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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Mod and Muslim
Malaysians fret about Islamic conservatism

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Tengku Zafrul Aziz is a Muslim, and he is concerned. Over the past two decades, Malaysia has become increasingly conservative — at least when it comes to religion. Most states in the country have adopted Islamic, or shariah, law to govern all Muslims in personal and family matters. Ever since the jailing of the popular former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, a prominent Muslim, the Islamic opposition party has been gaining ground. Now, Zafrul is worried that the ruling United Malays National Organization may feel pressure to adopt more Islamic policies. "It would be unfair to impose any Islamic laws on non-Muslims," says the 27-year-old brokerage analyst. "Religion should not be forced."

Many Malaysian yuppies — exposed to consumer culture, MTV and the Internet — are uncomfortable with their country's new conservative colors. A generation ago, Malaysia was one of Asia's most liberal countries. But as the society has modernized, liberal and conservative Islamic schools have struggled for the upper hand. While Islam is Malaysia's official religion and Muslims make up more than 51% of the population, the country is not an Islamic state. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has consistently defended the idea of a secular state. But in recent elections, the Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS, has won control of two states. Social mores across the board are becoming more constricted. Three beauty pageant contestants learned that the hard way in 1997 when they were each fined $153 for indecency. They could have been jailed for six months.

Young professionals hope they can cling to Malaysia's moderate legacy. "The greatest danger is that the new religious consciousness will prevent the proliferation of views which place greater emphasis on moderation and modernity." warns Khairy Jamaluddin, 25, a special assistant to deputy premier Abdullah Badawi. Twentysomethings like Khairy are glad that Islamic laws don't apply to non-Muslims — and worry when some PAS leaders suggest they should.

Zafrul is troubled that the government may implement Islamic laws such as rules on apostasy more strictly to counter the opposition's rising popularity. He argues against Malaysia becoming an Islamic state and implementing the "hudud" penal code, which sentences apostates to death — both stated goals of PAS. "It would be very hard to convince my peers, especially non-Muslims," he reckons. Just how Malaysia balances the Islamic values of its Muslim majority with its drive for modernization and democracy will clearly be a matter of hot debate for at least another generation.

By SONIA NAYAHAM and SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur

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