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Fighting Hard-Liners on Their Own Ground

Sisters in Islam, an advocate for women's rights, sees the Koran as a bulwark against fundamentalism in moderate Malaysia.

October 20, 2002|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- In an era of resurgent Islam, Zainah Anwar is a different kind of holy warrior.

She's a moderate.

An articulate, outspoken Malaysian who peppers her arguments with Koranic verses, Zainah is in a high-profile fight against the fundamentalism that has swept in from the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia over the last two decades. Today, that fundamentalism buffets her country -- a moderate Muslim nation.

"We are fighting within the rules and laws of Islam," she said in a recent interview. "We're challenging their [fundamentalist] laws on their grounds."

Unlike hard-liners in many Middle Eastern countries who have been driven underground by their regimes, Malaysia's fundamentalists pursue their agenda openly -- and so far peacefully -- through the country's main opposition party.

As such, Malaysia provides a rare glimpse into a vital struggle in the Muslim world -- that between moderates and conservatives for political supremacy and the power to shape one of the world's great religions. Few are prepared to predict the outcome, in part because events elsewhere in the Muslim world threaten to shift the balance.

The country's religious moderates -- often accused of being aligned too closely with the West -- fear that a U.S.-led attack on Iraq would almost certainly bring new strength to the fundamentalists and erode their own support.

In an especially pessimistic assessment, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed concern in a recent interview in the Financial Times newspaper that a U.S.-led attack on Saddam Hussein would not only generate more recruits to the extremist cause but could also spark a global wave of communal violence.

It wouldn't be the first time that unexpected events both at home and far away have whipsawed the momentum in the battle for dominance. The 1999 imprisonment of popular former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, following a trial widely viewed by his supporters as a Mahathir vendetta, triggered large-scale defections by moderates, with voters repelled by what they saw as a vindictive, unjust kind of rule.

The fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known by its Malay acronym, PAS, quickly converted its advantage into strong election gains later that year. The party's image as a largely honest movement drew additional support as Mahathir's United Malays National Organization battled accusations of corruption and crony capitalism.

But two years later, the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States reversed the pendulum's swing as moderates recoiled at the atrocities committed in the name of their religion. Subsequent calls by PAS leaders for a jihad, or holy struggle, against the United States also played badly in a country that has sent many of its young to America for advanced education and has the U.S. as its single biggest trading partner.

"Their reaction stunned people," Zainah said. "Did it mean that PAS was ready to declare war on the U.S.? It showed just how little attention PAS gives to realities."

Added Chandra Muzaffar, a former political ally of Anwar's and now head of a social issues think tank called International Movement for a Just World: "Sept. 11 made a lot of Malaysians aware of a trend in Islam they're not comfortable with."

As the struggle among Malaysia's Muslims unfolds, Zainah has been a consistent and controversial voice. Twelve years ago, she co-founded and now heads a group of professional women called Sisters in Islam, committed to promoting women's rights within the framework of Islam.

But she and her group are far from alone.

Their allies include both Mahathir and leaders of Malaysia's sizable non-Muslim minorities, who make up about 40% of the population.

Energized by the sudden reversal of his opponents' political fortunes, Mahathir has gone on the offensive during much of the last year, lashing out at his PAS opponents, accusing them of "shamelessly misinterpreting" Islam for short-term political gain, even hinting that he might ban the party.

The atmosphere has also been sharpened by the death last summer of the party's longtime leader, Fadzil Noor, a man considered to have been a moderating influence on the party's harder-line elements.

His successor, Abdul Hadi Awang, the governor of the northeastern state of Terengganu, is far more conservative. It was under his leadership that the state legislature two months ago passed laws under the ancient legal code of hudud that included sentences of stoning to death for adulterers and hand amputation for convicted thieves. Although a federal challenge has prevented immediate implementation of the new law, Hadi has vowed to press forward.

So far, the debate over the future shape of Islam has remained free of violence. PAS leaders note proudly that they have won power in two of the country's 13 states via the ballot box and insist that they are committed to the democratic process.

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