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New Malaysian PM Faces Growing Religious-Based Opposition

Malaysia's long-serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad stepped down Friday, turning the office over to his deputy. The new Malaysian leader has big shoes to fill and a growing religious-based opposition with which to contend.

The country that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is to govern is an economically vibrant, prospering nation. But the ethnic fissures that have troubled Malaysian society have been replaced by religious-based divides.

Bill Case, a political science lecturer at Griffith University in Australia, says ethnic pride has mixed with Islamic fervor to present both the outgoing and the incoming government with serious political challenges.

"So the cleavage is no longer Malays versus Chinese," he said. "It is now, I guess, between non-Muslims and Muslims, or secular people and Islamicist. It's more of a religious divide at this stage. And this represents a very profound challenge to Mahathir's rule at this point."

Ethnic Malays have been the backbone of the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since 1957. A central plank of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's platform has been special treatment for Malays in jobs and education to balance the economic power of ethnic Chinese.

But in recent elections, UMNO lost ground to the pan-Islamic party, known as PAS. Campaigning on a platform of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state, PAS won control of two of Malaysia's state governments and picked up seats on the national level in 1999.

However, the thought of the imposition of Islamic law in Malaysia makes the country's non-Muslim groups, such as Chinese, Indians, and Tamils, extremely nervous.

Analysts like Bridget Welsh, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, say the Islamic party's strength grew as Malays moved from the countryside to the city. Ms. Welsh said Mr. Mahathir's affirmative action policies fueled a strong sense of religious community among young Malays.

"Mahathir, beginning in the 1980s a few years after he came into power, began to in some ways institutionalize dimensions of the Islamization that had taken place in Malaysia," she said. "And so he in some ways has created a much more Islamic community within Malaysia. And in many of those cases, there are individuals associated with more extremist factions who felt comfortable working in that type of environment. I think this was clearly an unintended consequence of, an unexpected consequence, of Mahathir's policies in the Islamization of Malaysia."

Mr. Case said that as the Islamic parties flex newfound political muscle, Mr. Mahathir - and now his political heirs - must pay attention.

"So what we're seeing now is that Mahathir and the government - which are basically secular in tone, and, again, have very Western aspirations, I guess, in terms of what constitutes economic development success - is forced at this stage to adopt a much more Islamicist tone," said Bill Case. "It must match the kind of grievances that are coming out of the Islamic community in that country today."

Fears of the spread of Islamic-based terrorism have grown in the past two years. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a radical group which Western analysts link to terrorism, has been active in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia's neighbor Indonesia. But as Ms. Welsh points out, PAS is a legal political party of long standing, not a terrorist group.

"PAS is not the JI, and I think to equate those two would be an unfair characterization," she said. "I think that they reflect, and their growing support reflects, the changes that have taken place in society, partly as a result of policies that were initiated, and partly as a result of changes that have taken place in terms of the Islamic identity worldwide."

In fact, Mr. Case points out, Malaysia has responded more forcefully and successfully to the terrorist threat than some of its neighbors, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.