Malaysia is Islamic, but non-Muslims need not fear their rights will be curtailed, Mahathir says

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia - Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Tuesday tried to reassure Malaysia's large non-Muslim population that it has nothing to fear from his view that the country is an Islamic state.

Mahathir first described Malaysia as an Islamic state last year, pointing out Islam is the official religion and Muslims are subject to Islamic laws.

But on Tuesday, Mahathir repeated his promise that his government had no plans to further entrench Islam in the nation's laws, which also guarantee freedom of religion and secular laws for non-Muslims.

"There are no changes to the constitution, there are no special laws ... we do not intend to change anything," Mahathir said, answering a question about fears among Malaysia's ethnic minorities that their rights may be curtailed at a conference titled "Understanding Malaysia as an Islamic nation."

Mahathir stood by comments he made last year that triggered concern among Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities that their rights could be curtailed because of a political battle among the predominant ethnic Malay Muslim community.

During a speech to the conference, Mahathir said: "Just because we have non-Muslims in this country — and some hold positions even as ministers — does not dilute the position of Islam in this country."

Asking Mahathir about his comments, Ronnie Liu, a spokesman for the Democratic Action Party, a large ethnic Chinese-based opposition group, said they left non-Muslims "worried about their democratic rights."

The party has run a campaign since last year demanding Mahathir withdraw his comment that Malaysia is already an Islamic state.

Mahathir's remark was widely interpreted as a response to the threat to his United Malays National Organization from a fundamentalist Islamic opposition party.

Mahathir's party and the fundamentalists compete for votes among ethnic Malay Muslims who make up roughly two thirds of Malaysia's 23 million population. Ethnic Chinese and Indians who are mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus make up most of the rest.

The Islamic party, which controls two of Malaysia's 13 states, claims Mahathir's government is not Islamic enough. Party leaders say, if elected, they would adopt hardline Islamic laws such as public whipping, stoning and amputation for Muslim criminals.

Mahathir, who has ruled Malaysia since 1981 and overseen most of its development from a British colonial backwater into one of Asia's wealthiest countries, said Malaysia was "recognized by the world" as a successful Islamic country.

He accused the Islamic opposition of "deliberately misinterpreting" Islam to win votes.