Islamic renewal troubles Southeast Asian leaders. Revival sparks violence in Indonesia, Malaysia
Singapore — The strength of the Islamic revival is being felt in Southeast Asia. Growing support of radical Islam has led in the past year to violence in Indonesia and Malaysia. And it is creating a potential for the kind of instability already evident in the southern Philippines, which is intermittently troubled by an Islamic separatist movement. And Singapore, which has a significant Malay Muslim minority, continues to remain vigilant for any sign that agitators are infiltrating from Malaysia.
Political alarm bells sounded in Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur recently, when a police attempt to arrest a Muslim agitator in the northern state of Kedah, near the Thai border, led to a pitched battle in which 18 people were killed.
Malaysia has seen nothing like it since the violent Malay-Chinese race riots in 1969, and the incident raised immediate questions about whether the nation's racial politics were about to take an ominous new turn.
Among those killed was Ibrahim Mahmood, popularly known as ``Ibrahim Libya'' because he had studied in the radical north African state and retained close connections with it. A charismatic figure increasingly well-known as an aggressive fundamentalist missionary and government critic, Ibrahim had built up a virtual private army of several hundred followers who believed themselves immune to injury.
Concerned about an alleged build-up of weapons at Ibrahim's fortified home in a small isolated village, police staged a raid -- only to be met by gunfire from defenders inside the house and by an ambush from the rear by Ibrahim supporters, many of them women and children armed with spears and Molotov cocktails.
Predominantly ethnic Malay, the area where the incident took place is poor and underdeveloped and has a history of unrest. It was part of the communist insurgency in the 1950s put down with great difficulty by the British Army. In the mid-1970s it was the center of agitation by rubber shareholders brought to the brink of ruin and starvation by plummeting world rubber prices.
It is also part of the ``Islamic belt'' of northern states -- Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, Perak, and Trengganu -- stronghold of the arch-religious opposition movement, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam).
Parti Islam, the second largest opposition body in Parliament, has been striving for years to depose the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant body in the multiracial National Front Alliance that has long ruled Malaysia.
Campaigning for a strictly Islamic state ruled by the law of the Koran, Parti Islam regards UMNO as too secular. Malaysia espouses Islam as the official religion, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has soft-pedaled the religious issue to avoid upsetting the 40 percent of the population that is neither ethnic Malay nor Muslim.
The government has been increasingly worried by the radicalism of Parti Islam elements preaching total separation of the Muslim population. One symbol of this is the growing trend of women giving up the traditional tight-fitting Malay dress in favor of the Muslim shapeless smock and overall veil -- although the government now decrees that women in the civil service and universities must not cover their faces ``for practical reasons.''
The government responded to the Kedah incident by banning indefinitely political gatherings in the northern states and ceramahs (closed-door religious discussion meetings), which are alleged to have become a forum for fomenting antigovernment uprisings.
Mr. Mahathir doesn't need religious disturbances on top of his other problems. An economic downturn has encouraged antigovernment feeling, and there is persistent talk of a premature general election possibly in the early months of next year. But Mr. Mahathir's chief electoral partner, the Malay Chinese Association, is in disarray after a two-year internal power struggle.
Neighboring Indonesia is also trying to keep the lid on rising Islamic fundamentalism encouraged by economic discontent. In September last year, this exploded in riots in a Jakarta slum area that had to be put down by the Army. Thirty were killed. This was followed by a rash of bombings and fires in several cities.
Almost 90 percent of Indonesia's population of 162 million is Muslim, about half of whom were believed to be devout worshippers. A rebellion aimed at creating a constitution dominated by Islamic law raged through the 1950s and into the early '60s before it finally subsided. But in the past five or six years, new radical organizations have appeared to take up the struggle.