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Malaysia Cracks Down on Dissident Religious Leaders - 2002-11-06

The Malaysian government is cracking down on anti-government activities. In its latest move, the government says it will start recording sermons by Islamic religious leaders allegedly preaching against the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Officials said videotaping sermons in six mosques in Kedah state is meant to clarify allegations that some religious leaders are abusing their position by disseminating anti-government messages. Authorities will tape record sermons in the remaining 540 mosques in the state.

Imams found guilty of preaching against the government will be asked to quit their posts.

Friday sermons, called qutbah, are becoming political gatherings for Malaysia's Islamic opposition. Political rallies in the country have long been tightly controlled.

The move in Kedah follows a plan to cut funding to Islamic schools suspected of propagating anti-government views. Analysts say these actions are aimed at curtailing support for the opposition Parti Islam Malaysia, known as PAS.

Parti Islam Malaysia wants to impose Islamic law in the country, an idea controversial in multi-ethnic Malaysia. Islam is Malaysia's official religion, but as much as one-third of the population is not Muslim and the government is secular.

The United Malays National Organization, known as UMNO, has ruled Malaysia since independence. The Parti Islam Malaysia dominates only in two of the country's 13 states. But, in Kedah, the home state of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, support for the opposition party strengthened in the last national elections in 1999 and in by-elections earlier this year.

William Case, an expert on Malaysian politics from Australia's Griffith University, says the government is sending an "intimidating" message to the opposition before the next national elections, expected in 2004.

"Kedah is a frontline between the UMNO and the PAS opposition and that is where they would most likely clash in elections. So the government is worried about the kind of support PAS is getting from that state and trying to find ways of weakening it in the next elections. So one thing you can do is to begin to keep an eye on the mosques because that is the area through which they communicate the message," Mr. Case said.

Authorities said monitoring sermons also allows them to check for Islamic militancy in Malaysia.

Mr. Case thinks Mr. Mahathir is using the war against terrorism as an excuse to quell legitimate opposition. "The rationale of course is to ward off terrorism, but I think it is still unclear at this stage whether there is any real links between PAS and terrorism," Mr. Case said.

Malaysia has strongly supported the U.S.-led war against terrorism and has stepped up efforts to counter Islamic extremism in the country. It has arrested dozens of suspected militants in the past year.