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Malaysia PM Prepares to Hand Over Power - 2003-10-13

As leaders of 56 Islamic states meet in Kuala Lumpur, their host, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - an outspoken supporter of Islamic solidarity - prepares to hand over power after more than 20 years as head of Malaysia.

The international Islamic community bids farewell to one of its outspoken statesmen this week at the annual summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Professor Joseph Liow, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's retirement will leave a void in the Islamic community.

"He has been more or less the recognized spokesman of the Islamic world and he has actually gone ahead and said things that many Muslim countries have felt especially toward the U.S. but have not really [been able] to articulate in public for whatever reasons," said Mr. Liow.

Malaysia, under Mr. Mahathir, has championed the cause of Islamic minorities around the world. Malaysia also sent peacekeepers to Bosnia in the 1990s and brokered peace talks between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Mr. Mahathir, who has always promoted moderate Islam, became a strong supporter of the international war on terror. But at the same time, he did not let up his criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Analysts say Malaysia is a rare example of a Muslim nation that works. It has rapidly industrialized, remained relatively free of strife and balanced secular government with Islamic principles.

Professor Liow says this has given Malaysia credibility in the Muslim world. "Malaysia has been recognized by the Islamic international community as an example of successful functioning Islamic country," he said. "Maybe not in the sense of the Islamic state that certain branches of Islamic political ideology subscribes to but certainly as a nation run on key Islamic principles."

But critics say that while Mr. Mahathir projects a benevolent image overseas, domestically he has been accused of muzzling the more fundamentalist Islamic opposition and cracking down on Muslim refugees fleeing civil and religious strife in Indonesia, Burma and the southern Philippines.

"It's very different how Malaysia wants to portray itself as a moderate Muslim country and championing progressive Islam," says Cynthia Gabriel, the director of the Malaysian human rights group, Suaram. "It's very different when Malaysia speaks about the war on Iraq, for example. … There's a very clear double standard where Malaysian politics is always kept separate and different from politics in the more international sphere."

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will take over from Mr. Mahathir on October 31. Mr. Badawi comes from a family of Islamic scholars, and some analysts expect to continue in Mr. Mahathir's foot steps. But it is not yet clear if Mr. Badawi will claim the international leadership role carved out by Prime Minister Mahathir.