High-flying sect tests limits of Asian values

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Al-Ma'unah is an officially registered Islamic martial-arts sect in Malaysia that says its members can disable attackers through mental powers and send them flying across the room without touching them.

But when 29 members of the group appear in the ornate Moroccan-style High Court building in downtown Kuala Lumpur today, they will be tried for stealing a huge cache of weapons from the Malaysian Army in July - including rocket launchers and 100 assault rifles - and for shooting and killing two soldiers.

The Al-Ma'unah incident shocked Malaysians, who have little history of paramilitary activity in a country where possession of even a bullet can mean life in prison.

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Yet below the surface of the high-publicity trial lies a more basic and controversial issue - the Islamic dimension of Al Ma'unah. Many of the sect's members are part of the rising Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a devoutly religious group that seeks to gradually make sharia, or Islamic law, the law of the land.

As the trial unfolds, prosecutors may seek to highlight the extent and reach of new and growing groups in Malaysia that operate partly under an orthodox Islamic code, particularly outside urban areas. PAS leaders say the government wants to demonize a party that threatens the three-decade rule of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who has lost much of his popular appeal after what is widely regarded in Malaysia as the unfair imprisonment of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on corruption and sodomy charges.

For decades, sunny and tropical South Sea Muslim-majority nations like Malaysia and Indonesia have been known for a tolerant and multi-ethnic version of Islam, which was brought here by Arab traders in the 13th and 14th centuries. Islam blended well with traditional stable "Asian values" in a part of the world whose major cities have recently leaped into finance and high-tech manufacturing, and whose current rulers advocate a secular vision of society. Malaysia has been a center in the Islamic world of efforts to harmonize Islam and modern Western thought.

Still, recent years have seen a popular Islamic orthodoxy make powerful inroads into the general discourse of society, in dress and custom - and this is being felt in many new ways in the politics of both Malaysia and the archipelago of Indonesia.

The modest Islamic revival in Indonesia is partly due to 30 years of suppression of Muslims under strongman Suharto, the former dictator, who often jailed Muslim "extremists." Partly to redress that history, several Muslim parties sought last month during the annual session of Indonesia's highest legislative body to change the Constitution by adding "seven words" - that would require the 90 percent Muslim population to observe sharia law. In the 1950s, Muslim leaders tried to again include the seven words - but Hindus in Bali and Christians in the east threatened to leave if Indonesia became officially sectarian. By decree from Sukarno, it did not.

With sectarian violence rising today between Christians and Muslims in the Maluku islands, and with secular politicians in states like Irian Jaya firmly opposed to the proposed amendment, the Indonesian parliament refused to vote on it.

Yet so troubled by the move was Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a Muslim scholar, that after the legislative session was over, his first public comment was of the "danger" to Indonesia posed by the effort to officially change the nation's secular identity.

President Wahid may also have been addressing new grass-roots Islamic movements as well. Just prior to the legislative session in August, some 1,500 Muslim scholars, clerics, and imams met in Yog-yakarta to establish a "Mujahideen Assembly," the first of its kind. Irfan Awwas, chairman of the assembly and an Islamic thinker and publisher who spent nine years in prison during the Suharto regime, says the group backs the creation of one system of government for all Muslims in the world, as well as the application of sharia law in Indonesia, "regardless of the form of the state."

With Indonesia ranking high as one of the most corrupt and patronage-larded states in the world, and with economic woes continuing to create further gaps between rich and poor, a turn to Islamic ideals is attractive to some. Mudji, who owns a cotton-spinning mill outside Jakarta says, "I'm not a religious man. But I support the seven words. After five years of economic crisis and politicians who care only for themselves, we need a government where people pray for prosperity of the nation."

Yet in cosmopolitan Jakarta, such sentiments are not felt by a majority, experts say. "Even if a law like this law passes, not many of us really care," says one young Muslim student of political science. "It's not like it is going to change our behavior, or anything."

In Malaysia, meanwhile, highly placed sources say that in recent years arms have been filched from various Army stockpiles at the rate of a rifle or two per month. But the Al-Ma'unah group changed the dynamics by attacking two Army bases and stealing a huge cache. Sources say that the entire operation was designed to not only embarrass the government, but also to act as a message for other groups with similar aims.

Average Malaysians and PAS officials alike, however, reject any notion that their country is becoming extremist in any fashion, and most resent the crude portrayal of Malaysia as approaching the kind of orthodox Islam found, say, in Afghanistan, to use the most extreme example.

"This Al-Ma'unah case is quite isolated," says Mohammed Hatta Ramli, a senior PAS official and a highly educated and literate man. "We do want to see the line separating sharia law and state law gradually eliminated. But we have no interest in violence. We are democratic all the way."

Still, the brand of Islam that PAS advocates is new for Malaysia. So are the recent electoral victories of PAS in two Malaysian states, Kalantan and Terengganu.

"Right now there is a big fight for the soul and mind of the Malays over the interpretation of Islam," says Charles Santiago, a professor of political economy at Stamford College in Kuala Lumpur. "Is it going to be the moderate view put forward by Mahathir, or the more conservative view of PAS?" As with Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Welfare Party in Turkey, PAS has a strong anticorruption message that is tied also to a system of charity distribution for the poor. Leaders in Kalantan and Terengganu have agreed to paid paternity leave, have eliminated road tolls, and enhanced welfare payments.

At the same time, PAS leaders in those states have put out edicts that women must wear the head covering or hijab. They have closed some saloons and snooker parlors. The chief minister of Terengganu, a graduate of Al Azhar University in Cairo, has openly said he feels a divine mandate to bring Islam to the country. The new PAS government in Kalantan tried to institute the sharia law until the federal government blocked that move.

The PAS party is also highly organized. Over two decades the party has built a strong local set of leaders and followers. PAS orators are considered the most influential and inspiring among Malaysian Muslims, and they have put forward a culture of audio tapes. In cities around the country, taxi drivers and housewives often listen to inspirational Islamic messages.

PAS also holds talks that attract thousands of people, and are managed along the lines of modern evangelical mega-churches in the US. Visitors are greeted by young people and given parking vouchers, comfortable seats, refreshments, and a program that uses the latest media technology.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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