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Whiskey and transgender entrepreneur trigger outcry among Malaysia's conservatives

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's conservative Muslims are up in arms over a transgender social media star and local whiskey brand, claiming the two have trod on religious sensitivities and insulted Islam.

Cosmetics entrepreneur and successful influencer Nur Sajat first landed in hot water in January after she was charged with insulting Islam by wearing women's clothing while hosting a religious event. 

Online vitriol soon followed. The Selangor Shariah Court issued an arrest warrant for her when she skipped the court hearing and went on the run.

In September, she was back in the limelight after local media, quoting unnamed sources, reported that she had been arrested by Thai immigration authorities in Bangkok. She was bailed out by a friend. Last Monday (Oct 18), Sajat announced that she had escaped to Australia and was seeking asylum there.

Islamist politicians and clerics have insisted that being transgender or gay violates Islamic law - which is applicable to the majority Malay-Muslims in the country - and actions taken to pursue Sajat are justified.

Activists say these actions amount to human rights violations and harassment.

Meanwhile, Sajat has alleged that while she was in custody in January, she was kicked, restrained and groped by several officers from the Islamic religious authority Jais.

Labelling the alleged incident as "appalling", LGBT activist Numan Afifi said the government should have investigated the religious officers who supposedly harassed Sajat.

"Continuous persecution against Sajat is a reflection of the climate of repression against the LGBTI+ community. She has experienced harassment, bullying and doxing by online users over the years," he told The Straits Times.

"Malaysia remains unsafe for Sajat... The state has a duty to protect all its citizens, and it failed to do so with Sajat. In her case, it was the agent of violence," he added.

Recent weeks have thrown up another religious controversy - over a locally produced, award-winning whiskey brand called Timah.

Muslim groups are in uproar over the name, which they say is short for "Fatimah", the name of Prophet Muhammad's daughter and completely inappropriate as alcohol is not permitted in Islam.

"Timah", however, means "tin" in Malay, and Timah Whiskey says its name harks back to the tin-mining era when Malaysia was under British colonial rule.

Still, several groups have urged the Home Ministry and state governments to be stricter in regulating and controlling the alcohol industry as alcoholic drinks are against Islamic teaching and can cause harm to the social system.

According to local news site The Star, Penang Mufti Wan Salim Wan Noor had called for the government to order a name change for the whiskey.

"We don't object to alcohol being consumed by non-Muslims, but we are requesting the government to order the manufacturer to immediately change its brand as well as the picture on the bottle to a name and picture that do not trigger the sensitivity of Muslims in the country," he was quoted as saying last Monday.

Deputy Finance Minister Yamani Hafez Musa clarified the labelling for Timah hard liquor was approved by the Health Ministry, adding that the firm behind the whiskey has been an existing excise licence holder since 2003.

"It is not a new licence issued by the Royal Malaysian Customs Department and the labelling of the product was approved by the Health Ministry," he said on Wednesday in Parliament.

Not all Muslims however, are as outraged.

Progressive Muslims took to social media to question the seeming fragility of the Islamic faith following the uproar.

"Not everything revolves around us (Muslims), so why do we have to feel triggered over something that doesn't even have anything to do with us? If they (conservative Muslims) took the time to read (the history of the company), they would know that it has nothing to do with anyone's name," said Facebook user Ahmad Aminuddin Razif.

"Is our faith so weak? This is embarrassing," he added.

Others say the controversy is being fanned by politicians in the run-up to the Melaka state elections in November.

"I think some political operators are trying to play this issue to call out what they see as hypocrisy of the ruling parties," Mr Numan said.

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