High-flying sect tests limits of Asian values
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."