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Oktoberfest is back. But religious politicians in this country want it banned

<i>Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters</i><br/>Visitors toast each other during Oktoberfest in Munich
Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Visitors toast each other during Oktoberfest in Munich

Heather Chen, CNN

The world’s largest beer festival is finally back after a two year dry spell but politicians in one country are still against celebrations returning — and it isn’t because of the pandemic.

“Although non-Muslims are not prohibited from drinking alcohol, the (Malaysian) government is of the opinion that allowing this festival to happen and making it open to the public should not happen as it will cause social problems,” remarked Religious Affairs Minister Idris Ahmad, also a member of the conservative Islamist party PAS, in a written Parliamentary statement.

While he did clarify that his comments were about Muslims and that non-Muslims were still free to drink alcohol, he claimed that beer, traditionally consumed in heavy amounts at Oktoberfest events, would only lead to “social problems.”

“Alcohol is seen to affect the harmony, order and safety of the community,” he said.

“With regards to Oktoberfest, all parties should respect the rules and regulations of Malaysia based on Islam as the religion of the federation.”

‘Not just chugging beer’

Originating in Munich, Germany, and held annually between the months of September and October, Oktoberfest celebrates and promotes local Bavarian culture.

Beer is widely consumed during the festivities and traditional German food like bratwursts (pork sausages) and sauerkraut are served.

The festival has caught on in other parts of the world including countries with large Muslim populations like Palestine and parts of the Middle East.

But it remains a yearly debate in Malaysia. A Muslim-majority nation, Malaysia practices a moderate form of Sunni Islam but conservative attitudes have been on the rise in recent years. Approximately 63.5% of the 32 million population is Muslim.

Religious groups like PAS have consistently opposed Oktoberfest events being promoted and held in the country, saying that the Bavarian festival disrespects “Muslim sensitivities” because of alcohol and other non-halal offerings openly served. One local politician in 2017 even took things a step further by smashing crates of beer in front of a government building in protest.

Previous events were banned following some public complaints but Oktoberfest has been celebrated for since the 1970s in Malaysia. In the capital Kuala Lumpur, bars and local breweries are gearing up for festivities.

But Oktoberfest gatherings have been largest and liveliest in Penang, a highly diverse state that is also home to sizable international communities.

Organizers from the Malaysian German Society in Penang told CNN that their Oktoberfest celebrations would be going ahead this year on October 21. Like in Germany, local festivities were canceled for the past two years because of the pandemic.

“There is no apparent threat to Oktoberfest celebrations within the German community in Penang,” the group said. “It is the wish of the local German community to continue Oktoberfest celebrations. However, in recent years, some religious groups appeared to have misunderstood Oktoberfest as merely a wild party of beers and would like to see it prohibited.”

“This festival is not just about chugging beer but also a festival of joy,” they added.

“If these groups succeed, the continuity of the festival would be jeopardized.”

The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) rebutted the recent ministerial comments calling for Oktoberfest to be banned.

“Oktoberfest has been celebrated in Malaysia for over 50 years and has yet to cause any racial or religious tensions in the community — in spite of this, incessant fear mongering over this event has persisted,” DAP said in a statement that added it was “not surprised” by the recent complaints.

“As a multicultural and diverse nation, our tolerance and respect for one another has to be the way forward for Malaysia to thrive socially and economically. These are indeed challenging times for us and it is sad that PAS has chosen to focus their attention on Oktoberfest when there are clearly far more pressing issues at hand.”

Festival goers are already looking forward to next month’s Oktoberfest celebrations.

Anisa Ahmad, a marketing executive working in Kuala Lumpur, has been to Oktoberfest events in various pubs around the city. Along with St. Patrick’s Day drinking sessions, she has also enjoyed Oktoberfest for the color and liveliness.

“It’s another opportunity for Malaysians to hang out together and just enjoy good food and drinks,” she said.

“But it’s a shame that an event as innocent as Oktoberfest has to be politicized like everything else, which is frankly ridiculous. But hey, it means more beer for those of us who aren’t coming out to complain.”

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