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AWSJ: M'sian Leader's Stance on Attacks Risks Alienating....
By Leslie Lopez
29/9/2001 1:35 am Sat
The Asian Wall Street Journal
Malaysian Leader's Stance on Attacks
Risks Alienating His Country's Muslims
By LESLIE LOPEZ
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
KUALA LUMPUR -- Mahathir Mohamad is in a bind.
The Malaysian prime minister has declared his support for the U.S. in
its war against terrorism. But that stance carries huge risks for Dr.
Mahathir because it could alienate Malaysia's politically dominant
Muslims, many of whom are already disenchanted with his 20-year-old
The government, which says it is facing a growing domestic threat from
Islamic militants, formally condemned the attacks on New York and the
Pentagon. But the usually outspoken and combative Dr. Mahathir has
been publicly silent since his initial reaction last week.
Security officials say Malaysian police have been cooperating with the
U.S. in tracing suspects in the attacks. Malaysian and U.S.
authorities say one suspected hijacker in the U.S. attacks --
identified as Khalid al-Midhar -- appears in a Malaysian surveillance
videotape made early last year meeting with a non-Malaysian suspect in
the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden. But the police, too, have
been tight-lipped about disclosing any more about what help they are
offering the U.S.
Kuala Lumpur's guarded approach reflects the growing role of Islam in
Malaysian politics. With Muslim-ethnic Malays accounting for about 60%
of its 23 million people, Malaysia is a crucial barometer of Islamic
sentiment in Asia. The former British colony has long presented a
Westernized, moderate image to visitors and investors attracted by its
open economy, ample natural resources and educated, English-speaking
But beneath the surface, Malaysian politics have become increasingly
fractious in recent years, with many Muslims abandoning Dr. Mahathir's
United Malays National Organization. Moreover, many Muslim Malaysians
are exasperated with what they see as Washington's bias in dealing
with issues important to Muslims, in particular, U.S. policy in
Palestine and the Middle East. Irritation could quickly give way to
anger should the U.S. attack impoverished Afghanistan or any other
Muslim country, creating new headaches for Dr. Mahathir.
`Great Care' Is Urged
On Thursday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar urged the
U.S. to "exercise great care" in weighing its options in Afghanistan,
where Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in last week's attacks, is
believed to be based. "Let us not miss the target and (have) innocent
people suffer as a result of it," he said. "This can lead to a lot of
The Malaysian government has historically focused on economic
development and has been a force for moderation on Islam. Still, Dr.
Mahathir has supported international Islamic causes. For example, his
government didn't discourage young Malays from joining other Muslim
volunteers to fight alongside the Afgan mujahideen against the Soviet
Union in the 1980s.
But domestic politics have taken on a more radical tone since
charismatic former deputy premier and moderate Muslim leader Anwar
Ibrahim was jailed in 1998 on charges of sexual misconduct, charges
that the purged politician contends were trumped up by Dr. Mahathir's
Since then, the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, known as PAS, and
Parti Keadilan, a party led by Datuk Seri Anwar's wife, have gained
ground. The opposition exploits Datuk Seri Anwar's perceived
mistreatment and alleged corruption and cronyism in Dr. Mahathir's
government, accusing it of fostering immorality and materialism in
conflict with Muslim precepts.
Although the opposition doesn't advocate violence, the government now
says it is facing a militant threat from Muslim extremists and says
some of them have infiltrated PAS. "There is a vacuum in the Malay and
Islamic leadership in Malaysia, and in that vacuum some radical fringe
groups have emerged," says a Southeast Asian diplomat.
Kuala Lumpur says one former mujahideen fighter, Nik Adli Nik Aziz,
age 34, detained last month with nine others under Malaysia's tough
Internal Security Act, is the leader of a group called Kumpulan
Mujahideen Malaysia -- or Malaysian Mujahideen Group -- that is trying
to overthrow the government by force.
So far, however, the government hasn't publicly identified any
connection between such Malaysian groups and Mr. bin Laden's network.
"We've had people linked to these militant groups passing through
Kuala Lumpur in the past. That was very much it," says a former senior
security official, who believes the threat in Malaysia is still small.
But he and other Malaysian commentators fear that Malaysia could
become a fertile recruiting ground for international militant groups
if Dr. Mahathir mishandles the situation.
"Groups with foreign militant links may be small," says Razak Baginda,
executive director of the generally pro-government Malaysian Strategic
Research Institute. "But if there is a cell, or cells, linked to the
Taliban, they can be reactivated at anytime, which is why the
government must check these groups now."
- Barry Wain in Singapore contributed to this article.