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A fight for the hearts and minds of Malaysia's Muslim majority

A leading opposition party with plans for Islamiclaw is slowly gaining support.

By Special to the Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2002


To Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the obligation to make multiethnic and multireligious Malaysia an Islamic state is clear.

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"The ultimate political strength is the truth, and the truth is God's revelation that the day of judgment will come. This can't be escaped – the evidence is in the holy Koran.''

Mr. Aziz is the 70-year old leader of Malaysia's leading opposition party, the Pan-Malaysian Opposition Party (PAS). His serene, grandfatherly smile belies a grim, acrimonious struggle he is locked in with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad's United Malays National Organization party (UMNO) for the hearts and minds of the country's mostly Muslim ethnic Malays, who account for about 60 percent of the population.

It's a struggle in which Aziz is making steady – if small – gains. With Mr. Mahathir, who has dominated Malaysian politics for more than 20 years, planning to step down late next year, Aziz is hoping to win more political ground, and draw one step closer to his dream of creating a fundamentalist state.

"There's no secret that there's a split right down the middle of the Malay constituency,'' says a Western diplomat. "PAS strategy is to exploit that split to destroy UMNO's claim that it speaks for all Malays."

To be sure, the party's prospects for winning outright control of the national government anytime soon are virtually nil. UMNO has won every election since independence in 1957. In the last election, only about a third of ethnic Malays voted for PAS. Among the rest of the population – ethnic Chinese, Indians, and indigenous people – there is virtually no support for the party because of its Islamic agenda.

Yet PAS has been riding high since the jailing of Mahathir's popular former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 on charges of sodomy and corruption – which many believe were politically motivated.

Anwar's treatment drove many ethnic Malays from the party and toward PAS, seen as the antidote for "money politics," Malaysia's catch-all phrase for the cozy relationship between privileged businessmen and the ruling party. In 1999 elections, PAS' seats in the national parliament more than tripled to 27. Though a tiny fraction of the total 193 seats, Aziz is expecting similar gains at the next national elections, which will be held sometime in the next two years.

"The Anwar issue crystallized for many people how corrupt and unfair the government really is,'' says Zulkifli Sulong, the editor of Harakah, a newspaper run by PAS. "It was a watershed for us."

Since Sept. 11, polarization among Malays has increased, with many urban Malays uncomfortable with the PAS agenda in the light of the terror attacks.

Their discomfort is understandable. Ultimately, Aziz wants to recreate the Islamic golden age of Arabia, 1,400 years ago. Though he's vague on how Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing country of 15 million that manufactures semiconductors and computers, could be made like 7th-century Medina, he speaks with the conviction of faith that it will come to pass.

Aziz comes from an illustrious line of Islamic teachers. His own father ran a religious school and was famed for his conservatism. He never left the house without an umbrella that he would pop open to shield his eyes in the event an uncovered woman approached.