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SINGAPORE — Malaysia’s ruling National Front coalition government has withdrawn from circulation a booklet “Malaysia Is an Islamic Country” to allay growing fears among the significant non-Muslim minority that the multiracial country which tolerates many faiths would be turned into an Islamic state.

But the move falls short of a public declaration that the controversial booklet, which spelled out the guidelines on how Malaysia could slowly become an Islamic state, would not be reintroduced again.

The ambiguity disappointed non-Muslims, who are mainly Chinese and Indians, who had hoped for a clearer stance.

Recent developments in global events relating to Islam apparently had a bearing on the decision of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to backpedal on the book, though not to completely abandon the concept.

The U.S. strikes against Islamic militants to liquidate the Taliban in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 suicide plane crashes in the New York and the Pentagon, had the effect of tilting the balance in favor of Mahathir’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the NF. Its archrival, the Islamic Party (PAS), is engaged with the UMNO in a political struggle for the support of the politically-dominant Malays.

Although the battle lines were blurred, the NF has been able to make the Chinese and Indians perceive that the UMNO is on the side of the U.S. and forced PAS to defend Osama bin Laden and the government ban on the Taliban. Consequently whatever suspicions they have of PAS as an extremist Islamic party were reinforced.

Because an overwhelming majority of the Malays are Muslims, PAS had cleverly manipulated Islam in such a way as to make the Malays regard it as a panacea to resolve all socioeconomic injustices and correct the moral decadence that the Islamists blame on the UMNO-led NF.

That enabled PAS to badly maul UMNO in the 1999 general election even though the NF still retained control of the federal government. Since then, an emboldened PAS had publicly declared that its next goal was to wrest control of the federal government in the next general election which must be held by 2004 at the latest.

Many UMNO leaders believe that was the only effective way of regaining lost Malay support from PAS. It was in this context that Mahathir dropped a bombshell on Sept. 29 when he declared at a function of the Gerakan, a non-Muslim component of the NF, that “Malaysia had already been an Islamic state for the past 44 years.”

At that time, the world was not so sure that the U.S. would beat the Taliban decisively.

In a followup measure, the Ministry of Information came out with the government’s guidelines on what constituted an Islamic state in a 25-page booklet “Malaysia Is an Islamic Country” written by a Malaysian religious scholar Wan Zahidi Wan Teh, who was educated in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.

Some guidelines stipulated that Malaysia was governed and defended by Muslims, and certain Islamic laws are already in force. The manifestations of Islam had also been evident in Malaysia, going by the injection of Islamic values in the civil service, the prevalence of mosques, madrassa religious schools, Islamic banks, Islamic insurance, and so forth.

NF non-Muslim leaders felt uneasy by the disclosure of the guidelines, but they balked at informing their supporters of their full implications, namely a situation where they would effectively be second-class citizens in an Islamic state. Because they feared offending an authoritarian leader, the opposition Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) had to do it on their behalf.

DAP leader Lim Kit Siang said that by his declaration, Mahathir had jettisoned Malaysia’s nation-building process, undoing all that its founding fathers had done in 44 years to ensure that Malaysia remained a secular multiracial country with Islam as the official religion and where freedom of religious worship for non-Muslims is guaranteed.

Lim lamented that not only non-Muslims, but also secular-oriented Muslims must contend with the gloomy prospect of having to choose between two different Islamic states: one under UMNO and the other under PAS. Most bleakly, Lim noted that the guidelines made it clear that everything which conflicted with Islam had to be neutralized and brought into line with the tenets of an Islamic state.

Analysts contend that had it not been for the complete rout of the Taliban, there was nothing to stop Mahathir from going full steam ahead with implementing the guidelines as spelled out in the booklet, which was only circulated among Muslims.

The defeat of the Taliban had, at least in the eyes of the non-Muslims, placed the premier in a position where Malaysia’s backing for the United States had made him appear as a moderate Muslim leader who frowned upon terrorism and enjoyed U.S. support. As such, he would secure for Malaysia the badly-needed U.S. investments to mitigate recessionary conditions precipitated by the Sept. 11 events.

Being the astute politician that he is, Mahathir cleverly turned the situation in such a way as to place PAS in an awkward position in its defense of the Islamic militants. With the tables turned, and PAS forced to be on the defensive, Mahathir felt that he could now afford to backpedal on his moves on the Islamic state concept, though not withdraw them completely.

Mahathir still needs the Islamic state issue as a leverage against the non-Muslims in his ties with them. Despite whatever misgivings that they may have of him in steadily eroding their rights on previous occasions, they still regard him as the only moderate Muslim leader who could defend them against Muslim radicals and whatever is left of their rights,

Mahathir has caught them in an extremely vulnerable position. The bottom line of his message to them is: UMNO has to be in power at all costs. If UMNO loses the vital Malay support to PAS because PAS exploits the Islamic state issue, UMNO would have to outdo PAS on the Islamic state issue in order to regain lost Malay support.

Much as non-Muslims resent it, they must resign themselves to their increasingly marginalized state where they have been forced to give Mahathir a blank check — with the hope that he would not have to use it against them.

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