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Cablegate: Farah Pandith's Visit Shows Many Faces of Islam in Malaysia

VZCZCXRO4752
OO RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHKL #1014/01 3580203
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 240203Z DEC 09 ZDK
FM AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3620
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 KUALA LUMPUR 001014

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

FOR EAP/MTS AND S/SRMC

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KPAOY PHUM KDEM MY
SUBJECT: FARAH PANDITH'S VISIT SHOWS MANY FACES OF ISLAM IN MALAYSIA

REF: A. KUALA LUMPUR 716 -- CANING PUNISHMENT POSTPONED
B. KUALA LUMPUR 980 -- AMB VERVEER'S VISIT TO
MALAYSIA

KUALA LUMP 00001014 001.2 OF 004


SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Special Representative to Muslim Communities (SRMC)
Farah Pandith visited Malaysia to begin engagement with civil
society and establish contacts with government officials,
politicians, teachers, students, and NGOs on December 13-14.
SRMC Pandith explained her recent appointment as the Special
Representative to Muslim Communities, emphasizing the
President's and the Secretary,s policy of creating new
partnerships with Muslim communities around world. SRMC
Pandith was well received by the Malaysians--both as a
champion of Islam and for her efforts in promoting a new
relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect
between the U.S. and Muslims around the world--but concerns
over U.S. foreign policy remained apparent in meetings with
politicians, government officials and students. SRMC Pandith
established solid connections during her initial visit and
several organizations expressed interest in remaining in
contact with her. Post hopes that she will be able to
capitalize on her initial success with a return visit in
2010. End Summary.

SISTERS IN ISLAM, SISTERS IN THOUGHT
------------------------------------

2. (SBU) On December 13, Farah Pandith met with the pioneers
of the local NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS): Zainah Anwar
(Founder), Hamidah Marican (Executive Director), and Norani
Othman (co-founder) and discussed a wide range of social and
religious issues pertaining to Islam. Zainah explained that
she started the organization 20 years ago out of concern that
Muslim women in the country were being discriminated against,
especially in issues concerning Family Law (marriage,
divorces, custody), which is the purview of Syariah courts.
According to Zainah, "Everything was argued in the name of
religion and no one questioned it."

3. (SBU) Sisters in Islam attracts criticism from
conservative Muslim groups in Malaysia because SIS argues for
fresh interpretations of the Quran, and is seen as backing a
Western approach toward equal rights for women. There have
been numerous calls to ban the organization, including from
the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Pandith asked about
SIS' relationship with GOM and civil society. Zainah replied
that the NGO has been subject to police harassment for
criticizing the caning sentence of Kartika, a Muslim woman
arrested by religious police for drinking beer (reftels).
SIS is very concerned over rumors that members could face
trial on sedition charges.

4. (SBU) SRMC Pandith welcomed SIS's courageous approach to
issues such as women,s rights and suggested that SIS try to
penetrate the Malay youth demographic by using comics and
graphic novels. SIS members were interested in the idea and
requested technological assistance and further contact with
Pandith.

VISIT TO MADRASAH SCHOOL
------------------------

5. (U) To get closer to grassroots Muslim life in Malaysia,
SRMC Pandith visited the Al-Amin Madrasah School located in
Bangi, a one hour drive from Kuala Lumpur in the shadows of
the National University of Malaysia, on December 14. Founded
in 1989, this private school with 100 teachers and 893
primary and secondary students is part of a network of
madrasahs comprising 35 schools and 8,000 students and is
chaired by Ustaz Megat Mohamed Amin. Amin, who recently
returned from a "life-changing" multi-regional International
Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on secondary and elementary
education in the U.S., was instrumental in establishing in
2008 an English Language Access Microscholarship program for
60 Muslim students to learn after-school English for two
years at a madrasah in the conservative state of Kelantan.

6. (U) During the discussions, a school board member noted
that the madrasah taught the government-required curriculum
in addition to Islamic courses. SRMC Pandith complimented
the team on its broad curriculum and encouraged sharing the
model with other Muslim communities. In response to Ustaz
Amin's comment that the school could do better in encouraging
interactions with non-Muslim communities, SRMC Pandith
suggested the expansion of the madrasah's social
entrepreneurship-based community development projects to
include non-Muslim schools in the local community.

