Malaysia struggles with Islamic path

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Students are arrested for talking on the stairs of a library, couples detained for holding hands in public, Muslims are fined if they fail to fast, nightclubbers are arrested and abused - it is all part of life in modern Malaysia.

But the country is a moderate Islamic state, the prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said in comments published this week.

"I don't believe we are on the verge of becoming an extreme Islamic state," he said.

"We are a very moderate Islamic country. We respect the non-Muslims. We share the government; we have power-sharing."

As Abdullah warmed to his theme, togetherness in this diverse nation was high among his values. "We celebrate each other's festivals," he said, "we have our children studying together, and we do a lot of things together."

Where Malaysia sits on the spectrum of world Islam is an issue of increasing concern among Malaysians and abroad. Long seen as a model of a prosperous, moderate, outward-looking modern Muslim nation, Malaysia is now embroiled in debates between mosque and state and between state and the individual.

How Malaysia resolves stark differences between ideas of Islam and its practice in daily life will bear on the wider debate around the world about whether Islam can allow its followers to achieve worldly progress and to be tolerant, not just of other faiths but of other Islams.

The onus is now on the prime minister, himself a Muslim scholar, to mediate a path for his divided society.

Abdullah's answer so far is Islam Hadhari, which he calls "a very practical approach to motivate Muslims to do well and be better."

When the U.S. deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, visited recently, he cited the apparent tolerance, democracy and rule of law in Malaysia as useful in efforts to mediate crises across the Muslim world.

"I enjoyed having a chance to talk with the prime minister about Islam Hadhari, his effort to try to talk about some of the civilization aspects of Islam," Zoellick said in Singapore, having just visited Malaysia on a broad swing through Southeast Asia.

"We talked about some of the applicability of some of the ideas in this region to elsewhere in the Middle East, and Iraq and others," he said.

More than half of Malaysians are Malay and Muslim, but significant minorities of Chinese and Indian Malaysians practice Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths. A tradition of secular openness was enshrined by the country's first leaders after independence from Britain was achieved in 1957.

Then, under pressure from an emboldened Islamist opposition, and soon after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the former prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, said on Sept. 29, 2001, that Malaysia was, after all, "an Islamic state."

"Everyone knew Mahathir's statement in 2001 was a political gimmick, but it has opened the way for the Islamists," said Lim Kit Siang, a veteran opposition leader. "It is a slippery slope. Now Abdullah's statement is not reassuring. We understand he has no intention to have extremists. But he should say we are not an Islamic state."

Shariah, or Islamic law, now applies to Muslims across the country, with variations from state to state, and municipal laws such as park bylaws, have been used to control behavior of Muslims and non-Muslims.

"Things are happening now which were unthinkable 25 years ago," Lim said.

Activists worry about the expanding reach of the Shariah courts at the expense of the civil justice system.

"We're wondering, did all this happen while we were sleeping?" said Ivy Josiah, executive director of the Women's Aid Organization, which runs a refuge for battered women and campaigns on rights issues.

"Certainly there's a great concern now that Islam is gaining such power to affect our personal rights," Josiah continued. "We should have been outraged sooner but we let things happen. We said it was tolerable. But in fact the intrusions are cumulative. Now we can't not deal with religion. It is a human rights issue."

Muslim intellectuals and activists are campaigning against a growing intrusion of the religious police into their private lives and questioning the constitutional basis of the state's perceived right to police their faith.

Conservatives argue that there is only one Islam, which only skilled scholars can interpret and that the Constitution's claim that all Malays are Muslim takes precedence over freedom of expression and religion.

"Behavior modification is a process. We want problems in a society to be controlled. This is God's law. God knows best. Don't make it political or emotional or a human rights agenda," said Azizuddin Ahmad, head of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. "I don't like to label people liberal or progressive or fundamentalist. Islam is Islam. It's the level of understanding which makes the difference."

Islam Hadhari's 10 principles are: faith and piety in Allah, a just and trustworthy government, a free and independent people, mastery of knowledge, balanced and comprehensive economic development, a good quality of life, protection of the rights of minority groups and women, cultural and moral integrity, safeguarding the environment and strong defenses.

As with anyone seeking to tread a middle way, Abdullah has been assailed from all sides. When traditionalists suggested he was starting a new sect or diverting Muslims from the true faith, he replied, "That is a mistaken view because Islam Hadhari is actually a strategy to promote Islam in the leadership."

Less dogmatic Muslims worry that Islam Hadhari is but words and say the principles have yet to be put into law and practice. Islam Hadhari still asserts the primacy of Islam over other faiths, they say, and a government-financed seminar on the topic raised hackles that government funds were going only to debate about Islam, while more broad-based efforts to form an inter-faith commission had been stonewalled by Islamic opposition.

"A fear of the state has always been part of Malaysia," Josiah said. "We're a very obedient people."

"We are the beneficiaries of great economic and social development," she said. "It gave my parents three homes and educated their two children; it has exceeded expectations. So we won't raise our voices against the government. So can you imagine raising our voices against the religious authorities? There is real trepidation, because the religious authorities should know best, right?"

In this context, Josiah finds the growing support for a petition against moral policing remarkable.

"Given the multireligious and multiethnic composition of our society, any attempt to regulate a person's conscience, faith or private life has grave implications for all citizens and communities, as well as relationships between communities," states part of the petition, which calls for a repeal of religious laws. It has garnered the signatures of two government ministers, prominent intellectuals and members of nongovernment organizations.

A separate group of prominent Malays has written to the sultans of each state making up federal Malaysia to ask them to reassert their guiding role over religion in order to stem the growing power of Islamic teachers.

"More and more women are covering up," wearing head scarves, Josiah said, "less and less men are shaking a woman's hand, there are more calls to prayer, more examples of women not being allowed into some government departments in certain clothes. The real issue here is to what extent the state should intervene."

Razak Baginda, director of the private Malaysian Strategic

Research Center, said: "I'm convinced the problems stem from the tyranny of the minority, the idea that anything about Islam is to be held in the hands of the few.

"But the majority of us are not Islamic scholars. We've only recently been realizing that we've been allowing these people too much power."

He believes the prime minister must move slowly, however. "We have backbenchers in this country who are in favor of morality squads."