Malaysian Firm Removes Shoes From Sale Over Religious Complaints

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Malaysian Firm Removes Shoes From Sale Over Religious Complaints

Just weeks after the “Allah socks” scandal, a Malaysian shoe company has found itself at the center of another conservative culture war controversy.

Malaysian Firm Removes Shoes From Sale Over Religious Complaints

People shop at a Vern’s outlet at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, April 8, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Just weeks after Malaysia was seized by the controversy over socks printed with the word “Allah,” the country’s conservative culture warriors have fixed their sights on a new target: a brand of women’s shoes. Vern’s Holdings, a Malaysian shoe company, yesterday agreed to stop selling one of its popular lines of women’s shoes after complaints from Muslims that the brand’s logo also resembled the word “Allah” written in Arabic script.

In a statement posted on its Instagram page, Vern’s Holdings said the logo stamped on the soles of some high-heeled shoes was a stylized silhouette of a stiletto heel with an ankle spiral wrap, including a picture to illustrate the connection. The company insisted that any similarity with the word “Allah” was accidental and apologized for any offense the design may have caused, adding that it had withdrawn the shoes from sale and would issue refunds to customers who bought them.

“We have absolutely no intention of designing a logo aimed at belittling or insulting any religion or belief,” Vern’s said in the statement. “The management would like to humbly apologize and seek forgiveness. We hope for compassion so we can rectify this mistake.”

The apology came after police said they had confiscated more than 1,100 shoes from Vern’s stores. Also yesterday, the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), a government agency that handles Islamic affairs in Malaysia, summoned the company’s founder, Ng Chuan Hoo, for questioning over the shoes.

“JAKIM leaves it to the relevant authorities to investigate as an investigation paper has been opened by the police,” JAKIM Director-General Hakimah Mohd Yusoff said in a statement. “JAKIM also does not want such a case to recur in the future, whether by Vern’s Holding Sdn Bhd or anyone producing whatever sales product.”

The footwear controversy followed a furor that erupted last month when socks with the word “Allah” were found to be sold at KK Mart, the country’s second-largest mini-market chain. After an ensuing outrage on  social media, KK Mart apologized, though this did not prevent two of the chain’s executives from being charged with “hurting religious feelings.” Three representatives of the firm that supplied the socks also face the same charge. At least three KK Mart branches were attacked with petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails.

The two incidents speak to the fragility of ethnic relations in Malaysia, where the Malay majority co-exists with significant ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, and the potency of Malay anxieties dates back to the mass influx of Chinese and Indian laborers under British rule. Indeed, the executives of both KK Mart and Vern’s are Chinese-Malaysian, reinforcing old tropes that the country’s economically dominant ethnic Chinese minority is eroding Malay privileges.

Above all, these culture war controversies reflect the willingness of ill-intentioned actors on the right-wing of Malay Islamist politics to stir up old ethnic and sectarian grievances for political gain. As Imran Said wrote in these pages yesterday, the “Allah socks” incident demonstrates how Islam “has been increasingly harnessed for political posturing in the context of competitive politics. This has resulted in often performative religious politics being adopted by Malay politicians in order to attract Malay votes, to the detriment of inter-ethnic relations.”

This competition has been burning particularly hotly since the 2018 election, which brought the six-decade-long hegemony of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to a shuddering halt. The election, which brought the multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to power, led to renewed competition for the support of Malay voters between scandal-plagued UMNO, the newly established Malay party Bersatu, and PAS, the country’s largest Islamist party. (The latter two parties are currently aligned under the banner of the Perikatan Nasional coalition, while UMNO is an awkward member of the current PH-led government).

In this context, ginned-up culture war controversies are a handy way for Malay opposition forces to attack Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his PH coalition, while seizing the mantle of Malay representation from UMNO. The long period between now and the next general election, which will be held by February 2028, offers fertile soil for further controversies in the months and years to come.