POLITICIANS SHIFT CONVERSATION FROM ISLAM TO OBAMA, PALESTINE
--------------------------------------------- ----------------

7. (SBU) SRMC Pandith, DCM Rob Rapson, and Poloffs met with
politicians from each of the three predominantly Muslim
parties over lunch: the United Malays National Organization
(UMNO), the People's Justice Party (PKR), and the Islamic
Party of Malaysia (PAS). All three politicians agreed that
Islam is compatible with democracy. UMNO Member of
Parliament (MP) Nur Jazlan stated that the ongoing
"Islamization process" in Malaysia started "around 30 years
ago." (Note: this was a thinly veiled suggestion that it
started after then-Islamist activist Anwar Ibrahim joined
UMNO in 1982. End Note.) Jazlan stated that once the
process started, UMNO and the government "could not turn back
the clock" and therefore UMNO was forced to embrace
Islamization. Jazlan candidly stated if UMNO did not embrace
the challenge, the party would be accused of being
"un-Islamic." Jazlan conceded that he is not happy with what
is happening, but is unable to stop it due to political
considerations. PAS Youth Secretary General Kamaruzaman
Mohamad, not a member of Parliament, added that PAS is
committed to democracy until "we capture power."

8. (SBU) PKR MP Yusmadi Yusuf welcomed President Obama's
Cairo speech but expressed concern from PKR leaders,
including party advisor Anwar Ibrahim, that Obama seems to be
"speaking on behalf of Muslims," and that this slant is not
going down well among them. (Comment: post does not feel
that this is an accurate assessment of Anwar's views. End
Comment.) Yusmadi felt that President Obama should instead
address the problems in the "Muslim world" as an outsider.
He nonetheless stressed that Muslims in Malaysia welcomed the
new administration which he felt "is genuinely concerned"
about the "Muslim world" compared to the previous
administration. Yusmadi also suggested that the U.S. should
formulate an economic model for Muslim countries which he
claimed "would endear the U.S. among Muslims." He cited
Southern Thailand as a possible region to implement this
economic model. Kamaruzaman echoed Yusmadi's view that there
is a genuine optimism among Muslims over U.S. policies after
the Obama administration came to power, but pointed out that
Muslims will always have problems with the U.S. so long as
the Palestinian issue is not resolved. He criticized the
U.S. for being a staunch and uncompromising ally of Israel.
Until the U.S. can become more of an "honest broker", said
Karamuzaman, the U.S. will always be viewed with suspicion by
Muslims.

RELIGIOUS MINISTRY: TOLERATING RELIGION, IF DONE THEIR WAY
--------------------------------------------- -------------

9. (SBU) SRMC Pandith met with Minister for Religious Affairs
Jamil Khir Baharom, who immediately reflected upon his
positive experience attending graduate school in the U.S.,
and elaborating on the similarities between the U.S. and
Malaysia. Jamil noted that both countries are multi-racial
and commented on how other races have the freedom to
celebrate their religion in Malaysia. The Minister then
went on to explain that Malaysia practices Sunni Islam
exclusively, noting that Shia and Sufism are not allowed in
Malaysia. According to Jamil, "it's better to have one
school of thought instead of many."

10. (SBU) The Minister noted that Islamic education is
compulsory for all Muslims, starting with primary and
secondary students with continuation in public universities.
He recalled the poor Islamic education system in Malaysia
prior to independence and felt privileged that the Federal
Government took over the education system by outlining the
school syllabus and having it standardized. The teachings
also differed from one village to another, which led to
different schools of thought. Jamil added that the Ministry
of Higher Education collaborates with the Religious Affairs
Department in setting up the syllabus, and now many Malaysian
scholars study abroad, especially in Egypt and Jordan. Jamil
did not elaborate on other activities that the Ministry
engages in, though he did say that one of them is to monitor
sermons given after Friday prayers.

ENERGIZING THE NEXT GENERATION OF GLOBAL MUSLIMS
--------------------------------------------- ---

11. (U) At a round table discussion with Islamic scholars,
academics, students, Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program
alumni, and a local entrepreneur, SRMC Pandith emphasized her
role as convener, facilitator, and intellectual partner
listening to the next generation and encouraging initiatives
for the common good. She stressed the diversity of Islam and
the desire to build relationships across Muslim communities
over time and based on mutual interest and respect. She
noted the power of traditional and social media networking to
spread information, expand engagement, and reach more global
youth interested in positive change.

