KUALA LUMPUR - At a time when rage and intolerance are eating away at the Islamic world, Malaysia has stood out as a source of hope. Its Muslims have co-existed peacefully with the 40% non-Muslim population. There has been no major incident of violence committed in the name of Islam on Malaysian soil. It's no wonder Muslim and Western leaders hold Malaysia in high esteem.
Next month their hat-tipping is set to continue, when Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi delivers a keynote address at the sixth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Finland. The European Union wants Abdullah to share his thoughts on Malaysia's success in the areas of race relations and inter-faith issues.
If the past is any indication, Abdullah will claim tolerance and unity as enduring traits of the Malaysian people. He will swear by Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam), a political and ideological interpretation of the faith that stresses moderation and technological and economic competitiveness.
But back home a very different reality is unfolding on Abdullah's watch, one that raises questions about his commitment to Islam Hadhari and may have far-reaching implications for this "model Islamic democracy".
Hardline Muslims have grown more vocal in recent months, demonstrating at forums held by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, known as Article 11, that wants the government to put its weight behind the Malaysian constitution, which guarantees equality and freedom of worship, as the supreme law of the land. Article 11 is concerned that sharia (Islamic law) courts have recently taken primacy over civil courts in a number of controversial decisions. The hardliners are also opposed to efforts to establish an Inter-Faith Commission to enhance understanding among Malaysia's various faiths.
The latest protest came on July 22 in the state of Johor Bahru. As Article 11 gathered in an upper-floor hotel ballroom, some 300 Muslims scowled from behind a police line at the hotel entrance, brandishing signs that read, "Don't touch Muslim sensitivities," "Destroy anti-Muslims," and "We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for Islam." In May hardliners threatening to storm an Article 11 venue succeeded in bringing the forum to an abrupt end.
And now Abdullah has seen enough - not from the hardliners, though, as one might expect, but from Article 11. "Do not force the government to take action," he warned the coalition. He accused Article 11 of playing up religious issues and threatening to shatter Malaysia's fragile social balance by highlighting "sensitive" issues. (It is an article of faith in Malaysia that "sensitive" issues should not be discussed openly.)
And yet it is these same issues - race, religion and the affirmative-action program benefiting the majority Malays - that are dearest to most Malaysians' hearts, that are discussed passionately, albeit behind closed doors, within one's own racial community. Abdullah has issued a stern warning to the media to stop reporting on issues related to religious matters. And he has not ruled out using the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, against Article 11 members should they continue with their activities.
Abdullah's position appears to be rooted in the kind of irresolute behavior that has characterized a number of his decisions since he came to power three years ago. For instance, he declared an all-out war on graft that has fizzled because, many suspect, he fears confronting the old guard in his ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
But it also follows another worrying trend of the Badawi era, and that is to give Islam a peculiar prominence in Malaysia's political and social landscape. Malaysia's Muslim-dominated leadership has long given Islam priority in Malaysia. The constitution recognizes Islam as Malaysia's official religion. It is illegal to debate the affirmative-action program benefiting the majority ethnic group, the Malays (who by law are born into Islam).
Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, labeled Malaysia "an Islamic state". And all of Malaysia's five prime ministers have promoted Islamic values in one form or another. The Badawi era, however, has witnessed a growing number of politicians, religious administrators, authorities and activists making their own rules, their own pronouncements and judgments on things that are beyond their purview.
Last year an angry mob attacked a commune run by a Malay apostate. Muslim moral police have more aggressively targeted Malays for "deviant" behavior, going so far in some states as to try to establish "snoop squads". And sharia courts are said to be over-stepping their bounds in making rulings involving non-Muslims.
Abdullah has been less than resolute in handling Malaysia's creeping fundamentalism, which is not to suggest the former Islamic scholar is promoting an intolerant strain of Islam. To be fair, Malaysia is a tricky place to govern. It requires deftly balancing the needs of the majority Muslim Malays with those of the Indian and Chinese minorities to prevent social unrest. And yet Abdullah knows that maintaining political control will require first and foremost placating the Malays.
But by caving in to hardline sensitivities over inter-faith dialogue and the supremacy of the constitution, Abdullah, inadvertently or otherwise, appears to be going beyond merely accommodating the Malay community to the point of empowering its fringes. And the dangers this may engender should not be underestimated - this being an era in which a growing number of Muslims around the world are resorting to intolerance to advance their causes and feeling inspired by the results (violent protests against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed is but one example).
Abdullah's stance against Article 11 could be read as in keeping with Mahathir's belief that greater freedom of expression will stoke inter-ethnic tensions. But Abdullah's position is less encompassing. It is a lopsidedly selective application: it is to allow hostile segments of the Muslim community to use free speech to dictate the limits of free speech.
This double standard was on full display two weeks ago, when Abdullah's powerful son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin rallied members of UMNO in a protest outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Traffic stalled as the angry mob chanted, "Destroy Israel, down with Israel," and burned Israeli and US flags.
Racial and religious sensitivities run deep in Malaysia, and all of Malaysia's communities have inherited legitimate grievances over the years. But those sensitivities may be catching up with the country. Experts note that the Malays, Indians and Chinese have been drifting apart.
A recent survey found that the majority of Malaysians do not trust one another and seek refuge in their own ethnic community - contradicting Malaysia's elaborately crafted outward display as a paradise of multiculturalism. Abdullah will no doubt tear a page from that book when he travels to Europe for the ASEM meeting, while back home a new chapter is being written.
*Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in the US.