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Islam Online: The War Mahathir Can't Lose
By Iqbal Ragataf
30/8/2001 6:18 pm Thu
The War Mahathir Can't Lose
By Iqbal Ragataf
Mahathir Mohamad (known simply as Mahathir), Malaysia's prime
minister for the past 20 years, is waging a war he can't afford
to lose against the Islamic party of Malaysia (PAS). In recent
months, the Malaysian government has curbed its opponent's
activities, leaving it little space for expression and limiting
its spheres of influence.
It has also raised the specter of "Islamic extremism and
militancy" in Malaysia, linking charges directly to the PAS.
The PAS is also facing a difficult situation within the
opposition alliance, the Alternative Front (AF), where its
Chinese partner is aiding Mahathir in his battle against the
implementation of an Islamic government in Malaysia. The AF is
composed of the PAS, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the
Keadilan Nasional (NJP) and the Party Rakyat Malaysia (PRM).
How far will Mahathir go in this frontal war of which the
finality might be the possible banishing of the PAS from
politics, or its unsoldering from the heart of the Malay-Muslims
majority? The Malaysian premier is deadly serious, and when he
carts out the mantle of a witch-hunt, he does so to achieve fixed
aims. In the present situation he is fighting the ultimate
battle; to prevent the growing influence of "Islamic
fundamentalism" and possibly "extremism" in Malaysia's
Mahathir has built a society where religion is not the center
point. His system revolves around limited democracy, tight press
controls, repression against demonstrators, a divide and rule
policy against the opposition and ensuring his authoritarian
regime - a lifetime warranty to stay in power. However, the
system is falling apart, and its fate is now linked to the PAS's
growing influence and the jailing of Mahathir's most vocal
opponent, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir's former protégé is behind bars
for 15 years and will be out of politics for more than 20.
Nevertheless, the most lethal enemy for the longest surviving
leader in Southeast Asia is the PAS. The growth of the
Islam-based party has been consistent. The PAS was, even before
the advent of Mahathir as premier, in power in two Malay majority
states, Kelantan and Terengganu in northern Malaysia, in the
1970s. The National Front (NF) un-bolted the PAS from both states
in the '70s by dividing the party's leadership, and arresting
some leaders under the country's ISA (Internal Security Act)
provisions. Those arrested were accused of plotting to overthrow
the regime. The dismemberment of the PAS allowed the NF to
control the state of Terengganu until 1999, a fatal year.
Anwar Ibrahim's jailing in 1998 was, ironically, a much-awaited
boost for the PAS, which profited from the resulting division
among Malays, doubling its parliamentary seats, winning an
additional state - the oil rich Terengganu - and to the dismay of
Mahathir, maintained its control of Kelantan. The PAS's great
showing now serves as the catalyst to destroy the opposition
front as Mahathir portrays the PAS as a threat to secular
The ghost of Islamic activism
Last year, Mahathir tried to link the Al Ma'unah, a martial arts
group that staged an arms heist, to the PAS. Mahathir's timid
attempt was met with mild resistance from the PAS. The party did
not outrightly condemn Al Ma'unah for the alleged killing of two
non-Muslim special branch (intelligence) officers held hostage
during a resulting stand off with the army. The ghost of an
alleged Islamic activism was glossed over.
Brandishing the ISA, Mahathir, hidden behind new Home Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, planned the arrest of several opposition
figures belonging to the NJP and PAS, including student leaders
and local bandits tagged as "Mujahidin" (soldiers fighting in the
name of Islam).
Arrested NJP members, including the popular Mohamad Ezam Noor,
alongside the "bandits", will be joined soon by PAS members in
detention for two years in Kamunting, a once dreaded
para-military camp where prisoners of conscience are served
brainwashing and government propaganda as food for thought. But
the Kamunting detainees seem un-breakable, and seem as if they
are not bending to the government, forcing Mahathir to maneuver
to split the AF and breakdown the PAS.
Mahathir is kicking back and enjoying the quarrel between the PAS
and DAP, which urges the Muslim party to abandon its Islamic
agenda or leave the AF. Whose mysterious hands are behind the
DAP's anti-Islam stance? If it were Mahathir's, then it would be
clear that the latter has again succeeded in dividing the
Or is it that of the leaders of the Chinese community who are
trying to rid the AF of Islamic state issues in order to help it
topple Mahathir in 2004? If Chinese leaders are behind the DAP,
Mahathir may then have lost the support of 25% of the population.
