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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Malaysia's prime minister tells Muslims to respect other faiths

IHT (7/11/2007): Malaysia's leader urged the country's majority Muslims on Wednesday to respect other religions, an apparent effort to placate minorities and diffuse racial tensions ahead of snap general elections.

"If we want our religion to be respected and understood, let us ... show exemplary behavior by respecting the followers of other religions and their needs," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in a speech to the ruling United Malays National Organization party.

"Violence by one side will breed violence from the other," said Abdullah, who led his party to a landslide election victory in 2004. New elections are not due until 2009 but Abdullah is expected to seek a fresh mandate in early 2008.

The ruling National Front coalition, in which UMNO is the dominant player, is expected to retain power it has held for 52 years. But it is unlikely to repeat its last success because of growing anger among the Indian and Chinese minorities over what they see as the erosion of their rights.

Many ordinary Malaysians, including Malays, are also fed up of escalating crime, corruption and inflation, which have exacerbated racial tensions.

"The harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury — it is a necessity. We have no other choice," said Abdullah, dressed in traditional Malay attire of loose pants, cap and a cummerbund-like cloth around his waist.

The highly conciliatory speech was notable for its context — it was delivered at the annual general assembly of UMNO, when Malay rights and dominance are routinely asserted and reinforced.

UMNO claims to represents the majority Muslim Malays who comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people. Chinese are 25 percent and Indians are 10 percent.

The National Front also includes other parties representing the minority communities in a unique power-sharing arrangement that has ensured a high degree of racial harmony, except for brief but deadly riots in 1969.

However, social strains have become more apparent in recent years, thanks to a series of recent court verdicts favoring Muslims in religious disputes increased the disquiet among minorities.

Abdullah warned "overzealous" religious police against blindly enforcing Islamic rules. "We give assurance that UMNO will not endorse a narrow interpretation of Islam," said Abdullah, a trained Muslim scholar.

The racial tensions have caused cracks in the ruling coalition. Samy Vellu, a government minister who leads the main ethnic Indian party in the National Front, expressed anger on Monday at the recent demolition of a Hindu temple without warning. But he said Wednesday the problem was resolved and praised Abdullah's speech.

"We must be united. With all races united, only then we can rise to become a modern nation." said Samy. "The Muslims have always accepted other religions in this country. But there are certain actions done by certain people."


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