‘President’ Yasser Arafat found his host cooler towards him when he flew to Kuala Lumpur late in August. In a change from the past, he was given a less-than-friendly welcome by the Malaysian regime, which was caught in the middle of a virtual war against Islamic militants, and had to downplay its reception to the Palestinian delegation. The Malaysian government’s dilemma is understandable. Obsessed with getting an invitation to the White House, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is trying hard to shed his ‘west basher’ image that once dazzled many Muslims.
Since the beginning of reform as in 1998, people in Malaysia have been so used to such claims of militancy that many dismiss them as comical. Mahathir, however, realises that such moves will at least make Indonesia and the Philippines -- both busy waging wars against Muslim regions that demand independence — take him seriously.
He is now taking his anti-Islamic movement campaign beyond Malaysia, seeking help from his two female counterparts in the region, the newly-appointed Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri and Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines. Each has visited Malaysia and praised Mahathir’s administration. Together the three have formed what seems to be an alliance to fight “power-crazy” Islamic extremists in Southeast Asia. This was confirmed by Mahathir himself, when on September 1 he announced that a “militant Islamic unit” exists in Malaysia. “Their objective is so ambitious — to set up Islamic governments in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines through force — but it will not be that easy,” he said.
Manila immediately backed up his claim, saying that it had received “intelligence reports” that Malaysian ‘fundamentalists’ were “trying to link up with our own Islamic groups.” It singled out the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for independence for the Muslim heartlands in the south. A few days earlier, Megawati flew back to Jakarta after reaching an understanding with Malaysia to help fight the Acehnese freedom movement. Unlike her predecessors, who had promised to look into the possibility of a referendum in Aceh like Christian-majority East Timor’s, Megawati, whose dependence on Christian groups is well known, has ruled out granting oil-rich Aceh the right to self-determination.
Mahathir got the regional anti-Islamic campaign off to a clumsy start when, early in August, he ordered a crackdown on local Islamic activists who had served in the Afghan jihad during the eighties. Since then scores of people have been arrested under the Internal Security Act, under which detainees can be held indefinitely without any need for judicial process. The government says that they are all part of a militant Muslim group out to create a ‘purist’ Islamic State by force.
Clearly Islam has become the latest bogeyman in Mahathir’s fight for political survival. His recent statements and actions reflect a growing fear that youths, especially university students, are attracted to Islam rather than to the secular racism which he tries to promote through the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Not content with calling Malay students “lazy” and “ungrateful” to his government, he now has made another complaint against them. “According to a survey carried out by the government, at least 300 Malay university students admitted they did not feel they were Malays, and wanted to be acknowledged only as Muslims,” he lamented. He has also begun to condemn teachers and university lecturers, recycling the familiar accusation that they are inciting students to hate his regime.
In a sense there is some truth in Mahathir’s claim. Since he dismissed his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and jailed him on charges that prosecutors failed completely to prove in court, anti-government sentiments among Malays, who are almost all Muslim, have proliferated. Thousands of Malays spilled into the streets in anger, chanting anti-government slogans. Although Mahathir finally found his match in Anwar’s popularity, it was PAS which appeared to have got the greatest political mileage out of the whole affair. It later became a dominant factor in the country’s disunited opposition parties, with the party’s candidates encroaching traditionally pro-government parliamentary constituencies during the 1999 general elections, despite massive electoral fraud by the UMNO-led ruling coalition.
All this points to a new factor emerging in the region. Singapore, economically the strongest state in the region and long regarded by the region’s Muslims as the Southeast Asian version of Israel, also admits this growing attraction of Islam. Singapore’s senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, even acknowledges the emergence of the global Islamic movement (what he calls “a kind of Islamic globalisation”) in the past 20 years. “It’s become a kind of internationalised anti-Zion, anti-crusade ... we have to watch it carefully because if they take root in Indonesia, come up to Malaysia and come up to Johor [south Malaysia], then we’re vulnerable,” Lee has warned his neighbours.
Mahathir meanwhile is not interested in what others has to stay. His top priority nowadays is a visit to the White House, a move that might eventually ensure his return to the west’s good books after years in the wilderness. So he cannot afford to ignore even the most pathetic public relations stunt. One example is an article published by the Washington Times last month praising Mahathir, while accusing Anwar Ibrahim of having links with ‘Islamic militancy’. The article, written by an unknown ‘thinktank’, warned the US not to be fooled by Anwar’s reform movement, and cited Anwar Ibrahim’s visit to Tehran to meet the late Imam Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Later it was found that the ‘thinktank’ that produced the piece was a husband-and-wife outfit! Little wonder, then, that Mahathir’s tightly-controlled media had to be called in to dispel rumours of a bribery and graft.