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ATimes: Smoke and mirrors in Mahathir's 'Islamic country'
By Anil Netto

6/10/2001 1:45 pm Sat

October 6, 2001


Smoke and mirrors in Mahathir's 'Islamic country'

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - As all eyes focus on events in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's statement last Saturday that Malaysia is already an Islamic country has raised eyebrows and caused some uneasiness.

Mahathir made the remarks while opening the delegates' conference of a ruling coalition partner, Gerakan. "UMNO wants to say clearly that Malaysia is an Islamic country," he said. "This is based on the opinion of ulamaks who had clarified what constituted an Islamic country."

The national news agency, Bernama, in a report dated October 4, referred to the premier's remarks as the "official proclamation of Malaysia as an Islamic state".

Mahathir had noted that some 50 countries had been accepted as Islamic countries and members of the Organization of Islamic Conference - even though there are non-Muslims in these countries. Immediate reaction was subdued though the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) protested.

The president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism said that the current debate on whether Malaysia was an Islamic state was unwarranted, adding that non-Muslims are seriously disturbed and disappointed.

Some opposition politicians pointed to the irony of it all as they claim the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition had warned non-Muslim voters in the run-up to the Sarawak state election on September 27 that they risked having an Islamic state if they voted for the opposition. The DAP itself pulled out of an opposition alliance just days before the election, citing differences with the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) over the latter's aim of setting up an Islamic state.

What's in a name? There are some differences between Mahathir's "Islamic country" and PAS's "Islamic state".

Mahathir's "Islamic country" appears largely based on his vision of top-down economic development in which Muslims would be encouraged to acquire knowledge in all fields, especially science and information technology. His Islamic model, however, appears silent on respect for human rights and basic liberties.

PAS's version of an Islamic state would probably require a constitutional amendment and include the much-feared hudud laws. But few are clear what form this state would take - and whether it would be moderate or conservative.

Mahathir said PAS had been asked to clarify in writing what form its Islamic state would take. "Are they going to abolish civil and criminal laws? By clarifying this they can show the difference of an Islamic country as set up by [Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation]. which is accepted by the world and PAS's Islamic country."

"What is their answer?" he asked, deftly throwing the ball into PAS's court.

To make things more confusing, both "Islamic country" and "Islamic state" share the same translation in Malay - "Negara Islam".

PAS president Fadzil Noor retorted that UMNO's model of an Islamic state is invalid as it does not meet Islamic criteria nor does it use religion as the "ultimate source of legislation". "UMNO is just trying to cheat Muslims by claiming that Malaysia is an Islamic country," he said. "They are doing this because many people these days like our party which struggles for a true Islamic state."

There is probably a third path, represented by the National Justice Party (keADILan) of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. KeADILan would likely be content with existing constitutional provisions relating to religion.

One analyst observed that if Malaysia was already an Islamic state, then it would be the "hippest and funkiest" such entity ever, given the ruling coalition's "moderate" interpretation of Islam. But things aren't all that "hip" under the Mahathir administration. There are a host of repressive laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA, which allows detention without trial), the Sedition Act, and restrictive media laws.

And it can't be all that funky for the 70-odd Malaysians - including several of Mahathir's most strident critics - who are languishing in the Kamunting Detention Centre, where ISA detainees are "rehabilitated".

Indeed, during the Mahathir years power has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the premier. In most areas, what Mahathir says, goes - as ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, his chief rival who is serving jail terms totalling 15 years for sedition and abuse of power, found out.

Fadzil, for his part, said the country should be officially proclaimed in parliament as an Islamic state, adding that this would allow all parliamentarians to debate the issue. He denied that PAS views democracy as "un-Islamic" and stressed that the party would continue to uphold democratic practices. "It is still the best form of political system for all because it gives freedom and rights to people to make decisions," he said, though he added that democracy could contradict Islam if too much individual freedom was allowed at the expense of community interests.

In a sense, though, Mahathir is right: PAS has not been entirely upfront with the public or clear enough as to what form its Islamic state would take.

During the last election, the opposition alliance issued a common manifesto that made no mention of an Islamic state, saying merely that Islam would be a "way of life" (addeen).

Meanwhile, Mahathir's coalition partners, including the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) - a vocal opponent of PAS's Islamic state goal - have been largely subdued about Mahathir's remarks. Rocked by a serious factional split, the MCA, the biggest party in the coalition after UMNO, has more immediate problems in its own backyard and has become inward-looking.

For others, neither UMNO's nor PAS's version of an Islamic country/state is appropriate. They point to the constitution, which states that "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation."

"If the framers of the federal constitution had intended Malaysia to be an Islamic state, a provision to say just that would have been included in the constitution,'' pointed out DAP deputy chairman Karpal Singh.

Analysts wonder why Mahathir brought up the Islamic state issue and raised the stakes at this time.

It is likely that he feels that he has the backing of the non-Muslims (who make up close to 40 percent of the population) after his ruling coalition swept the Sarawak polls. It could be that he also wants to show the world that there are more moderate Islamic nations at a time when some Muslim nations have received bad press.

Being the shrewd politician that he is, Mahathir would also be aware that by calling Malaysia an Islamic nation, he would be pulling the rug from under PAS's feet as the Islamic state goal is central to PAS's ideology.

PAS made sharp inroads into UMNO territory during the last general election in 1999, winning significant Muslim support after the harsh action against Anwar and the use of repressive laws. After the general election, analysts had predicted that UMNO and PAS would eventually try to outdo each other in trying to prove who is more Islamic.

It appears they have been proven correct.