church with Christian worshippers up to five times a day."

Malaysia is a beautiful country. Like Hawaii, it offers lush green vistas, coconut palm-fringed coastlines, stunning islands and magnificent mountains. Like Hawaii, it was long known for its welcoming culture. But some of its leaders seem intent on stoking ethnic and religious anxieties, while preaching otherwise. Does Malaysia really want to tell the world that the country's grasp of the divine is as petty as squabbles over who gets to call God "Allah" and where they practice their devotions? If asked to comment on this unseemly spectacle of what is done in His name, I suspect God would have only one thing to say: OMG.

Rising Crime

Malaysia has changed in other ways -- and not always for the better -- despite the gleaming skyscrapers, award-winning airport and the kind of roads that I wish we could have in Hawaii. Gone are the days of carefree walking to school, playing badminton on neighborhood streets, or letting my young son walk alone to and from his after-school tennis lessons. The biggest concern then was the hot sun beating down from blue skies, even bluer when it was a backdrop for banks of heavenly white clouds.

I've seen those blue skies turn grey by the smoke of peat fires and pollution. But even more troubling were the twin clouds of religious jingoism and rampant crime. I was warned often about parang-wielding robbers smashing car windows, yanking gold chains off the necks of pedestrians or holding up diners engaged in the favorite national pastime: eating. Crime has taken its toll on business at informal eating places where Malaysians gather in search of the best nasi lemak or Hokkien mee or Indian thosai or other ethnic specialties that have earned Malaysia its reputation for mouth-wateringly delicious food. The melding of many cultures has been critical in making Malaysia an irresistible rojak, something the poet/essayist, Salleh ben Joned rightly says is good for nation-building. Rojak is a signature Malaysian salad: a riotous mixture of flavors and colors, sweet and sour, crunchy, chewy and nutty, tart, with a piquancy that lingers on in memory, just like the country.

But that taste has been replaced by an anxiety that never dissipates. The papers report dwindling crowds at open air hawker stalls where some of the best Malay, Chinese and Indian food is to be found. Businesses are choosing to close early because Malaysians are opting to stay indoors, behind locked doors and gates reinforced with grills, and even CCTV cameras to discourage ever bolder intruders. One Malaysian told me the days of holding parties in his garden are over. When it's too dangerous to enjoy one's own garden and when simple acts of kindness are punished, isn't it time to ask what kind of nation Malaysia truly wants to be?