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Toronto Star: On manoeuvres in Malaysia
By Martin Regg Cohn

31/1/2002 1:55 pm Thu

[Rencana ini disiarkan agar pihak pembangkang, khususnya PAS, sedar betapa ia perlu berusaha untuk memperbaiki imej, persepsi dan hubungan awam (public relations) kerana banyak pihak tidak faham atau terkejut dengan beberapa tindak-tanduk dan pendiriannya yang tidak jelas. PAS gagal menyampaikan mesejnya dengan berkesan, khususnya kepada rakyat bukan Islam di negara ini. Sepatutnya akhbar seperti Harakah menitik-beratkan hal-hal seperti ini kerana inilah aspek yang asyik diserang BN bila pilihanraya menjelang.
- Editor
] GXHC_gx_session_id_=151513270012e852&pagename=thestar/ Layout/Article_PrintFriendly&c=Article&cid=1012086167530

Toronto Star Newspapers

Jan. 27, 01:00 EDT

On manoeuvres in Malaysia

Islamic party's challenge is met by pluralist pressure as government cracks down on extremist links

Martin Regg Cohn

KOTA BARU, Malaysia THE PREACHER leads evening prayers in a barely audible whisper, chanting, "Allahu Akbar" - God is great - between long, meditative silences.

Hundreds of worshippers hang on his every word, hands cupped in prayer, oblivious to the ceiling fans whirring in the tropical humidity. They come to the local mosque in search of guidance from this 71-year-old man who embodies political Islam in northeast Malaysia.

He is Nik Aziz, a turbaned cleric who wears many hats: spiritual leader of local Muslims, political leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), chief minister of the local Islamist government - and Tuan Guru, the learned one.

Petitioners seek favours or blessings, following him through the mosque until he sits cross-legged on the floor, beside a Qur'an, ready for another interview.

With his flowing robes and wispy white whiskers, Aziz cuts a dignified figure as he explains the need to impose Islamic rule across Malaysia.

That nearly half of the 23 million people in this Southeast Asian nation are non-Muslims does not deter him, because stamping out corruption and controlling human vices are universal values.

"Islam is very much consonant with human needs," he says, citing a glorious time several centuries ago when Islamic law prevailed and women knew their place. "You can't run away from that."

Malaysia seems an unlikely country for Islamic fundamentalism to take root. Like much of Southeast Asia, Islam came here by peaceful conversion, not conquest, leaving a legacy of pluralism and tolerance.

There are few beggars on the streets, no breeding grounds of poverty where extremism might fester. A relaxed atmosphere in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, allows women to wear shorts and halters alongside their veiled friends.

Yet from his power base here in northeastern Kelantan state, bordering Thailand, Aziz has led a potent challenge to long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Aziz's party now forms the official opposition in the federal parliament, after tripling its seats in the 1999 elections amid scandal and disarray in Mahathir's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO).

Mainstream politicians have long criticized PAS for mixing religion with politics, while soft-pedalling its hard-line agenda of strict Islamic laws and harsh punishments. Now, accusations of extremism are swirling around the party as it suffers acute growing pains.

The allegations of terrorism first surfaced in August, when Aziz's 34-year-old son, Nik Adli, was detained on suspicion of fomenting an anti-government uprising, robberies, assassinations and bombings. Discomfort over the party's pro-Taliban sympathies also grew after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the war in Afghanistan, when PAS sent out mixed messages about a jihad against America.

In recent days, news broke that yet more terrorist cells had been smashed. Forty-seven men are in custody for belonging to the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, also known as the Malaysian Mujahadin Group.

On Wednesday, police and government sources said 22 of the detainees are members of the clandestine Jemaah Islamiah organization, a militant Islamic group that has planned attacks across Southeast Asia and is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The next day, Malaysia's police chief announced that the crackdown would continue against 200 suspects still at large.

Combined with similar news in neighbouring Singapore, where 13 alleged Jemaah Islamiah members are being held, Malaysia's claims of a terrorist insurgency have gained credibility at home and abroad.

Singapore officials say their 13 detainees were tied to operatives in Malaysia and Indonesia. And Mahathir told reporters that the Malaysians had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, though he produced no details.

In the current climate, foreign embassies are no longer raising questions about human rights or pressing the government to disclose its evidence.

"The government clearly finds this helpful for its domestic agenda," notes one diplomat. "Are they going to reveal any more information? I don't think they feel they need to, especially now."

Sensing an opportunity, the ruling UNMO party is running inflammatory television advertisements that vilify the Islamists. State-owned networks are showing slow-motion images of an Afghan woman, veiled head to toe in a burqa, being shot by a Taliban executioner - interweaving the pictures with clips of Malaysian Islamists.

A voice-over warns that a similar fate would befall women here if Malaysia "were to be governed by a crude administration of extremists and religious militants."

Apparently feeling the pressure, PAS Thursday announced it has dropped a ban on women running for office and will field women candidates for the first time at the next general election, expected in 2003.

Senior PAS official Kamaruddin Jaafar said the ban had been aimed at saving women from the "indignity and abuse that goes with every Malaysian election.

"But we feel that the time is now right and there is a need to field women candidates as there are many women-related issues to fight for."

