Newly-wed couples pose for pictures at Thean Hou temple in Kuala Lumpur February 14, 2014
Newly-wed couples pose for pictures at Thean Hou temple in Kuala Lumpur February 14, 2014 Reuters

Valentine’s Day serves as the stage for another volley in the endless culture wars between conservative Islam and modern, Western-looking secularism in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia.

Muslim groups in Malaysia have again condemned Valentine’s Day as a form of cultural pollution that poses a threat to traditional values and which they claim leads to abortion, alcoholism, promiscuity, fraud and even baby-dumping, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported. In an official text delivered to mosques around the country, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (known by its Malay language acronym JAKIM) declared: "Social ceremonies such as this [Valentine’s Day] are a stepping-stone towards greater social ills … [and] can invite disaster and moral decay among youths.”

Malay Mail Online reported that some Muslims also oppose Valentine’s Day as it originated in Christianity (the celebration was initially held in honor of various early Christian saints named Valentinus). Other sermons by the group charge that the holiday celebrates ancient Roman (i.e., pagan) deities, and also marks the collapse of Muslim rule in Andalusia (now in modern Catholic Spain).

“Have hatred and disgust towards activities which are against our faith, code, and the human civilization,” added the sermon by JAKIM. “Prevent yourselves from things which are prohibited such as free mingling between men and women, intoxicating drinks, and holding ‘extreme’ social events where everything pushes Muslims away from the real teachings of Islam. … We should not be following practices of Jahiliyah [pre-Islamic times]. Doing good alone is not enough if we do not keep our faith in Islam strong.”

In 2005, a group called the National Fatwa Council Committee for Islamic Affairs issued a ruling specifically prohibiting Malaysian Muslims from celebrating Valentine’s Day. In its latest sermon, JAKIM further warned: “Imagine what will happen to the society if Muslims practice this sinful culture? It will lead to the decay [of] our values and lead to chaos in the country. So let us steer clear of anything that will lead us away from Islam. We must live a pious life in order to receive blessings from Allah.”

Earlier this week Muslim authorities in Selangor, a central province, distributed thousands of leaflets warning young people against celebrating Valentine's Day. The opposition to the holiday is so intense that three years ago, police arrested almost 100 Muslims on Valentine’s Day for the crime of being in “close proximity” to members of the opposite sex who were not relatives. Conviction of this offense can lead to a two-year jail sentence in Islamic Shariah courts. Hardline Muslim “enforcement agencies” regularly patrol and raid hotels and public parks to detain unmarried Muslim couples.

Some Muslims in Malaysia have not only repeatedly denigrated Valentine’s Day, but also other forms of Western culture, including pop-rock musicians whose attempts at holding concerts in the country have been blocked.

In stark defiance of such warnings from Muslim authorities (about 60 percent of Malaysians practice Islam), some members of the minority Chinese community celebrated the holiday with a mass wedding featuring 138 couples tying the knot. The nuptials were conducted at the Confucian Thean Hou temple in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, and featured the release of red, heart-shaped balloons into the sky following the ceremony. “We're doing it especially for this year as only once in 19 years does Valentine's Day coincide with Chap Goh Mei,” a temple official said, referring to the annual Chinese Lantern Festival.

The Chinese comprise about one-fourth of Malaysia’s people, and their general affluence has often triggered resentment and jealousy from the ethnic Malay majority. Last month, just prior to celebration of the Chinese New Year, a top government official, deputy finance minister Datuk Ahmad Maslan of the country’s largest political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), cautioned his fellows Malays against expressing hostility and envy towards the Chinese community. “Don’t be angry at the Chinese,” he said at an economic forum, according to Malaysia Mail Online. “Malays have their PPR [low-cost People’s Housing Project] which are small like a bird’s nest, but they look below and they see all these big houses owned by rich men. Don’t blame them, ladies and gentlemen. That is because they do businesses. Who told you not to do business?”

But many Malays resent what they perceive as the Chinese domination of the nation’s economy. The country’s held a divisive national election last year which unearthed widespread resentment by Malays against both the Chinese and Indian minority communities.