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Man of many colours

By protecting the nefarious Zakir Naik in Malaysia, Mohamad Mahathir is reinforcing a radical pro-Islam stance without deliberating upon the consequences.

Man of many colours

The enigmatic nonagenarian Dr Mohamad Mahathir made a dramatic comeback in May 2018 as Malaysia's Prime Minister after spending an itchy 15 years in relative sidelines. The quintessential politician was the longest-serving elected leader of a sovereign (1981-2003) before he himself handed power to his protégé-later-turned-foe, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. At 92 years, with a political career spanning over seven decades, Mohamad Mahathir has been dictatorial, suspicious and whimsical in reposing faith amongst his own chosen party men. First, it was his Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was sent behind the bars; later, his chosen successor Abdullah Badawi was surreptitiously replaced by Najib Razak under the watch of Mohamad Mahathir – till he started calling for Najib Razak's resignation, before unleashing a successful bid for Prime Ministership of Malaysia under the aegis of his newly formed political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). Completing the circle of Mohamad Mahathir's political unpredictability, is the ostensible arrangement of again handing over the Prime Ministership to his erstwhile bête-noire and now alliance partner, Abdullah Badawi, after a two year period.

In many ways, Malaysia's seemingly progressive model of assimilating majoritarism ('Malay' identity) and modernity has been attributed to the 'benign dictator', Mohamad Mahathir, who navigated and charted the country's unique societal formulation. 61 per cent of the population of Malaysia identify themselves as Muslims, and the balance is composed of minority Buddhists, Hindus, Christian, Sikhs and other traditional religions. Malaysia has historically treaded very finely on religion wherein, while Islam is defined as the 'religion of the country', Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution protects the right to practice other religions in peace and harmony. In recent times, the inherent diversities of a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual populace has led to a regressive societal compartmentalisation by political parties pandering to specific groups in order to coalesce them into an electoral bloc. Assertion of a pan-Islam identity in politics has been a collateral damage of the same. The concept of 'Bhoomiputra' (literally 'son of the soil'), entailing the affirmative action in favour of the majority 'Malays' is on the rise. Article 160 defines a Malay as being one who 'professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of at least one parent who was born within the Federation of Malaysia before independence of Malaya on August 31, 1957, or the issue (offspring) of such a person'. Thus, affording a politically discriminatory 'special status' vis-à-vis other minorities. This divisive preference was managed and kept in reasonable check by the authoritarian style of Mohamad Mahathir in his earlier rule when he preferred to focus on the economic development and modernisation of Malaysia. However, religion was always the convenient 'go-to' theme whenever political necessities and compulsions of mustering popular support were paramount, like in recent times, when Mohamad Mahathir had to play to the religious gallery to take on Najib Razak's superior religious credentials.

The run-up to the latest elections had seen a strange exchange of 'purity' barbs with Mohamad Mahathir accused of downplaying his 'Indian' ancestry. It was said that his original identity card carried his name as Mahathir a/l Iskandar Kutty, with "a/l" referring to 'anaklelaki', or 'son of', a naming convention used by people of Indian descent (as opposed to Malay men who carry 'bin', which refers to 'son of'). Mahathir had to assert his Muslim identity more strongly than ever before, forcing an unlikely coalition with his long-term nemesis, hardline Islamist party, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.

Upholding the earlier decisions of the more inherently conservative Najib Razak government, like granting a 'Permanent Resident' (PR) status to the controversial televangelist, Zakir Naik, is one such possible compromise. Unlike the much-bandied moderate-Islam propagated by Mahathir in his earlier leadership role – his recent pronouncement of protection and succour to the wanted-man in India is reflective of his succumbing to the popularity that bigots like Zakir Naik would enjoy in the polarised ummah of today. Sadly, Mahathir went one-up and publically met Zakir Naik in an unscheduled meeting, just a day after refusing India's request for Zakir Naik's deportation. Clearly, given the tenuous situation in Malaysian politics with the unsteady cobbling of unnatural allies – this controversial move by Mohamad Mahathir is designed to keep the restive cadres and the growing religious sentiment, firmly on his side.

Historically, Mahathir has always postured provocative, contradictory and critical positions on international affairs to keep his conservative constituents in good humour. Mahathir had infamously said, "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way" and had added, "but today the Jews rule the world by proxy"; yet, despite such rants, Malaysia had escaped the militant-extremist Islam that consumed the Middle East and only metamorphosed as a cultural and identity affirmation in Malaysian politics. It is this local strain of heightened religiosity that has gripped the Malaysian narrative into necessitating a deliberate accommodation for the likes of Zakir Naik, despite him having bans in many countries including Bangladesh, which bore the brunt of his nefarious preaching. Already, Mohamad Mahathir's partner in government, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has urged Mahathir to disregard the Indian request for extradition as it ostensibly aims, "to block his (Naik's) influence and efforts to spread religious awareness among the international community".

While supporting Zakir Naik might be a tactical move from the wily politician in Mahathir, the underlying accusation of spreading communal disharmony via Zakir Naik's sermons is something that the implosive-tinderbox of Malaysia must guard against. Malaysia has been cracking down on the extremist elements in its midst as a counterterrorism measure, yet it possibly feels Zakir Naik is a 'manageable' issue with larger negative-political-returns, should it abide by the Indian request. The statesman in Mahathir will do well to account for the immense economic potential with India and a shared concern of the growing 'Sino-sphere' in the region before it unnecessarily rocks the boat with India for relatively smaller gains – by protecting someone like Zakir Naik.

(The author is Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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