First ‘Allah’ socks, now outrage over shoes as Malaysia’s Islamists drive outcry

The store has vehemently protested that it is a coincidence and the lines were in fact a random pattern rather than an Arabic word.

“I apologise, even though it is an issue of misunderstanding, it has hurt the feelings of Muslims,” ethnic Chinese founder Ng Chuan Hoo told reporters on Monday outside the headquarters of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim).

Jakim will be the final arbiter on whether the logo design is indeed Arabic calligraphy, said Inspector-General of Police Razarudin Husain.

A photo shared on social media shows the offending logo and the shoe sold by Vern’s that it aims to replicate. Photo: X/tilianker

“No arrests have been made as we are still working with the Islamic development department [Jakim] to get more details,” Razarudin said.

More than 1,140 pairs of shoes have since been confiscated by the police in a nationwide sweep.

Facing calls for a boycott, Vern’s took to Facebook on Sunday to explain that the designs some had perceived as Arabic script were instead a stylised representation of a string on one of its high-heeled shoes, which spirals into a series of loops.

It said the design was open to misinterpretation and vowed to immediately stop selling the shoes, offering refunds to customers who bought them.

The flare-up is the latest in a series in Malaysia, driven by sharpened Islamist sensibilities gaining ground in a country that was once proud of its multi-faith secular society and politics.

King tells Malaysians to end ‘Allah socks’ row after store owner’s apology

Three KK Super Mart supermarket chains have been attacked with petrol bombs by vigilantes in recent weeks after several pairs of socks were found on sale with the word “Allah’ written in Arabic on them.

Despite the owners’ profuse apologies, five people were nonetheless charged with intentionally wounding the religious feelings of Muslims, which carries a one-year prison sentence.

Malaysia’s king, Sultan Ibrahim, has issued a call for calm, saying “persistent anger brings no benefit” – sentiments echoed by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whose administration is acutely aware of the risks of religious sensitivities spilling out of control.

02:22

A multiracial Malaysia would be unconstitutional, says former PM Mahathir

A multiracial Malaysia would be unconstitutional, says former PM Mahathir

At the heart of the outcry is Akmal Saleh, youth chief of Umno, a Malay nationalist party that has been struggling to maintain relevance since losing power in the 2018 elections. The party is a member of Anwar’s ruling coalition.

Akmal is facing sedition charges over his persistent and vocal attacks on KK Super Mart but has jumped onto the issue of the shoes, giving Vern’s a 24-hour ultimatum to explain itself. “Don’t blame us if we boycott your product next,” he said.

But many other Malaysians were dismayed by the latest sparks in a culture war that has seen films, live concerts and even watches banned in recent years for allegedly promoting un-Islamic values.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike have taken to social media to mock Akmal and those easily whipped into an angry frenzy by political-interest groups.

This is getting ridiculous and made Islam look very petty and bad

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal, Bersatu youth chief

“This is getting ridiculous and made Islam look very petty and bad,” Wan Ahmad Fayhsal, the youth chief of Bersatu, a competing Malay nationalist party said on X, calling on Muslims to stop being paranoid in matters perceived to be “challenging Islam”. “Our actions must be based on knowledge, not reckless emotions.”

His comments carry weight as Bersatu, alongside its Islamist partner Pas, has been at the forefront of Malaysia’s slide towards conservatism, with their election campaign that won them 74 seats in 2022 seeing them playing with racial sentiments.

Umno youth chief Akmal has little direct political power, but often floats ideas in public with which the main party does not want to directly be associated. His critics call him a “troublemaker” and a “menace to society”.

Politicians and activists from Sabah and Sarawak have been calling for Akmal and others to be banned from entering the states in Malaysian Borneo, alleging that they had contributed to the escalation of racial and religious tensions in the country.

Fresh ‘Allah’ row erupts in Malaysia over shoes featuring Arabic-like logo

“He has caused racial disunity … we should not tolerate people like that,” said former foreign minister Anifah Aman on Friday.

More multiracial than Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak enjoy broad autonomy and control their own immigration with the power to ban people from entering their territory.

In addition, a group of high-profile lawyers, professors, and activists have signed a joint statement, panning Akmal as well as Umno for “excessive punishment bordering on bullying, extremism and political opportunism”.

“We, Malaysians of all races and religions, uphold the investigation of the authorities and await the final outcome and punishment by the authorities, not by Umno extremists,” the group said.

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