In a move seen by many as a direct challenge to the Abdullah administration, and possibly confirming the desire to stage a comeback, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has threatened to take his battle with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi into the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
Mahathir alleged that five invitations for him to speak to party members had been withdrawn in recent weeks after he stepped up criticism of Abdullah, commenting that Umno was not giving him [Mahathir] a chance to meet with members to explain his point of view. In response, Abdullah told the media that Umno divisions are free to take whatever action they want to protect their interests and prevent quarrels within the party.
Party leaders and ministers are concerned about the increasing rift, fearing the battle could spark a split within Umno, which forms the backbone of Malaysia's coalition government. The Straits Times reported sources as saying there is an understanding within Umno that its grassroots organisations would not give a platform for Mahathir to voice his dissatisfaction with the government. However, two Umno divisions appear to be going ahead with plans to have Mahathir open their annual meetings next month. While the divisions are reportedly being pressured to retract the invitations, they do not seem prepared to do so.
Umno's 191 divisions will be holding their annual meetings over the next two months before the party's general assembly in November. A senior party leader is usually invited to the meetings, and the number of invitations received is considered an index of a leader's popularity. In this climate of conflict, even two invitations for the former premier will be seen as significant.
Besides fending off Mahathir, Prime Minister Abdullah appeared to be under tremendous pressure from the hardline conservative Muslims. While receiving an honorary doctorate in Islamic thought at the State Islamic University in Jakarta earlier this week, he said, “Muslims must demonstrate by word and deed that Islam is no obstacle to progress and modernity, including the practice of democracy.”
However, back in Kuala Lumpur, Abdullah told local media that inter-faith issues should not be discussed as religious tension in Malaysia had reached a “worrying level”. The government’s take had been more open early last year, when the Malaysian Bar Council had organised a forum to discuss the creation of an interfaith commission aimed to promote better understanding and respect among the country's religious groups. After several mainstream Islamic groups refused to participate in the forum on the grounds that an interfaith commission would "weaken Islam”, the government subsequently announced that an interfaith commission was not necessary but stated that interfaith dialogue should be encouraged.
Abdullah said the Cabinet had already made the decision to put a stop to discussion on the setting up of the Inter-Faith Commission (IFC) so he did not know why "this group of people had to create unnecessary problems by carrying out activities related to it." He said all activities relating to the formation of the IFC should cease immediately. "If possible, such discussions should not be carried out at all. It has passed the stage where it is worrying all of us," said the premier, who is also the Internal Security Minister.
He also warned the media to carry out its social responsibility not to stir up racial and religious tension among the masses. "Don’t sensationalise news that can heighten racial or religious tensions," he said in response to a question about the credibility of the mainstream media. Tellingly, while local media reports immediately following the latest Article 11 forum last week indicated that protestors against the forum numbered 400, this week, both New Straits Times and The Star revised that figure, reporting instead that the forum “was disrupted by a few thousand people”.
Mahathir wants to involve Umno in row with govt (The Straits Times, 26 July 2006)
Pak Lah: Umno divisions can act to protect their interests (The Star, 26 July 2006)
'Lead by practising progressive Islam' (The Straits Times, 25 July 2006)
Pak Lah: Islam Hadhari not a new religion or order (The Star, 24 July 2006)
PM: Discussions will raise tension (The Star, 26 July 2006)
Abdullah: Stop activities on inter-faith issue (New Straits Times, 26 July 2006)
Inter-faith issues should not be discussed: Abdullah (Today, 27 June 2006)
PM challenges media to set better standards (New Straits Times, 26 July 2006)
US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report 2005