Meanwhile, Mahathir is reminding Malaysians that the country is already an Islamic state (it was declared so last year in an attempt to steal some of the opposition's thunder) and that Islam is the official religion under the constitution.

As an official Islamic state, the state officiates over Islam. Sermons for Friday prayers are vetted by an Islamic council that ensures all imams follow the script in mosques across the country.

All these manoeuvres weigh heavily on Aziz, who is watching his dreams of national power slip away. Yet he remains defiant, and has chosen to protest by pointedly refusing to visit his son, who is being held under the draconian Internal Security Act, a holdover from British colonial days that allows preventive detention without trial.

He insists that Adli, who spent a decade in Pakistan and was trained in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation, is innocent.

Aziz says his son taught Arabic and Qur'anic studies at the Islamic high school adjoining the family compound but confined himself to nothing more controversial than gardening outside of classroom hours.

"Maybe they expect me to call demonstrations, or want me to bow down before them," Aziz says bitterly.

Instead, Aziz is trying to recreate the golden age of Islam in his own state of Kelantan. The symbolism started shortly after PAS won power in 1990, when female employees were required to wear headscarves in stores and segregated checkout counters were set up in supermarkets.

In 1994, the state government passed a law requiring amputation of limbs for certain offences, but the measure was blocked by the federal government.

Undeterred, PAS turned its sights on Kota Baru's aptly named "Beach of Passionate Love," where handholding teens might commit the crime of khalwat, or "close proximity." The government bestowed a more Islamic name: "Beach of the Shining Moon."

More recently, in neighbouring Terengganu state, which PAS won in the last elections, the Islamist government has enforced a Taliban-style injunction against statues that depict living things.

A large statue of a turtle has been removed from a popular beach, which perhaps explains why PAS never criticized the Taliban last year for destroying the massive Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Turning their attention from see-no-evil to hear-no-evil, PAS officials proclaimed that females could not participate in Qur'anic recitations, fearing their intonations might unduly arouse male scholars.

And while Qur'an recitals are banned for girls, karaoke is off limits for both boys and girls. So, too, are unisex hair salons.

Aziz is serene about suppressing female voices and making women wear veils.

"They have to cover themselves, because between men and women, there is always attraction," he explains patiently.

Singing, or melodious recitations, would be too overpowering.

Such idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam have exasperated the party's erstwhile allies.

In 1999, with mainstream Malaysian politics in turmoil over a power struggle between Mahathir and his jailed deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, PAS joined forces with other opposition parties.

Many analysts believed PAS was ready to come in from the cold by jettisoning its rhetoric about establishing a purist Islamic state in pluralist Malaysia. After all, Muslim Malays make up only 55 per cent of the population, with 25 per cent Buddhist and Christian Chinese and 8 per cent Hindu Indians.

When PAS failed to compromise, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which represents ethnic Chinese voters, pulled out of the alliance in September.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, PAS reverted to an unseemly stridency at a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy, where supporters screamed, "Death to America," and party leaders backed a holy war in Afghanistan.

"Jihad is a religious duty," announced PAS's federal secretary-general, Nasharuddin Mat Isa. "They don't need to seek party approval if they wish to take up the fight in Afghanistan."

Against that backdrop, many analysts are not persuaded by PAS's belated protestations of innocence.

No firm proof exists that the party gave its blessings to any illegal activities, but critics fault PAS leadership for sending mixed messages about jihad and failing to clearly denounce violence.

Political scientist Chandra Muzaffar says he quit last year as deputy head of Parti Kaedilan, one of the alliance partners, out of frustration with PAS's rigid Islamist ideology and its resistance to equal rights for women.

"The mindset was so strong in PAS," says Muzaffar. "It was something that disillusioned me."

He accuses PAS of playing with fire in talking about jihad and an Islamic state, speaking in symbolic terms without setting limits or giving clear definitions. That ambiguity may have led some activists to flirt with more violent forms of militancy.

"An Islamic state carries a certain meaning; it carries a certain genetic code," Muzaffar says.

But the more mischievous PAS becomes, the more it will antagonize middle-class Malays who adhere to a moderate Islam.

Much of the party's increased support came from protest votes against an unpopular and corrupt government. With Mahathir cleaning up his act, however, moderate voters are no longer parking their support with PAS.

"We are already a Muslim country. Why do we want to become more Muslim?" asks Sabri Hussain, a contractor in Kota Baru.

"What is the difference? I am a Muslim, what more do I need?"

PAS has profited from the support of Malay peasants in the rural northeast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, where voters are impressionable, according to Abdul Razak Baginda, head of the government-funded Institute for Strategic and International Studies.

"Our understanding of Islam is very superficial, very thin," he says. "When someone quotes the Qur'an, the average Malay melts, and takes what he says as the truth."

It is a trait that many PAS activists readily admit to. For Rahim Wan Abdullah, speaker of the Kelantan legislative assembly and a long-time Aziz aide, Islam is all about submission to God, adherence to the Qur'an and trust in the top leadership.

"I didn't study Islam, I just do as my leaders say," he says with disarming candour.

"Islamic law should be in the constitution. Anything that goes against Islamic law is null and void."

With files from Star wire services.