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Islam Tops Politics in Malay State

November 26, 1999

KOTA BHARU, Malaysia (AP) _ There’s no disco dancing or alcohol. Men and women must use separate lines at the supermarket, and hourlong Islamic sermons are blasted from loudspeakers over the fish stalls at central market every afternoon.

But those sermons compete with rock ‘n’ roll blaring from the music shop down the street, next to Pizza Hut, the AF Cyber Cafe, the latest 007 Bond movie.

The women in clashing florescent headscarves, standing in the ladies-only checkout lines at the Pantai Timur department store, beneath the ads for Wella shampoo, shrug off suggestions that it is offensive to wait in gender queues.

``I don’t mind. I don’t like having to stand too close to men anyway,″ says Nik Nor Azmani Linda, a 20-year-old college student buying imported cookies.

The ruling coalition has portrayed Kelantan, the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states controlled by the opposition, as one ruled by Islamic extremists who would promote spiritual development over economic progress in this Southeast Asian nation if their opposition coalition wins the general elections Monday.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s United Malays National Organization, UMNO, which has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1957, has turned its sights on this impoverished northern state on the Thai border in the hopes of winning it back after 10 years under the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, or PAS.

As Malaysians go to the polls in the country’s 10th general election, Mahathir is determined to maintain his two-thirds majority in Parliament. And he wants to take back the gadfly state that he insists practices a dark brand of Islam that bruises Malaysia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim country.

``What is given emphasis in the Koran and the teachings of Islam is justice, not the chopping off of hands and heads,″ Mahathir recently said.

Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the country’s 22 million people are Malays. But Mahathir has rejected demands by PAS to declare Malaysia an Islamic state, noting nearly 40 percent of the population consists of ethnic Chinese Buddhists or Christians and ethnic Indian Hindus.

Since Mahathir stunned the country by calling snap elections two weeks ago, religion has stood alongside stability, democracy and corruption as keywords in the race for 193 seats in Parliament and 11 state assemblies.

And in Kelantan, everything is about religion _ or development.

``It’s not right to call us the poorest state,″ says Normah Ismail, a 35-year-old mother of four who sells vegetables at the central market. She and her husband, the farmer who grows the chili peppers and snap peas, earn about $210 between them. The average family income in Malaysia is $685.

``But we’re happy,″ insists Normah, who wears ruby-red lipstick and a black headscarf. ``Sometimes that’s more important than being rich.″

Comments like this infuriate Ilani Isahak, an UMNO member of Parliament who is fighting for development in her home state. She says Islam demands that Muslims also strive to be successful.

``They are selling us the dream of an Islamic state, but they know it’s just a fantasy,″ says Ilani. ``Ten years and what have they (PAS) got to show for it?″

Although Mahathir’s coalition is expected to win the national election, analysts don’t expect it to take back Kelantan and say it could even lose neighboring Terengganu and Perlis states. The loss of these rural Malay strongholds would loosen Mahathir’s grip on UMNO’s 2.7 million members, who hold their own elections next year and whose president has traditionally been named prime minister.

UMNO is campaigning fiercely in Kelantan, promising the state $1 billion in aid if they put the ruling party back in power.

Razaleigh Hamzah is UMNO’s strongman in Kelantan. For years an opposition leader, Razaleigh has gone back to UMNO and is often touted a traitor, or the next prime minister.

``These men in PAS are not religious scholars. They are liars,″ Razaleigh tells a group of some 100 supporters, standing in stocking feet on the steps of a Malay plank house on the outskirts of Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan.

``Mahathir is a good man, a good man,″ he says, speaking in simple sentences to the farmers. ``People say he is a dictator, but he is not.″

Mahathir has prodded and patronized this nation for 18 years, pushing Malays with a controversial affirmative action plan to overtake the Chinese and Indians in education and business. Though he has ruled with an iron fist, he was never really seen as a dictator here, until perhaps last year.

The 73-year-old former physician, credited with turning the agricultural economy into one of the so-called Asian economic tigers, lost mounds of Malay support when he sacked his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998.

Anwar, who was badly beaten by the country’s top police chief on the night of his arrest, is now serving a six-year jail term for corruption and standing trial for sodomy. Anwar has denied the charges against him and claims he is a victim of Mahathir’s obsession to remain in power.

PAS has joined forces with Anwar’s party, as well as two others, to form the opposition coalition threatening the status quo.

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