Badawi's interfaith talk faces test at home
Days after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor likening Islam with violence, Abdullah Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, landed in Finland to discuss
Last Modified: 03 Oct 2006 20:57 GMT
The Malaysian prime minister is seen as a bridge-builder
Days after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor likening Islam with violence, Abdullah Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, landed in Finland to discuss his country's success in the areas of race relations and inter-faith issues at the Sixth Asia-Europe Meeting.

The invitation was extended months in advance. But given the divisive turn of events and his position as chairman of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Badawi's presence was all the more apt.

He delivered a speech titled Dialogue among Cultures and Civilisations in which he focused on the eroding trust between the West and the Muslim world.

Badawi is also one of the main proponents of Islam hadhari (civilisational Islam), a political and ideological interpretation of the faith that stresses moderation and technological and economic competitiveness.

Malaysia is among the world's most stable and prosperous Muslim nations. And his style is by most accounts a refreshing change from that of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamed.

Mahathir was known for his tirades against the West and Jews - for clumping the world into dualistic entities based on ethnicity and religion.

Breaching the divide

This, say observers, puts Badawi in a position to be bridge-builder at a critical moment in Muslim-Western relations.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said: "He has the perfect temperament for the job. He is an open, understanding, genial person.

"He naturally builds trust and confidence wherever he goes"

Kishore Mahbubani,
Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,
National University of Singapore

"He naturally builds trust and confidence wherever he goes. To be a bridge builder you need that kind of personality."

The question remains, however, whether Badawi will rise up to be that indispensable voice of moderation.

Ethnic and religious tensions appear to be intensifying in his own country. In July, Badawi seemed to side with Muslim hardliners by forestalling calls by a coalition of NGOs which want the Malaysian constitution - which guarantees equality and freedom of worship - to become the supreme law of the land.

The Sharia (Islamic law) courts have recently taken primacy over civil courts in a number of controversial court decisions. This has raised fears among Malaysia's 40% non-Muslim population.

Meanwhile, Islam hadhari, with its emphasis on education and development, has been praised by Muslims and non-Muslims as a deterrent of extremism and viable instrument of reconciliation between Islam and the West. But as with many of Badawi's policies, theory has lacked follow-through; observers worry that hardliners are starting to derail Malaysia's traditionally moderate brand of Islam.

Doubts raised

After the Danish cartoon controversy in February, Malaysians took to the streets brandishing signs that read, "Long live Islam. Destroy Denmark. Destroy Israel. Destroy George Bush. Destroy America." And in July, Badawi's son-in-law and close political ally Khairy Jamaluddin, led a protest in front of the US embassy in which dozens of American and Israeli flags were burned.

Malaysians protested over
cartoons of Propeht Muhammad

These developments raise doubts as to whether Badawi can be an international bridge-builder, said parliamentary backbencher Zaid Ibrahim: "We're not emulating the success story in Malaysia itself."

Zaharom Nain, political analyst and associate professor of journalism at the University Sains Malaysia School of Communications, says people are becoming sceptical of Badawi's efficacy.

"He has made a lot of promises, but people are sceptical whether it is just his public relations people coming up within these things [Islam hadhari].

"He has not delivered on a number of his promises at home, and that raises questions of how effective he will be internationally. He has not backed the talk with much walk."

Others argue that Badawi is working slowly but steadily toward his goals, and even where he may be falling short, domestic policies should not be confused with international relations.

International efforts

Internationally, Badawi has the ear of a wide array of voices. During the UN General Assembly in New York last week Bill Clinton, the former US president, and a group of NGOs met Abdullah to see ways to narrow the divide between Islam and the West.

Days earlier he met Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana, Cuba.

Badawi raised a few eyebrows for not repudiating Ahmadinejad's calls at an OIC conference that Malaysia hosted, when Ahmadinejad repeated his call for Israel's destruction; and likewise when he appeared on Malaysia's state-controlled newspaper covers smiling and shaking hands with Ahmadinejad.

Mahbubani noted Badawi's predicament. "To expect an Islamic leader to defend Israel is political suicide."

It is a point not apparently lost on Western leaders. Badawi's reticence and symbolic posturing has not seemed to impair relations with the West. And where it may be raising doubts as to where his heart is, Badawi has been careful to strike a balance in his movements and rhetoric.

He has expressed support for Washington's diplomatic offensive against Iran. And on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) summit, Badawi held bilateral talks with key world leaders including Lee Hsien Loong, the Singaporean prime minister; Jacques Chirac, the French president; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister; Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister; and Junichiro Koizumi, then the Japanese prime minister.

Badawi suggested at Asem that Asia and Europe establish a system of intelligence sharing to monitor terrorist travel and financing. At the conference Badawi also reiterated Malaysia's offer to contribute peacekeepers to the ceasefire in Lebanon.

Islam and the West

Elsewhere, Badawi has said the West and Islam must foster greater respect if they are to reconcile their differences.

"The demonisation of Islam and the vilification of Muslims, there is no denying, is widespread within mainstream Western society," he said at an international conference early this year, adding that Muslims must resist "sweeping denunciation of Christians, Jews and the West".

"The West should treat Islam the way it wants Islam to treat the West and vice versa. They should treat each other as equals."

Zaharom believes that many in Malaysia are hoping Abdullah succeeds in improving Islam-West relations. "On that plain of Islam and West relations, there is a great need for a bridge to be built," he told Aljazeera.net.

Nevertheless, some believe Muslim societies should also look inward for solutions.

Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), says: "At this time, what we need is honest self-introspection."

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