Sun September 28, 2003

Islamists Crave More Say in Post-Mahathir Malaysia

By Simon Cameron-Moore

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - They distrust the United States, they abhor Israel, and they want to turn Malaysia into an ultra-conservative Islamic state complete with laws drawn from medieval Arabia.
The hardline preachers who lead Malaysia's mainstream Islamist opposition can't win power any time soon, but they are threatening to sweep the rural, economically backward North -- in a country where one third of the population is non-Muslim.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retires in October, after 22 years of leading a nation with Asia's third-youngest population.
He hopes he has done enough to create a modern multicultural state, with a Malay middle class capable of stopping the Islamists from ever fulfilling a dream that would be a nightmare for the economically powerful Chinese minority.
Already ruling two northeast states, Kelantan and Terengganu, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) wants two more -- Kedah and Pahang.
Kedah's capture in elections widely expected early next year would be very sweet for PAS as it is Mahathir's home state.
"They like to plant their flag right in front of my house," Mahathir told Reuters during an interview earlier this year, referring to the old family home he still owns in the village of Titi Gajah, or Elephant Bridge.
"They enjoy these little things. That's all right," he added in the manner of any 77-year-old dismissing nuisance neighbors.
PAS, nevertheless, can hurt the chances of Mahathir's chosen successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, holding power for long if it takes more seats off the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) when the country next goes to the polls.
But the Islamists have to contend with Malaysia's imperfect democracy.
Public assembly is restricted, the media are pro-government, and the Election Commission is given to redrawing constituency boundaries in ways that almost always favor ruling parties.
PAS also suffered a backlash in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, as Mahathir capitalized on fears of militancy spreading in Southeast Asia.
The bomb attacks on Bali, which killed 202 mainly western tourists in 2002, and last month's blast at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta which killed 12, kept the fear factor alive.
Malaysians were involved, recruited by Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian offshoot of al Qaeda, which planted the bombs.
Completely blameless, PAS still struggles to distance itself from an extremist image. A son of the party's spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, has been detained without trial for more than two years, accused of leading a militant group.
"Hambali and Amrozi are not our role models," Dr. Dzulkifli Ahmad told the PAS annual assembly in Kuala Lumpur this month, referring to the two best known members of Jemaah Islamiah.
"They are not to be taken as our reference point, though we understand what they are fighting for," the party strategist told Reuters later.
Like PAS, Jemaah Islamiah also wants a pure Islamic state, albeit on a grander scale, spanning six countries in the region.
In the two states that PAS rules, alcohol and dancing are banned, and men and women are segregated in supermarket checkout lines, let alone swimming pools.
The party would have brought in strict sharia laws, with penalties such as amputations and stoning, but cannot as federal law takes priority.
The government has its own chilling reference point for PAS, characterizing the party as a local version of the Taliban, the vanquished rulers of Afghanistan.
And the party's Islamic state agenda turned into political poison for its one-time ally, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party, which pulled out of the opposition front.
PAS has since stated that its Islamic state ambitions only apply where Muslims have a big majority.
The Islamists hope this concession will be enough to bring the Chinese and Indian parties aboard, should PAS succeed in displacing UMNO as the dominant Malay party.