Islam's grip tightens as Malaysia's boom ends

The country has a reputation in the West as one of Asia's most successful `Tiger economies'. But so far the path to economic growth has been smoothed by a culture of religious tolerance. Now, as those who enjoyed the boom are forced to endure the bust, Islamic clergy are seizing the moment
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The Independent Online
Beneath the vast twin towers of the world's tallest office block, a staggering monument to Malaysia's powerhouse economy, a faint call to prayer from the minarets of a city mosque below is all but drowned in the chaos of rush hour.

Shrouded by a hanging cloud of thick grey smog, the choking fall-out of economic success, and regional forest fires, Kuala Lumpur is a city where religious imperatives have given way to capitalist ones. Fashionable bars are thronged with revellers as bankers and businessmen in this predominantly Muslim nation clinch their next deal.

"The city is a symbol of what is happening to our country," lamented Supky abdul Latif, a spokesman for Pas, Malaysia's strident opposition Islamic party. "Mosques are here, Muslims are here and even women who wear the veil. But you have these things in Britain too. They are not what makes a country Islamic. There has to be a difference".

The difference, of course, is that Britain promotes a culture of religious tolerance, while what makes a country Islamic is its forbidding by law that which is forbidden in the Koran.

How far religion should dictate the law of the land is a point of intense debate in Malaysia, a nation where unbridled economic development has hinged for two decades on a philosophy of moderation; where mosques and McDonald's enjoy similar status in society.

Malaysia owes much of its image as a success story to its 71-year-old prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, whose vision is of a modern, moderate Malaysia, where Islam works hand-in-hand with laissez-faire business values. But this vision has been sullied by a recent downturn in the economy that has allowed the rhetoric of the country's increasingly assertive Muslim clergy to be heard above the clamour of the cash registers. A recurring theme is their anger at the "un-Islamic" antics they say Mr Mahathir's Malaysia has encouraged.

"Everything is going too far, Malays are losing sight of their faith," Supky abdul Latif said. "We need to remind our people that economic development should continue under God. The bars we all see selling alcohol are just one example of our decadence."

Only in one of Malaysia's states, Kelantan, are the Islamists in charge, in the form of a Pas government. But their influence is felt across much of the country. Even in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, women with no tradition of covering up are feeling pressure to wear head-scarves and full-length dresses. Men who once drank beer openly now do so only in the company of close friends.

"Our vision of an Islamic Malaysia would see that the law of God was adhered to. We would encourage people to stay away from alcohol, so bars would close. We understand women are the key in our country's workforce, so we would not prevent them from working, except, of course, nightshifts," Supky abdul Latif explained.

Malaysia's brand of religious fundamentalism is denting the country's reputation for tolerance. In July, the state of Selangor convicted three beauty contestants for indecency under Islamic law for taking part in a swimsuit parade. They were handcuffed on stage and threatened with harsh punishment under the hudud, an Islamic criminal code which specifies stoning for adulterers and amputation for thieves. Dr Mahathir has since curtailed the power of local religious bodies in legal matters.

There is, nevertheless, a sense amongst ordinary Malaysians of "creeping Islamisation". "Both my daughters now have to wear a tudung [headscarf] to school even though they are only eight and ten years old," said Omar Mustafa, a Muslim businessman in Kuala Lumpur. "There is no rule saying they must, but they are expected to or they are looked down upon".

Many Malaysians will criticise, or even joke about the rising influence of the clerics, but few are willing publicly to repudiate the hardliners. Muslims make up only 60 per cent or Malaysia's population, but ethnic Chinese and Indian groups are also feeling the growing pressure of Islam. Few complain of a lack of religious freedom, but Islam is omnipresent - in schools, at work, in the media.

"It is overwhelming and so subtle in many ways, " Cecil Ratnam, an Indian Christian living in Kuala Lumpur, said. "Most people reject any kind of fundamentalism, be it Islamic or anything else. But I'm worried that if things carry on in this insidious way, all of us might one day wake up in an oppressive Islamic state, and be powerless to change it." he added.

Soros on Mahathir `menace', page 18