Islam will test new Malaysia chief

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who fostered Malaysia's growth into a secular and prosperous nation, retires Friday.

For many popular politicians, retiring after two nation-defining decades would be an apt moment for kind words and conciliatory gestures. But Malaysia's outgoing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is stepping down this week, has always been a contrarian.

He drew howls of international protest this month when he told an Islamic conference in Malaysia that Jews rule the world by proxy. "They get others to fight and die for them," he said in a speech that won a standing ovation.

Having invoked Jewish domination, Mr. Mahathir then turned the tables on his listeners by asking why 1.3 billion Muslims couldn't do better. The answer: science, education, and social development. "Islam is not just for the 7th century. Islam is for all times. And times have changed," he said.

Malaysia certainly has changed under Mahathir's watch, transformed by 21st- century infrastructure and rapid growth. Yet race and religion remain flash points in a secular nation with a Muslim majority and elite Chinese and Indian minorities. For 22 years, Mahathir has held radical Islam at bay without alienating the Muslim majority to build a prosperous, multiethnic nation. But it's unclear whether his successor, Abdullah Badawi, can do the same.

Mr. Abdullah faces the threat of regional militancy bent on a pan-Islamic state across Southeast Asia, as well as a growing domestic Islamic opposition party that tripled its vote at the last election.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) wants an Islamic state in Malaysia with strict laws to punish criminals with public whippings and amputation.

Its popularity among ethnic Malays, who are mostly Muslim, has put the ruling United Malays National Organization party (UMNO) on the defensive.

Islamic credentials

But many observers reckon that Abdullah, who comes from a line of Islamic scholars, is well positioned to counter the spread of fundamentalism and keep Malaysia on a secular path. He is likely to continue forging a middle way between Islamic demands at home and diplomatic pressures from allies and trading partners abroad.

While PAS is given no chance of winning national office, analysts say Abdullah will seek to win back disgruntled PAS voters with persuasive words, rather than major changes to Mahathir's formula. They say this should be sufficient to contain the threat, at least until Abdullah finds his feet.

"Mahathir tried to overcompensate by being more radical than the Islamic opposition. At the same time, he still wanted Washington to listen to him as the voice of a moderate Muslim nation. He tried to balance both sides," says Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini, an online news service that the government has repeatedly tried to shut down.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia struck a chord among developing nations by refusing to let the International Monetary Fund and other agencies dictate its economic path, and criticizing the inequities of globalization. The former country doctor was quick to accuse rich nations of trying to recolonize countries in Asia and Africa, and called financier George Soros a "moron" for short-selling Asian currencies.

For Western allies fed up with Mahathir's fiery rhetoric, his departure may be cause for celebration. President Bush's recent Asian tour, which emphasized antiterror cooperation, pointedly skipped Malaysia, despite its steely response to terrorist cells operating on its territory. Even before the remarks about Jewish domination, called "wrong and divisive" by Mr. Bush, ties between the two countries had soured over Iraq.

Mahathir's harsh criticisms of the US are "a personal reaction towards Bush," says Syed Hussein Alatas, a professor at the National University of Malaysia. "It has nothing to with Islamic politics in Malaysia ... and that's why there is no shift in relations as far as the West is concerned.".

Abdullah has kept a low profile in recent months, and officials say it will be business as usual after he takes over. He's unlikely to pull any punches in fighting terrorism: As home minister, he jailed scores of suspected militants under a colonial-era law that allows indefinite detention without trial.

But behind the scenes, politicians are jostling for position within UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. Analysts say Abdullah will need to consolidate his power ahead of next year's elections and is likely to skirt sensitive issues like affirmative action for Malays, a constant gripe for the remaining 40 percent of the population.

Growing Islamic opposition

How Abdullah handles the PAS opposition, set to make further gains next year in state legislatures, will set the tone for Islamic politics in Malaysia.

Under Mahathir, Malays were given Islamic schools and told that Islamic values were central to government policies. But accusations of corruption in ruling-party circles that went unheard in Malaysia's muzzled media lingered, giving PAS a rallying cry.

That cry grew louder after the jailing in 1998 of Anwar Ibrahim, a former Muslim activist seen as Mahathir's successor, on charges that many saw as political revenge by the prime minister.

Mr. Anwar's supporters argue that Abdullah should ease the government's stifling grip on society if it wants to bring Islam into the mainstream and neutralize extremist voices.

"In the long run, you cannot project an image of modernized Islam unless you allow democratic dissent to come out in Malaysia," says Khalid Jaafar, director of the independent Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur.

But most analysts expect Abdullah to move slowly, if at all, on issues like corruption and free speech. Instead he will use his Islamic credentials to try to win back Muslim voters from PAS, while keeping an eye on potential challengers within his own party.

"What UMNO is worried about is losing the majority of Malay Muslims. If they lost that, they can't claim to be the party that represents Malays," says Mr. Gan.

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