- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb. 23 (UPI) — To experience a modern, tolerant and relaxed Islam, the kind that Western policy-makers long to see, visit Malaysia. In this prosperous Southeast Asian country of 23 million people, two-thirds of them Muslim, veiled women co-exist easily with miniskirts and the call to prayer from the minarets blends with the song of the microchip.

But visit soon, because there's trouble in paradise.

It is not just that the devout northern Malay states are run by increasingly stern Islamic governments that require women and men to use separate checkouts in the supermarkets and tries to enact the death penalty for people who leave the faith.

It is not even the arrest of 68 members of the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, some of them trained in al Qaida camps in Afghanistan.

The problem is democracy, or at least Malaysia's authoritarian "Asian values" version with a tamed and self-censoring media that is subject to annual registration and the kind of human rights embarrassments that offers the opposition an easy target.

While elections are free and fair, the harsh Internal Security Act allows detention without trial. Since the shock of race riots in 1969, Malaysia has been run by a coalition of the UMNO party of moderate Malay Muslims and the MCA, the main party representing the country's 27 percent Chinese population, who dominate the economy.

The latest issue of the 'Malaysia Business' finds that seven of the 10 richest Malaysians (whose combined wealth is equal to 20 percent of GDP) are Chinese. Two are Indian and only one is Malay. By contrast, Malays account for 92 percent of the officer corps in the military. Separate ethnic schools do not help.

But the Chinese population is shrinking fast, and on current trends will fall to 20 percent of the population by the year 2020. And like all governments holding power for over 40 years, it is flabby, tarred by corruption and later this year the veteran Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is retiring.

Soon afterwards there will be elections, and the governing alliance will almost certainly win. But diplomatic observers say the opposition PAS party, which calls for a full Islamic state, is likely to win two more Malay states, bringing their total to four.

This is not enough to win power, but probably sufficient to destabilize the UMNO-MCA grip on power, particularly since Islam is strongest among the young. Of the 100,000 Malaysian students abroad, 15,000 are studying Islam in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Saudi donations, through the World Association for Muslim Youth, fund Islamic book publishing and youth groups.

The government has no coherent strategy to handle this. On the one hand, it pays for regional Islamic councils, Imams, the sharia religious courts and the Religious Affairs Department, which wants a law to ban Muslims "with no in-depth knowledge of Islam" from making any public comment on religious issues.

This seems aimed at the small but feisty Sisters in Islam women's group, which urges the government "to stop this headlong descent into a theocratic dictatorship."

On the other hand, the government is proposing brining women judges into sharia courts and has just stopped funding Islamic schools "that do not contribute to harmony."

This provoked the current issue of the PAS newspaper Haraka into the headline, "Mahathir declaring war on Islam," and a claim the government was slavishly following American orders.

The Mahathir government, whose support of the war on terrorism is described in Washington as "exemplary," and whose military exercises regularly with the U.S. Navy and flies F-18s, is now fervently opposed to any U.S.-led war on Iraq in part because it fears an Islamic backlash at the polls.

"We believe a war would be wrong, but it would also be a political disaster that would destabilize the whole Islamic world, provoking more terrorism," Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told United Press International. "The clash of civilizations is seen to be happening from the Muslim point of view."

Ironically, prime minister Mahathir has been a prominent spokesman of a modernized and tolerant Islam that needs education and research to compete in a globalized world. Speaking with the authority of a booming modern manufacturing economy behind him, Mahathir claims, "Poverty, ignorance and instability have become such common features in Muslim nations that these are the natural consequences of following the teachings of Islam."

In his speeches at Islamic summits, Mahathir slams extremists, claiming "they waste the little strength Muslims have without achieving any progress or development. On the contrary, they create a state of chaos in the Islamic states and weaken the Muslims."

It is a message the Muslim world needs to hear, if Malaysia's export-led prosperity can tame the rising Islamic tide and fend off the trouble looming in paradise. The world has too few successful Islamic states to let this one stumble.

(Walker's World — an in-depth look at the people and events shaping global geopolitics — is published every Sunday and Wednesday.)

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