Ever since the Bush Administration branded this region a potential hotbed for terrorism, Malaysia has avoided much of the scrutiny that's besieged its neighbors. It's no wonder: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was quick to cooperate with Washington, and no major terrorist incident has occurred on Malaysian soil.
But despite a reputation for moderation, nowhere in the region is the struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims as intense as it is in Malaysia.
Under Mr. Mahathir's 22-year reign, Malaysia transformed itself from an agricultural backwater into a manufacturing export-driven economy sporting sleek commuter rails and high-tech suburbs of wired homes.
Yet there is growing disenchantment among the majority Muslim Malays, many of whom feel the boom times passed them by and have come to question the Islamic credentials of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
The result is an intensifying battle between UMNO and PAS (Parti Islam Semalaysia), the conservative opposition party, to appear more Islamic - a development that could encourage fundamentalism and strain tepid race relations between Malays and the sizable Chinese, Indian, and Christian minorities.
"UMNO is becoming more conservative and Islamic, what PAS used to be, and both are now progressing in a chain reaction to each other," says Mohamad Abu Bakar, a social-sciences professor at the University of Malaya. "They're trying to out-Islamize each other."
One doesn't have to step far from the flashy Petronas Towers, the world's tallest twin buildings and an emblem of UMNO-led modernity, to witness the kind of neglect that Islam, with its emphasis on helping the poor, discourages. According to veteran journalist M.G.G. Pillai, there are 37 shantytowns in the Kelang Valley surrounding the capital. In nearby Kampong Kerinchi, many residents live in overcrowded shacks and sleep in shifts.
Tapping into these grievances, PAS is painting UMNO as a party of corrupt "infidels." Promising to rule by strict sharia (Islamic law) won PAS control of two northern states in the last general election and may allow it to make further inroads in the next election, to be held March 21.
In Kota Bharu, the capital of the state of Kelantan and PAS's stronghold, uniformed guards oversee separate seating areas for men and women. Karaoke and alcohol are banned. Visitors to the night market must leave during prayer times. A woman not wearing the Muslim head scarf looks as displaced as a cowboy on Madison Avenue.
In response, UMNO has tried to appear more Islamic. In 2001, Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state, and UMNO has taken to promoting Islam despite its reliance on a coalition with Indian and Chinese parties. The architecture of the government's new multibillion-dollar administrative capital, Putrajaya, which is south of Kuala Lumpur, is Islamic in influence and conspicuously houses a mosque but no other house of worship. Controversial remarks by Mahathir last October about Jews were also seen here as a ploy to garner Muslim support.
To political activist and writer Hishamuddin Rais, the sincerity of such gestures is questionable. "Most of [both parties'] supposed Islamic agenda has nothing to do with improving the welfare of everyday people," Mr. Rais says. "It's a battle to have a complete hegemony of the interpretation of Islam in Malaysia - but without a meaningful dialogue about what Islam should be."
Indeed, the state-controlled media can truncate debate, often branding PAS as an extremist party. PAS has its own party paper, Harakah, but it is licensed to print only twice monthly and to distribute to party members at select locations. Many political and religious activists have effectively been silenced by the International Securities Act, which grants the government the right to jail suspected dissidents indefinitely and without charge.
The narrowing interpretation of Islam that's resulted, says one UMNO official, is causing "a creeping Islamization."
Andrew Tan, a security analyst with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says that Malaysia deserves credit for tackling some of its suspected extremist elements head-on.
In the wake of Sept. 11, for instance, Mahathir closed Islamic schools suspected of preaching extremism. Several of the leading suspects in the Bali and J.W. Marriott bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia, are Malaysian or have spent time in Malaysia; last month, a Marriott bomb suspect named Malaysian fugitive Azahari Husin as the mastermind of the blast. And as Mr. Tan says, "There's a lot of sympathies for larger Muslim causes in Malaysia."
By some estimates, 50 percent of Malays under 30 now support PAS. During Mahathir's reign, many Malay farmers' incomes shrank, a substantial number of small businesses lost out to foreign competition, and Mahathir's penchant for megaprojects tended to favor the ruling elite. The 1998 jailing and subsequent sentencing of his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim on dubious charges of sodomy and corruption, also undercut Mahathir's cause.
UMNO is banking on Mahathir's hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, to win back Malay support. His reputation as "Mr. Clean" should aid him, as should his Islamic credentials: he comes from a respected family of Muslim scholars, majored in Islamic studies at the University of Malaya, and often leads Muslim prayers when visiting villages. Whether it's enough to abate the rightward shift of Malaysian Islam remains uncertain.