Malaysians split over opposition's call for orthodox Islamic state

Islamic orthodoxy has become a divisive factor in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia.

* The king, Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has had to step in and cancel an unprecedented television debate between two rival Muslim Malay parties over volatile allegations that members of the ruling faction do not practice Islam.

* A government report has accused an Islamic opposition party of using religion in an attempt to overthrow the federal government.

* A government minister has warned that religious dissension being fomented by extremists could create an opening for revival of the Communist Party, whose terrorists were only crushed after a long and bitter struggle in the 1960s.

The issue has come to a head with an escalation of hostilities between the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), dominant partner in the multi-ethnic coalition government that rules in Kuala Lumpur, and the orthodox Muslim opposition, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS.

Both have been battling for decades for support of the Malay community, accounting for 55 percent of the population and the decisive influence in any federal election. For a brief period in the 1970s they managed to cooperate, until PAS was ousted from the ruling front in 1977.

In election confrontations, UMNO has always been the winner, PAS gaining only five seats in each of the last two elections. But the struggle took on a new dimension with a decision by PAS in recent years to adopt Islam as its sole battle cry and to challenge UMNO's Islamic credentials.

According to Ismail Kassim, a Singapore-based analyst of Malaysian politics, the campaign for an Islamic state ''has divided families, kamungs (villages), and the Malay community to a degree unprecedented since the country became independent.

''PAS alleged UMNO members were infidels because the government condoned un-Islamic practices such as gambling and the manufacture of alcohol.

''Even the publicly stated policy of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - that Islamic values would be absorbed into his administration gradually and without upsetting the sensitivities of the substansial non-Muslim (Chinese and Indian) minorities - did not help.''

To the astonishment of many, the prime minister was provoked by a PAS complaint that UMNO was ''too arrogant to talk things over'' into offering a television debate on any subject. Given a free hand, PAS selected:''That UMNO members are unbelievers and those who oppose the (ruling party) will die as martyrs.''

The debate was unpopular with many UMNO members who felt party speakers would be no match for the oratory of the religous scholars assembled by PAS. They thought that the opposition had won from the outset by getting a chance to appear on national television. There were also fears the topic was too provocative and would encourage violence.

Three days before the scheduled Nov. 11 confrontation, however, the Conference of (nine state hereditary) Rulers, headed by the king, ordered the debate to be canceled, saying it alone had the right to decide who were believers.

Many observers felt PAS had won a symbolic victory through the publicity.

It was perhaps no coincidence that the government at the same time published a report on ''the threat to Muslim unity and national security,'' which identified PAS and six other organizations of using Islam in an attempt to overthrow the government.

In a foreward to the report, deputy prime minister Musa Hitam asserted: ''Directly or indirectly, (the PAS) activities have helped the CPM (Communist Party of Malaysia) gain support from among the Malay/Muslim community, which it been unable to do for a long time.''

The White Paper said several of the Islamic organizations named as disruptive influences were, in fact, nothing more than Communist Party puppet organizations. The CPM has been banned for many years.

Over the past few years, security forces had arrested at least 85 people and seized large arsenals of assorted weapons from the groups seeking to establish an ''Islamic republic government,'' the document reported.

A government spokesman said action would be taken against all the organizations named in the report.

Moderates in UMNO are saying a severe crackdown would merely exacerbate religious tensions, and a better course would be a search for ways to bring UMNO and PAS together in the interests of Malay/Muslim unity.

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