In a surprise off-the-cuff breakfast chat with journalists during his campaign in the northern state of Penang, Abd Allah spelled out his "progressive and modern" approach to Islamic governance in contrast to the "fundamentalism" of the opposition Islamic Party (PAS).

The leader admitted the battle by his ruling National Front coalition to minimise the influence of PAS in Muslim Malay heartland of the northern states was a tough one.

PAS already holds sway in two key northern states - Terengganu and Kelantan - and has vowed to conquer more, in particular neighbouring Kedah and Perlis.

Imperatives

"Religious appeal is very, very strong for the Malays. They are moved quite easily by religious imperatives," Abd Allah said.

Rural people were easily swayed by PAS's strategy to exploit religion, he claimed.

Abd Allah says tackling Malay
mindset on Islam is a challenge

"This is the single, most important challenge: the mindset of the Malays on how they view Islam."

Muslim Malays make up more than 60% of Malaysia's population of 25 million, which also has large minorities of non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Malaysia is one of the most economically-developed Muslim states in the world, and in a series of rallies Abd Allah has presented a vision of Islamic governance with the message that "Islam is a religion for development".

Religious schools
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Meanwhile, Malaysia's government has moved to draw all Muslims into the mainstream education system as it fights off an election challenge by the Islamists whom it accuses of creating hotbeds of "extremism".

More than 125,000 Muslim youth 
study in religious schools

A number of Islamists, who are all detained without charge under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), have been linked to religious schools, including the son of the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

Last year, Malaysia's government stopped state subsidies for nearly 2500 private religious schools across the country because they were accused of sowing hatred against the establishment and of being ideological centres for PAS. More than 125,000 Muslim children study in such schools.

In an apparent attempt to woo parents away from such schools, the ruling National Front coalition said in its election manifesto that Arabic and Quranic studies would be introduced as compulsory subjects for Muslims in government primary schools.

'Corridor of Makka'

PAS insists religious schools in Malaysia do not subscribe to "violence".

"We craft our students according to Islam but we don't teach them to be terrorists"   

Nik Umar
Principal, Darul Anuar school

The northern state of Kelantan has 100 private religious schools, with an estimated 40,000 pupils including some from Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei.
 
Nik Umar, another son of PAS leader Nik Aziz and principal of the popular Darul Anuar school which has about 1000 students, said religious schools focused on academic achievement as much as Islamic studies and produced some of the country's top students.

The National Front coalition wants to "curb the truth because many students support PAS and its Islamic struggle," he charged.

"We craft our students according to Islam but we don't teach them to be terrorists."