12. (U) Faisal Hassan, President of the YES Alumni
Association of Malaysia, spoke of his group's diverse
activities including community service and development
projects (promoting peace, building leadership skills,
developing English-language programs), organizing a worldwide
YES Alumni Conference in Malaysia in November 2009,
participating in the AFS World Congress in Kuala Lumpur in
November 2009, and networking with other alumni abroad to
share best practices and experiences. SRMC Pandith
encouraged YES to expand its network even further through
social media and to consider working with other entrepreneurs
to "scale up" their activities and have an even greater
impact around the world.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP'S POSSIBILITIES AT THE GRASSROOTS LEVEL
--------------------------------------------- -----------

13. (U) SRMC Pandith spoke about the power of
entrepreneurship for Muslim communities at the roundtable,
mentioning entrepreneurship not only in its traditional
business context, but also in terms of innovation (technology
and ideas) and social entrepreneurship (giving back through
community development). She stressed that examples of Muslim
entrepreneurship successes highlight "the good side of Muslim
communities around the world." Malaysian entrepreneur
Dhakshinamoorthy "Dash" Balakrishnan, CEO of Warisan Global,
shared his personal experiences at the grassroots level in
hiring over 800 Malaysian Muslim graduates to engage
villagers in entrepreneurial projects making greater use of
the Internet and to create markets for their cottage industry
products. He also noted the success during the recent Global
Entrepreneurship Week that he organized. He concluded that
entrepreneurship has broken both mental and racial barriers
and that partnership-based entrepreneurial activities have
created stronger levels of trust between various communities
in Malaysia.

INTERVIEW WITH FEATURES REPORTER, BERITA HARIAN
--------------------------------------------- --

14. (U) Following her roundtable with university students and
faculty, SRMC Pandith held an exclusive interview with Berita
Harian, one of KL's major Malay-language dailies with
nationwide weekday circulation of nearly 200,000. In the
interview, SRMC Pandith explained why she had chosen to visit
Malaysia, echoing President Obama's description in his Cairo
speech, of Malaysia as a "progressive Muslim-majority
country" and one that must not be ignored. She also talked
about why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is putting an
emphasis on grassroots and people to people connections. She
also spoke about her position as the Special Representative,
her interest in convening dialogues and facilitating
networking among like-minded people who support the
"diversity of Islam" and want to make a difference. She
mentioned how the U.S. sees its role as a convener and
facilitator, and as an intellectual partner with Muslim
communities around the world. SRMC Pandith stressed that the
U.S. is open to new ideas and mentioned her hope that
proposals for undertakings between the U.S. and Malaysia can
come from a renewed dialogue with Malaysians in partnership
with the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. When asked whether
public perception and treatment of Muslims in the U.S. had
improved since 2001, SRMC Pandith replied that "As is the
case in many societies around the world) there is still a
need for education about diversity and mutual respect," but
stressed that "Muslims in the United States have more freedom
to practice their religion than anywhere else in the world."
(Note: A feature article from this interview will be
published shortly in Berita Harian's weekend edition. End
note.)

JAMAH ISLAH MALAYSIA (JIM): AN NGO WITH CONSERVATIVE IDEALS
--------------------------------------------- --------------

15. (SBU) At a December 14 dinner meeting with SRMC Pandith,
President of the conservative Islamic NGO Jamaah Islah
Malaysia (JIM) Zaid Kamaruddin and colleagues explained that
the 10,000-member organization, many of whom are spread at
all levels of the government strata, was dedicated to
strengthening Muslim values in Malaysia. He and fellow
believers set up the NGO in 1982 after Anwar Ibrahim, who was
then leader of the Muslim Youth Organization (ABIM) decided
to join the ruling political party, UMNO. Zaid and others
thought the struggle for Muslim values had to remain outside
the government. Zaid said JIM sought to offer an alternative
vision to what he called the "liberal western" system of
government that Malaysia had adopted. Democracy was a
significant achievement, but Islamic government "by God"
would be better. In addition, materialistic western values
meant citizens lacked ethical discipline, so democracy
required extensive regulation and a robust police force to
keep society under control.

16. (SBU) In contrast, under Islamic rule citizens could be
confident that rulers (who could be chosen through democratic
elections, perhaps) would act within the bounds of behavior
as laid out in the Koran and Sunnah, and citizens were
law-abiding because of their strong religious beliefs. Asked
whether his description of Islamic rule was Utopian, Zaid
answered that, on the contrary, such rule had existed under
the Caliphs. Realistically, Zaid concluded, Muslims in
Malaysia could not expect to establish Islamic rule in the
near term, nor was JIM advocating such a step, but there was
a need to offer a competing vision to that of the west.

17. (SBU) We asked Zaid about two current controversies in
Malaysia with religious overtones: the Catholic Herald's
effort to overturn a law restricting the use of the word
"Allah" to Muslims, and the pending caning of a Muslim woman,
Kartika, for drinking alcohol, noting that these cases
attracted attention outside of Malaysia. Zaid said that the
law restricting the use of "Allah" was not based on Muslim
beliefs, but nevertheless a law was on the books and JIM
would not risk alienating other Muslim groups by defending
the Catholic Herald. On the Kartika case, he said there
should be no controversy: she had broken Syariah law in
Pahang state, and the required penalty was caning.

18. (U) SRMC Pandith cleared this cable.
KEITH

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