LUMPURThe aftermath of Sept. 11 is having a profound impact on
prosperous, predominantly Muslim Malaysia. The results augur well for the
country's internal stability in the short term and its ability to keep religious
The position of Prime Minister Mahathir
bin Mohamad, who is 76, has been strengthened. Six months ago his future was in
His unpopularity within the ruling United
Malays National Organization was stark. Hostility to crony capitalism was rife.
Opposition parties were maintaining an improbable alliance. And the jailing of
opponents, notably former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, was earning Mr.
Mahathir the distrust of many Malays and most liberals.
Before Sept. 11 he had already begun to
recover his poise with housecleaning and repositioning. Now support among
non-Malays, who have always seen him as a bulwark against Islamists, is stronger
Moderate Malays, frustrated by corruption
and UMNO's autocratic tendencies, had been supporting the Islamic Party of
Malaysia or Keadilan, the multiethnic party formed after Mr. Anwar's arrest and
headed by his wife. But they have been drifting back to UMNO. Keadilan is losing
focus. The alliance between the Islamic Party and the mainly Chinese Democratic
Action Party has broken down.
The eruption of extremism elsewhere has
enabled the government to cast in a better light its arrests of Muslim (and
non-Muslim) opposition figures, and its crackdown on local Muslim cults that
were not connected to Osama bin Laden but whose existence appeared to support
the official contention that extremist dangers were real.
The government's revived popularity has
been seen in state elections in Sarawak.
Internationally, Mr. Mahathir has kept
his balance, exhibiting his credentials as an opponent of religious extremism.
This consolidation around the political
center does not mean that there are no negative effects from Sept. 11. The
bombing has raised Muslim consciousness. The Malay press is full of
denunciations of America.
Only a handful of Malays are likely to
want to move from rhetoric to action, but any sustained increase in Malay
self-awareness of Muslim as opposed to Malaysian identity cannot be good for
relations with non-Muslims. The non-Muslims may not like American policies, but
they fear that the solidarity Muslims feel required to exhibit will damage
relations with the West and hurt the economy. For years Mr. Mahathir has pursued
full-steam-ahead economic modernization driven by foreign investment but has
balanced this with mosque building and social concessions to vocal Islamists and
with periodic anti-Western rhetoric.
Compare Malaysia now with when he came to
power 20 years ago and one sees a more prosperous and urbanized society but one
with more outward signs of Muslim formalism and, consequently, a new divide
between urban Malays and non-Malays.
Many modernist Malays close to Mr.
Mahathir now feel that it was a mistake to have responded to the surge in
Islamic consciousness which followed the Iranian revolution by giving freer rein
to religious authorities. These have sought to impose their own restrictive
interpretations of Islam on a Malay community that traditionally took a relaxed
view of dress codes, alcohol and so on.
Lack of freedom of Malays to make their
own judgments about religion and social mores is a blot on the nation's record
of modernization and pluralism. The issue now is whether Malaysia goes further
down this road of using political power to further Islam, as is happening in the
states controlled by the Islamic Party of Malaysia.
Alternatively, Malays may consider that
they are better served by reasserting their commitment to a secular Malay-led
state in which Muslims can choose their own ways of relating to God. The Malay
elite represented by UMNO favors this course but has been divided by the
treatment of Mr. Anwar and damaged by the party's get-rich-quick image.
Afghanistan is increasing the emotional pressure on Malays for religious
identification at a time when Malaysia needs to cultivate domestic harmony and
good relations with non-Muslim Asian neighbors as well as the West. A
30-year-old policy has given economic and educational advantages to the mostly
Malay Muslim majority. Affirmative action has brought Malays into the modern
economy. But, contrary to the usual impact of urbanization, religious commitment
may have increased.
Has religious authority supplanted the
feudal relationships of rural Malaysia? Or has affirmative action
institutionalized dependency and a sense of inability to compete equally in the
Re-examination of this policy is due. For
now, it is important for Malaysians to appreciate the plural underpinnings,
political and ethnic, of their success.