- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Nowhere in Southeast Asia is the struggle for the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims more intense than in Malaysia, where an opposition party that promises to introduce strict Shariah law is poised for major gains in weekend elections.

Despite rapid economic growth under the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party of recently retired Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, there is growing disenchantment among the majority Muslim Malays, many of whom feel the boom times passed them by.

Tapping into these grievances and painting UMNO as a party of corrupt “infidels,” the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which promises to rule by a strict form of Islamic law, won control of two northern states in the last general election and is expected to make further inroads in Sunday’s vote.

UMNO’s less-than-subtle strategy to combat the deflection has been to appear more Islamic. In 2001, Mr. Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state, despite sizable Indian, Chinese and Christian minorities here.

Then came Mr. Mahathir’s widely publicized remarks last October about Jews “ruling the world by proxy” and getting “others to fight and die for them.” Perceived in the West as reckless hate speech, here it was understood to be a ploy for Muslim support.

“UMNO is becoming more conservative and Islamic, what PAS used to be, and both are now progressing in a chain reaction to each other,” said Mohamad Abu Bakar, a social sciences professor at the University of Malaya. “They’re trying to out-Islamize each other.”

In Kota Bharu, the capital of the state of Kelantan and PAS’ stronghold, uniformed guards oversee separate seating areas for men and women. Karaoke singing and the sale of alcohol are banned. Visitors to the night market must leave during prayer times. And a woman not wearing the Muslim head scarf looks as displaced as a cowboy on Madison Avenue.

UMNO, too, has taken to projecting itself as an Islamic party with a goal of Islamizing the state, despite its reliance on a coalition with Indian and Chinese parties. The government’s new multibillion-dollar administrative capital is dominated by Islamic-themed architecture and houses a mosque but no other house of worship.

Political activist and writer Hishamuddin Rais, however, questions the sincerity and placement of these gestures. He points to PAS’ promise to stone adulterers and lop off hands of thieves; and to UMNO’s censure of U.S. foreign policy.

“Most of their supposed Islamic agenda has nothing to do with improving the welfare of everyday people,” Mr. Rais said. “It’s a battle to have a complete hegemony of the interpretation of Islam in Malaysia, but without a meaningful dialogue about what Islam should be.”

UMNO uses the state-controlled media to stifle debate, often branding PAS as an extremist party that, if brought to power, would lead Malaysia back into the dark ages. PAS has its own party paper, Harakah, but it is licensed to print only twice monthly and distribute to party members at select locations.

And many political and religious activists have effectively been silenced through the threat of the draconian International Securities Act, which grants the government the right to jail suspected dissidents indefinitely and without charge.

The narrowing interpretation of Islam that has resulted, said one UMNO official, is causing “a creeping Islamization.”

It is no small irony that in neighboring Indonesia, whose international reputation is still ailing from the Bali and JW Marriott terrorist attacks, there is no fundamentalist political party with the kind of grass-roots support that sustains PAS in Malaysia; and that there is a vibrant discourse about Islam’s identity and what Islam’s relationship to the state should be. Indonesia has a free press and the government is generally more tolerant of religious and political activism.

“It is a more progressive Islam in Indonesia,” said Andrew Tan, a security analyst with the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “They have allowed for a great deal more room for debate in Indonesia.”

Mr. Tan said that Malaysia deserves credit for meeting some of its suspected extremist elements head-on. In the wake of September 11, for example, Mr. Mahathir closed Islamic schools suspected of preaching extremism. But, Mr. Tan added, “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there were a terrorist attack in Malaysia.” Several of the leading suspects in the Bali and JW Marriott bombings are either Malaysian or have spent considerable time in Malaysia; last month, a Marriott bomb suspect named Malaysian fugitive Azahari Husin as the mastermind of the blast.

Mr. Tan observed: “There’s a lot of sympathies for larger Muslim causes in Malaysia.” The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the continued occupation of Palestine are not likely to diminish support for those causes. Nor is the state-controlled media’s frequent vilification of the West.

And while conservative, even fundamentalist, Islamic movements cannot themselves be equated with terrorism, some of them, Mr. Tan said, produce “fringe radical elements.” Discontent over domestic issues is often what galvanizes them.

By some estimates, 50 percent of Malays under the age of 30 now support PAS, a most telling indication, experts say, of the restlessness dogging Malaysia’s heartland. During Mr. Mahathir’s iron-fisted reign, many Malay farmers’ incomes shrank, a substantial number of small businesses lost out to foreign competition, and Mr. Mahathir’s penchant for mega-projects tended to favor the ruling elite. But the single biggest gift to the opposition came in 1998, when Mr. Mahathir sacked and jailed his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on dubious charges of sodomy and corruption. Mr. Ibrahim was UMNO’s most potent symbol in its struggle to appear at once progressive and Islamic. “As long as Anwar was there in the Cabinet, the policies that were pursued were somehow regarded to be ‘Islamically correct’ and thus acceptable,” noted Malaysian writer Farish Noor in a 1999 essay.

UMNO is banking on Mr. Mahathir’s hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, to win back Malay support. His political fate might well depend on it. His reputation as “Mr. Clean” should aid him in the quest.

His Islamic credentials should help, too: He comes from a respected family of Muslim scholars, majored in Islamic studies at the University of Malaya and often leads Muslim prayers when visiting villages.

But whether it’s enough to abate the rightward shift of Malaysian Islam remains uncertain, as does where the trend might lead Malaysia.

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