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ATimes: Malaysia takes middle path
By Anil Netto

13/10/2001 4:32 pm Sat

October 13, 2001


Malaysia takes middle path

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Riot police dispersed a large crowd of Muslims gathered outside the United States embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Friday afternoon with water cannon after they had protested peacefully against military strikes on Afghanistan.

News reports have estimated the crowd at about 3,000, but Zulkifli Sulung, the editor of Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), told Asia Times Online his reports indicated that the crowd was closer to 10,000.

Among the groups that had gathered outside the embassy were PAS members, representatives from the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM), Jamaah Islah Malaysia or JIM (an Islamic reform group), and the Malaysian Ulamak Association (PUM).

A delegation comprising PAS president Fadzil Noor, PAS deputy president Hadi Awang and PAS spiritual adviser Nik Aziz Nik Mat eventually submitted a memorandum to an official from the US embassy.

"It was very successful," said Zulfkifli. "The demonstrators were satisfied that they had succeeded in sending a message to the Americans that they are not happy with the war against Afghanistan."

Friday's was the largest protest gathering so far. On Thursday about 80 demonstrators from the youth wings of the ruling coalition handed over a memorandum to the US embassy condemning the US-led retaliatory actions.

However, Zulkifli himself had reassuring words for Americans and other foreigners in Malaysia. "I don't think there is any need for the American people in Malaysia to be afraid. We will not attack them," he says. "I don't think Malaysians, at least those from PAS, will attack anyone. Not in Malaysia. Humility and politeness are part of Malay culture. There is no reason for them to feel afraid here."

The Malaysian government is in a slight predicament. It is treading a fine line between cracking down too hard on alleged members of the so-called Malaysian Mujahidin Group (KMM), while also reassuring Washington that it is not harboring terrorists.

Human rights groups have criticized the arrests of some KMM members under the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial. Six more were detained on Wednesday, bringing the total to about 20 so far, apart from another six reform activists accused of trying to "topple" the government. But the fact that these 20-odd detainees have not been brought to trial has deprived analysts of the opportunity to gauge the extent, if any, of the threat they pose.

With the Malaysian economy is heading for close to zero growth this year, or perhaps even a recession, Malaysia can ill afford to scare off investors and tourists. The occupancy rate at a leading hotel in Penang, for instance, is said to be less than 30 percent.

A radio news bulletin on Friday afternoon unusually stressed that the protest outside the US embassy was peaceful. This is in stark contrast to the depiction in the past of peaceful "reformasi"-chanting opposition demonstrators as "violent rioters".

PAS, which claims 800,000 members, itself has called for a jihad by its members. But the party is treading a cautious if somewhat pragmatic line. It says its definition of jihad covers a multitude of actions, including calls for peace, prayers and financial aid. Fadzil also denied that PAS members had been directed to join the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But he said that the party could not stop any of its members who wanted to go there. "Up till now, from the information that we have gathered, none of our members has gone to Afghanistan," he was reported as saying.

The Malaysian government, for its part, says it does not recognize the call of PAS for a jihad, arguing that a political party cannot make such a declaration. It said that PAS members should work with the Malaysian government in enhancing the socio-economic status of Muslims in Malaysia rather than going on a suicidal mission to Afghanistan.

Despite the demonstration on Friday, Mahathir's position looks secure for now as he treads a political tightrope as one of the few Asian leaders to have spoken out against indiscriminate strikes on Afghanistan leading to loss of civilian life, while also assuring Washington that Malaysia is firmly against terrorism.