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

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

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

"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.

In the 1950s and '60s, Aziz studied Islam at schools in India and Pakistan, and then moved on to Cairo, where he studied Islamic law. He continues to live in the same house where he was born. A battered car in the driveway testifies to his reputation for living modestly.

Though Aziz comes across as mild-mannered, his views are far from it. He has said women who wear short skirts or shirts that reveal their navel have only themselves to blame if they're raped, he doesn't think women should be allowed to work outside the home, and he favors government subsidies and aggressive programs to convert non-Muslims.

In two of Malaysia's 13 states, Aziz's attempt to turn back the clock is already under way. In Kelantan and Terengannu, where PAS holds sway, he is fighting against the federal government for the introduction of Islamic law, or sharia, including the criminal code known as hudud, which calls for such extreme measures as the stoning of adulterers. Mahathir has vowed to block the legislation.

"They insult Islam by creating a set of laws that is supposedly Islamic but has no justice,'' he told a June press conference. "We are Islamic. They [PAS] are un-Islamic."

Aziz takes such attacks philosophically. He says he has no intention of taking the government head on – pointing out that the federal state declared emergency powers and took over Kelantan in the late 1970s to foil another attempt at introducing Islamic law. "We won't allow ourselves to be put in that position again,'' he says. "The prime minister has been saying that if we have hudud, then the West will be against us. But they're already against us!"

While he hasn't won on Islamic law yet, the fact that his government is nominally an Islamic one is a point of great pride for Aziz. "We've achieved something few others have,'' he says. "We've managed to make Islam the basis of our government."

Despite this claim, someone from Saudi Arabia or Iran – two Islamic states – would probably feel disoriented on the streets of Kelantan and Terengannu, where Islamic symbolism has had a greater impact on daily life than has Islamic practice.

In the searing heat of Kota Bharu's bustling central market, most of the women are covered from head to toe. But a few holdouts can be seen in the crowd – including a 20-something in platform shoes and a tiny T-shirt that says "Party Girl." She gets a few dirty looks as she totters across the square, but that's the extent of Muslim fury.

At The Store, a downtown supermarket, the only evidence of separate checkout lanes for men and women is signs that declare some lanes "for women only." Yet the cashiers are all women, and men and women freely mingle in line.

Nevertheless, residents say such restrictions have been gradually on the rise. The small Chinese minority are almost universally alarmed by the rise of PAS.

Evelyn Chua, whose family runs a hostel, Internet cafe, and restaurant catering to tourists, says the Islamic party's "crazy" restrictions have hurt business, and are infringing on individual rights. "No karaoke, no traditional dance, men and women can't swim in the same pool. This isn't the city I grew up in.''

Experts in Malaysia say that most Malays, in practice, are uncomfortable with the fundamentalist approach. "If those guys cut one Malay hand off, their support will evaporate, and they know it,'' says a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur.

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