Laman Webantu (M)   KM2: 5494 File Size: 5.5 Kb

| KM2 Index |

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
20th September 2001

Malaysian Leader's Stance on Attacks Risks Alienating His Country's Muslims



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 secular-oriented administration.

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 work force.

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 backlash."

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 advisers.

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.

Identifying Links

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.

KM2 Main Index