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Malaysia's Moderate Muslims

Political Parties Trying to "Out-Islam" Each Other

November 7, 2002


KUALA TERENGGANU, Malaysia -- The head of Malaysia's opposition Islamic party, Abdul Hadi Awang, wants to see people stoned to death for committing adultery and their hands amputated for stealing.

At least, that is the side of him the government-controlled media in Malaysia likes to accentuate.

This southeast Asian nation with a majority Muslim population has long been known as a moderate, multiracial society with an investor-friendly business climate. But Hadi's fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which hopes to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia, has growing support and has emerged as the greatest challenge to the power of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Asia's longest-serving ruler.

Because of PAS's popularity, Mahathir, who has emphasized rapid modernization in his 21-year rule, has been forced to respond by burnishing his own religious standing. The result, many observers here say, is a competition between the two sides with each trying to prove itself more "Islamic" than the other.

A U.S.-led war against Iraq, they say, will make it only harder for the moderates to hold their ground in this country of 23 million, where Muslim Malays make up 58 percent of the population and ethnic Chinese and Indians make up the rest.

"If they decide to go to war in Iraq, it will be more difficult for the middle path to hold their own," said Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist who runs a think tank called International Movement for a Just World.

Mahathir was one of the first Muslim leaders to support the U.S.-led war on terror. Police have arrested more than 70 suspected Islamic militants, and Malaysia agreed last month to host a U.S.-proposed regional counter-terrorism training center.

But Mahathir cannot afford to appear a U.S. lackey. He has criticized the United States for failing to address the root causes of terrorism, and on Thursday said the Republican victory in the midterm elections, coupled with the rise of Islamic parties in several countries, would increase the risk of confrontation between Islam and the West.

Islam was introduced to southeast Asia by Arab traders in the 13th and 14th centuries. While Indonesia and Malaysia have majority Muslim populations, the diversity -- including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians -- has resulted in a more tolerant and pragmatic form of Islam. Political leaders have emphasized national unity over religion.

PAS's fundamentalist approach to religion is troubling to some but attractive to many as an Islamic revival spreads from rural areas into the cities and even into the Malay middle class. Beyond its religious appeal, its calls for a clean government run according to strict morals is a welcome message for those fed up with the alleged corruption and crony capitalism under Mahathir.

PAS holds power in two of Malaysia's 13 states, under-developed Kelantan and oil-rich Terengganu. Its greatest gains came after Mahathir sacked and jailed his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.

Washington's war on terror, perceived by many as a war on Islam, has helped PAS, too.

"If the United States is harsh towards Iraq or Palestine, it will benefit us," said Kamarudin Jaffar, a PAS parliament member. "People will see us as the savior of oppressed people in Malaysia."

Since taking over Terengganu three years ago, PAS has tried to outlaw bikinis, require separate check-out lines for men and women at

supermarkets and ban mingling of the sexes at live concerts. The state has been unable to enforce these measures consistently, partly because some agencies, such as the police, are federal.

But the message is clear.

"We have no freedom to wear what we like," said 18-year-old Shaylyn Siehweewoon, an ethnic Chinese in Kuala Terengganu, the state's sleepy capital.

In July, the state assembly passed hudud, the Islamic criminal code, which includes stoning and amputation as punishments for certain crimes. PAS says those sanctions are meant more as deterrents and would unlikely ever be carried out. Its passage is merely symbolic anyway because implementation would require a change to Malaysia's constitution.

Yet it is part of Hadi's vision to run all aspects of government according to Islamic principles.

"We want to introduce Islam as a way of life," he said in an interview at his house in Rusila village, just a few miles outside Kuala Terengganu.

Hadi, president of PAS as well as Terengganu's chief minister, studied in Saudi Arabia and Egypt before returning to Malaysia in the mid-1970s. He lives modestly in the house where he grew up, declining the palace provided by the state.

Asked why non-Muslims would want to live in an Islamic state, Hadi said: "If they can accept a system that comes from the West ... why can't they give a chance to Islam to rule the country," he said. "Islam brings justice to Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini.com, the country's only independent news outlet, says despite some of its extreme positions, PAS is not a militant organization and is willing to negotiate.

"They are committed to the democratic role and are seeking change through the ballot box," Gan said. "It's important we don't push PAS into a corner so they have no other choice than to use extra-parliamentary means to achieve their goals. To combat terrorism, you need to democratize Muslim countries."

But Mahathir's strategy has been to isolate rather than engage. He has restricted the party's newspaper, reducing publication from twice weekly to twice-monthly. He diverted Terengganu's royalty payments from the state-owned oil company, causing a 70 percent drop in the state's budget. He just ordered funding for 500 religious schools frozen because he said they were anti-government.

Yet he has not been able to ignore PAS's criticism that Mahathir and his ruling party are un-Islamic, so last year he declared that Malaysia is already an Islamic state. The statement alarmed Malaysia's non-Muslims.

The opposition Democratic Action Party, which is led by ethnic Chinese, launched a "No to 929" campaign, a reference to the date, Sept. 29, when Mahathir made the comment. But the statement did have its intended effect on PAS.

"PAS has to become more fundamentalist, more Islamic, to secure their seats," said S. Arutchelvan, a political organizer with Suaram, a human rights group.

In fact, Islam is Malaysia's official religion, according to the country's constitution, which also guarantees freedom of religion. Historically, adherence to religious rituals was loose.

Now the heightened social pressure to appear "Islamic" has resulted in stricter enforcement of religious matters. Those caught eating in restaurants during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when believers are supposed to fast during daylight hours, are fined.

Perhaps the best barometer of religious fervor in Malaysia is women's fashion. Twenty years ago, few women wore a tudung, or headscarf. But the Islamic revival, sparked partly by the Iranian revolution and partly as a response to globalization and rapid development, has changed that.

Now, not only is the tudung the norm, even in hyper-modern Kuala Lumpur, so is the loose fitting tunic and long skirt favored by conservatives. A few women even don gloves and socks in this tropical country, and headscarves can be seen on little girls as young as three.

At the Astaka shopping center here, Aida Ghazali is just about the only female clerk without a headscarf. Although PAS had made the tudung a requirement for store workers, Ghazali resists.

"I'm not interested in it," said Ghazali, 23. "It's not required by Islam. It's up to the individual."

She says she practices other aspects of the religion but doesn't like what PAS has done politically and economically in the state.

"The state is going more and more backwards," she said. "There's no development. PAS focuses only on religion and isn't concerned with anything else."

Still PAS has its loyal supporters. Every Friday, thousands of them head to the mosque in Rusila, just next to Hadi's house, and listen to him speak for nearly two hours. They spill out into the parking lot, sitting on newspapers or anywhere they can find a piece of shade. For about 25 years, it has been his Friday ritual.

Since having its newspaper severely curtailed, PAS has turned to alternative forms of media to spread its message. At a PAS rally in Kuala Lumpur, thousands gather to listen to speakers rail against loose Western morals and browse at stalls where vendors sell sweet dates from Tunisia and Oman and recordings featuring speeches by the PAS leadership.

"Islam has everything we need to be a modern nation," said 25-year-old Masrizal Hadri, a teacher at a religious school attending the rally.

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