In Malaysia, 'Islamic civilization' is promoted

In a remote village that locals call the Sky Kingdom, Malaysian villagers revere a giant teapot and follow the teachings of an illiterate 61-year-old man who claims to be the reincarnation of holy figures from the world's major religions.

Kampung Batu 13 village in northeastern Malaysia and its 150 to 200 inhabitants are more than exotic local oddities, however. By demanding the right to leave Islam and follow their local guru, they have put themselves at the center of a larger debate over what kind of country Malaysia is going to be and whether this majority Muslim society will allow the freedom of worship enshrined in its constitution.

The outcome of the broader debate could have repercussions beyond Malaysia's borders. This country of 23 million residents is offering itself as a progressive model to an Islamic world divided between Muslims who believe they can co-exist with the Western world and fundamentalists who say they can't and shouldn't try.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an Islamic scholar by training, is trying to promote what he calls Islam Hadari. Roughly translated, it is Arabic for "Islamic civilization." Abdullah's somewhat vague version of Islam emphasizes economic and technological development, social justice and tolerance for other religions.

Patricia Martinez, a specialist on Islam at the University of Malaya, is among some observers who believe his Islam Hadari could offer a moderate Southeast Asian alternative to Middle Eastern versions of the religion that feed Islamic extremism. To the United States, a victory for moderate Islam in Malaysia and beyond would be a victory in the war on Islamic terrorism and its sources. "What Malaysia does with its Islam is very important," Martinez says.

Mixed signals

Abdullah and his governing coalition won national elections in March, soundly defeating a Muslim opposition party that wants to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

But Abdullah's own government and the country's courts, eager to avoid antagonizing the country's Muslim majority, have sent out mixed signals about their willingness to treat Muslims and non-Muslims equally. "While all of us are equal," attorney Malik Imtiaz quips, "some of us are more equal than others." Consider:

• In two controversial decisions this summer, Malaysia's courts refused to defend the rights of non-Muslims and of Muslims who want to leave Islam. In one case, the court ordered a Hindu woman to raise her children as Muslims after her ex-husband converted them to Islam without her permission. In the other, Malaysia's highest court refused to acknowledge the rights of four Kampung Batu 13 villagers to leave Islam. Instead, the justices upheld contempt-of-court rulings imposed by Muslim judges in a sharia (Islamic) court; lawyers for the four are petitioning the high court to reconsider its decision.

• Authorities banned Muslims from viewing the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ this year, restricting showings to a handful of theaters. Tickets were sold through churches. (Even so, The Associated Press reported, 40,000 Malaysians saw the movie. Some Muslims bought tickets from Christian friends through the churches.)

• Islamic leaders are successfully fending off a campaign this year by women's and human rights groups seeking to criminalize marital rape. Muslim clerics and activists insist that Islam gives husbands the right to demand sex from their wives.

• The government last year stopped publication of a Christian Bible in Iban, the language of an indigenous Malaysian tribe, to prevent Christians from proselytizing.

Non-Muslims, who account for 40% of Malaysia's people, can worship freely. Unlike Muslims, however, they are forbidden from attempting to attract converts. And they sometimes run into official resistance when they want to open temples or churches. "Nobody has been told they can't go to their church," says Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins University. "They're told they can't take their church out and witness to other people."

Religion in Malaysia is tangled up with the politics of race. Ethnic Malays, who make up 58% of the population, are Muslim by definition, according to the government. Chinese, who tend to be Buddhist, account for 24%; ethnic Indians, mostly Hindus and Christians, represent another 8%.

Despite their numbers, Malays have lagged economically. Chinese entrepreneurs' domination of Malaysia's dynamic economy has caused resentment among the majority Malays. The country is still scarred by 1969 race riots led by ethnic Malays that left hundreds dead, most of them Chinese.

Politicians tried to ease tensions by showering favors on the Malay-Muslim majority. They get preference in civil-service jobs, government contracts and university slots.

The opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, known by the Malaysian acronym PAS, began gaining ground politically against the ruling National Front coalition. PAS, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Malaysia, emerged from 1999 elections with control of two of Malaysia's 13 states.

The ruling National Front, seeking to regain the support of Malays, responded by trying to flex its own Islamic muscle, instilling Islamic values in the government bureaucracy and court system. "I've had judges tell me they are Muslims first and judges second," lawyer Imtiaz says. The government also encouraged the growth of a dual court system: civil courts for non-Muslims and sharia courts for Muslims in family disputes.

Going too far

Race and religion now have become inseparable. In the past two decades, more Malay women have chosen to wear head scarves as a sign of religious and ethnic pride. Islamic schools and publications have proliferated.

But in the states it controlled, PAS went too far. It banned unisex hair salons, karaoke and traditional Malay dance. It ordered Muslim women to wear heads carves, stores to keep separate check-out lines for men and women and cinemas to leave the lights on during movies to prevent cuddling.

The party's zealotry began to scare even many Malay Muslims. In elections last March, PAS lost control of one state and lost 20 of its 27 seats in the national parliament. "The middle-ground voters were not with us," concedes Dzulkifli Achmad, PAS' research director.

Triumphant politically, Prime Minister Abdullah began promoting Islam Hadari.

But human-rights activists say he has a long way to go to undo a 20-year Islamic revival.

The four villagers from the Sky Kingdom in northeastern Malaysia have been fighting the system for years. They follow local elder Ayah Pin, who claims to interpret dreams in a village where oversized teapot and umbrella structures are revered as sacred symbols. In 1992, a sharia court convicted the four of "deviant" practices and ordered them to attend a religious re-education program. The four refused. A sharia court slapped them with jail terms for contempt of court.

The villagers appealed, saying that because they had renounced Islam they were not subject to rulings from a sharia court. This summer, Malaysia's highest court upheld the contempt ruling.

Human rights activists assail the court for missing an opportunity to defend religious freedom. Others say that the courts have been wise to be cautious. "We cannot afford to have a war," says Ahmad Azam Abd Rahman, the generally moderate president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. "Let us move slowly."