Is his party thus heading for total annihilation in 2004? If this
were the case, it would then explain the current persistence over
"Islamic extremism" in Malaysia. There are no other explanations
to the current PAS-DAP squabble.
Special Chinese advisors
Mahathir is supportive of his Chinese partners in the NF in their
move to contain the anger of an exasperated Chinese community.
First, he supported the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the
largest Chinese political party in Malaysia, in its bid to
takeover the popular and free Chinese dailies, the Nanyang Siang
Pau and China Press. They were the only non-government controlled
media, free to report extensively on the opposition, and might
have been of crucial assistance in the opposition's victory in
the Lunas by-election last year.
The premier also proceeded with the setting-up of a special desk
in his offices at the Putra Jaya administrative center,
nominating two Chinese advisors to handle matters related to the
Chinese community. They are to negotiate with Chinese leaders and
direct the PM on Chinese policies. Would the Chinese community
follow the guidelines set up by the PM's office and forgive the
PM for his attacks against the community in the course of the
past two years. Do they believe in the "Islamic extremism"
threats as perceived by Mahathir? Is the mujahidin threat real or fabricated? Whether the Malaysian
government crafted this story, or whether the threat of Islamic
extremism is real, is of relevance only to Mahathir's political
survival. The battle against the PAS is vital for the NF in order
for it to keep the Chinese community's support, no matter what
Mahathir might have done to outrage them since 1999.
Is the mujahidin threat real or fabricated? Whether the Malaysian government crafted this story, or whether the threat of Islamic extremism is real, is of relevance only to Mahathir's political survival. The battle against the PAS is vital for the NF in order for it to keep the Chinese community's support, no matter what Mahathir might have done to outrage them since 1999.
Malaysians in general believe there has never been any sign of
threats from "Islamic militancy" in the country, even though it
is commonly known that some locals have indeed gotten themselves
involved in "jihad" (holy struggle) activities around the world.
Its no secret in Malaysia that the government practices an open
policy allowing foreign mujahidin's to reside in the country
under U.N. supervision. It is also known that in the past, the
Malaysian government has opened its doors to Islamic activists
exiled from Indonesia, India, Thailand and even Africa or Europe.
Recent attacks on Anwar Ibrahim, revealing his "militant" past
and criticizing his setting up of Islam-based organizations in
Malaysia, which include the Islamic banking system and the Muslim
Youth Organization of Malaysia (ABIM), is also part of an astute
scenario put in place by numerous government advisors.
It is clear that in the aftershock of a cleansing exercise
against "minuscule" mujahidin groups, the international community
may find it plausible to state that Malaysia is a terrorist
center in Asia. However, Mahathir, the most powerful man in
Malaysia, seems confident he will win the hearts of the
international community and earn credit for "crushing Islamic
extremism" in Malaysia.
The United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and the NF are in
need of a lifeline to keep hopes alive for further terms in
power, and Mahathir is laying down the foundations for a
continued dominance in politics. Yet these policies are dividing
the country further. Malaysia is a country with a population of
25 million, 60% of whom are Muslims of Malay, Indian and other
backgrounds. This figure alone portends serious trouble for the
NF in the near future.
The UMNO, rigged by money politics and a certain absence of
grassroots leadership, has penetrated university campuses in the
hopes of roping in teenage girls to join the newly launched UMNO
Puteri (teenage wing). Malaysia's campuses are the bastions of
the reformasi (reform) and Islamic movements in the country. The
UMNO, deserted by the Malay masses, has left it to Mahathir to
bring Malays back to the party fold. Failing to do so has
prompted him to adopt a much harsher approach in his dealings
with the "fundamentalist" PAS.
The latest in the government's attacks against the party are
claims that the PAS has a negative influence on Muslims, dividing
them and forcing them to go astray. The UMNO has started an
unforgiving battle to win over PAS-influenced mosques, using the
government's enormous machinery at its disposal. The PAS, for its
part, denies the allegations made against it, and at the same
time, accuses Mahathir of political Machiavelism.
Overall, while Mahathir is busy accommodating his Chinese
partners, he is alienating Malays, who are running to the PAS for
political salvation. Mahathir will have to deliver stronger blows
to the PAS if he intends to win this political war. If he loses,
Mahathir's entire political struggle will have fallen into the
doldrums of history.