Malaysia Opposition Unveils Islamic State Plans

Malaysia's Islamist opposition party, the main threat to the multi-racial government coalition, unveiled Wednesday its plans for an orthodox Islamic state, including strict sharia laws.

Leaders of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), publishing a 53-page document with an eye to national polls due within the year, said the Islamic way of life was the only way to overcome the pitfalls of Western-style democracy.

"Islam is our raison d'etre," Abdul Hadi Awang, leader of the country's largest opposition party, told party loyalists.

He said PAS would amend the federal constitution if it wins power in the next election, which Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is widely expected to hold in early 2004, to accommodate its plans for a pure Islamic state.

In the two states PAS rules, gambling is banned as is dancing and public consumption of liquor by non-Muslims. Men and women are required to use separate checkouts at supermarkets.

Malaysia's 25 million people include a majority of Muslim Malays, more than half of whom rejected the ruling United Malays National Organization party (UMNO) in 1999 polls amid a wave of sympathy for sacked and jailed ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Prime Minister Abdullah, a religious scholar who took over from Mahathir Mohamad last month, faces his biggest electoral test in countering PAS's appeal to the rural poor.

Precedence of federal over state law has prevented PAS bringing in strict state level sharia or hudud laws, which can include penalties such as amputations and stoning.

Hadi said the ban on gambling and other "sins" would be extended nationwide if PAS wins power, an unlikely scenario on current projections. He added the party would amend the constitution to allow for hudud laws.

The government has characterized PAS as a local version of the Taliban, vanquished rulers of Afghanistan, for its Islamic state ambitions.

PAS officials dismissed the notion Wednesday.

"Look at me, do I have any traces of Taliban in me? We are not. I don't even wear beard," PAS Vice-President Hasan Ali said, adding PAS's model was also far from the Iranian one.

Hasan said non-Muslims, mainly ethnic Chinese, Indians and a host of indigenous groups, were unlikely to be put off by its Islamic state manifesto.

He said that under the plan, the Islamic government would adhere to secular laws for non-Muslims and retain the rights and freedom of citizens regardless of race and religion.

PAS has tried not to alarm non-Muslims with its plans for an Islamic state, mindful of a Chinese-based opposition party that pulled out of the opposition front in protest in 2001.