Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad answers questions from reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur 12 April 2001.
The beleaguered Mahathir regime in Malaysia appears to have a knack for finding strategies that have unintended effects. In its latest campaign to silence the opposition, ten more people, including Nik Adli Nik Abdul Aziz, the son of PAS chief Nik Abdul Aziz, were abducted in the first week of August under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows indefinite detention without the need to produce detainees in court or furnish evidence. This man's only crime is to have served in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. The police have also admitted that a witch-hunt is underway for more 'militants' who went for jihad. Mahathir defended the witch-hunt as 'preventive measures', saying that the Israelis too were taking preventive measures against Palestinians.
The arrests are the third in what seem to be a three-phased police crackdown against reformasi leaders, students and Islamic activists: members of PAS, in other words. In April, ten activists, mostly of the National Justice Party (Keadilan), led by Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar Ibrahim's wife, were arrested, with six of them now in prolonged detention at Kamunting, a camp for political detainees. This was followed by two arrests last month in a nationwide swoop on university campuses.
The victims of the latest crackdown are Islamic activists and PAS leaders. The government says that the arrests were aimed at 'militants' trained in Afghanistan, who are accused of everything from bank-robberies and murders to attacks on non-Muslim places of worship to create a 'purist' Islamic state. None of these allegations has so far been supported by evidence, hence the use of the ISA.
Since putting Anwar Ibrahim behind bars in September 1998, Mahathir has been displaying some of his most adventurous strategies, with contradictory aims: to woo back Malays, and to reinforce the support of the Chinese, whose votes in 1999 ensured his ruling coalition formed the government.
Many see in this a desperate attempt by Mahathir to mend fences with his Western mentors. A report in the Far Eastern Economic Review of July 26 revealed that Mahathir is making frantic efforts to wrangle an invitation to the White House. The normally west-bashing premier has sent three letters to President George W. Bush, one congratulating him for his handling of the spy aircraft episode in China in April. This was followed by permission for hundreds of American troops to land in Malaysia to conduct 'military exercises'.
The latest arrest also came as PAS defied a ban on political talks and vowed to continue its political gatherings. Mahathir had earlier lamented that the Malays hated his regime because of what he called a 'hate campaign' organised by PAS. Subsequent gatherings were met by brutal police action to disperse crowds.
But far from silencing critics, the provocations appear to have encouraged PAS, whose support among Malay Muslims has been increasing at the cost of UMNO since the dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim. Many had previously voiced concern that PAS, comfortable with control of two important states, were becoming more complacent with their current strength and therefore not prepared to take risks. Worries have also been expressed about PAS's declining role as an Islamic movement. But the latest crackdown on PAS has woken it up and alerted some of its leaders to the dangers of working within the system.
Since putting Anwar Ibrahim behind bars in September 1998, Mahathir has been displaying some of his most adventurous strategies, with contradictory aims: to woo back Malays, and to reinforce the support of the Chinese, whose votes in 1999 ensured his ruling coalition formed the government. For the former, he whipped up nationalistic sentiments along racist lines; for the latter, he tells the non-Muslims of the danger of Islam and the threat to their culture should PAS come to power. That has, however, left the Malays all the more reason to rally behind PAS, while Chinese leaders are given a free hand to scorn Islam.
The speed in which Mahathir changes his ill-founded tactics is also interesting. Not long ago he picked a fight with Chinese activists, scorning them for questioning what is called the 'Malay special rights', a system whereby native Malays are accorded quotas in public institutions. UMNO had then launched a racist anti-Chinese campaign, with demonstrations and a media blitz, effectively telling Malays that without UMNO they would no longer have these rights.
Even then, Malay support for his government continued to decline. Added to this is strong opposition among students, young people and the judiciary, which appears to be changing. Mahathir finally announced that the education system will no longer give preference to Malays but will be based on merit. Although the move is welcome, his argument is based not on fairness but on political vengeance against Malay students, whom he continuously calls "lazy" and "ungrateful".
UMNO is not the only party worried by PAS inroads. The strongly anti-Islamic Malaysian Chinese Association, UMNO's main Chinese coalition partner, has even formed a special unit to explain to the non-Muslim Chinese community "the threat of the Islamic state". The party did not hide its aim to "educate and explain to the people the damage that an Islamic state can have on a multi-religious society". Not long ago, non-Muslim politicians would not dare declare such animosity openly. But with Mahathir himself churning out his anti-Islamic diatribe almost daily, they have been tacitly given a free hand.
On a lighter note, however, Mahathir may find himself in the company of some eccentrics. He was recently declared a true Islamic leader by a Scottish 'Sufi master' by the name of Abdulqadir Jilani, who flew in to the prime minister's office to declare Malaysia the "capital of Islam". He also criticised local Islamists, branding all of them Shi'ahs who lack "financial vision". Jilani was apparently overjoyed that Mahathir had reacted positively to his proposal to use the so-called gold dinar minted by his company in place of the US dollar.
The regime's imaginary Islamic credibility seems to be gone. With even Islamic scholars such as Yusuf Qaradawi and Taha Jaber Alwani, who had earlier praised the government for its 'progressive Islam', now calling, for Mahathir's trial under Shari'ah, Mahathir is finding it easier to discard the Islamic card altogether; hence his eagerness to be invited to the White House. Much to his disappointment, he was turned down; Uncle Sam's envoy to Malaysia told him bluntly to restore 'democratic' rights in his country before ties could be 'normalised'. Such suicidal acts he cannot afford. The most he can do is impress Uncle Sam that he too is playing a small role in the fight against Islamic 'terrorism'.
Abdar-Rahman Koya writes for Crescent International, the newsmagazine for the global Islamic movement.