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Malaysia Goes Islamic

SINGAPORE – In Malaysia’s current political climate, it is no longer possible to distinguish Islamic radicals from Islamic moderates. Despite official boasting about the country’s diverse population and commitment to pluralism, Islam and the government have essentially merged.

For two decades, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) government invested enormous public resources in building up a network of Islamic institutions. The government’s initial intention was to deflect radical demands for an extreme version of Islamic governance. Over time, however, the effort to out-do its critics led the UMNO to over-Islamicize the state.

The UMNO’s program has put Sharia law, Sharia courts, and an extensive Islamic bureaucracy in place, a collective effort that has taken on a life of its own. The number of Islamic laws instituted has quadrupled in just over ten years. After Iran or Saudi Arabia, Malaysia’s Sharia court system is probably the most extensive in the Muslim world, and the accompanying bureaucracy is not only big but has more bite than the national parliament.

Islamic laws in Malaysia are based on religious doctrine but codified and passed as statutes by state parliaments. Not much debate attends their enactment, because a fear of heresy keeps most critics from questioning anything deemed Islamic.