KUALA LUMPUR—The trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges—the second he has faced in little more than a decade—is scheduled to begin next week, and observers say the outcome could determine if Malaysia succeeds in ending its corrosive, race-based politics.
The unlawful-sex trial features many of the main players in a position to decide whether Malaysia, one of the Muslim’s world’s most important countries, should open up its economic and political systems or shift toward an increasingly strident form of Islam.
Mr. Anwar is the charismatic leader of a multiracial opposition alliance that is trying to dislodge Malaysia’s government after 57 years in power. Prosecutors accuse him of sodomizing a young male aide in 2008—an illegal act in Malaysia—and a crime that Mr. Anwar, 62 years old, says was fabricated to destroy his reputation. Mr. Anwar was jailed on similar charges from 1998 to 2004 before his conviction was overturned on appeal.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who leads the ruling United Malays National Organization, a party built on defending the political and economic privileges of Malaysia’s Muslim ethnic-Malays, says he had nothing to do with the allegations against Mr. Anwar. The 56-year-old Mr. Najib acknowledges being photographed with Mr. Anwar’s accuser, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, and says the young man sought his advice before filing a police complaint against the opposition leader. Mr. Najib says he advised Mr. Saiful to make up his own mind on whether to file a case against Mr. Anwar; Mr. Saiful didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Few Malaysians appear to believe the charges leveled against Mr. Anwar, political analysts say. Some people here view the trial—which Mr. Anwar’s lawyers are still attempting to delay—as an extension of a long-running tussle for power between Messrs. Anwar and Najib. “It’s just politics, played by different rules,” says Redzuan Osman, a 26-year-old clothes vendor who plies his trade in the crowded streets of downtown Kuala Lumpur.
The U.S. and groups such as Amnesty International have raised concerns about the way the case against Mr. Anwar might be handled, with the State Department in 2008 saying it had “serious concern” about the impartiality of Malaysia’s legal system—a concern that Malaysia’s government says has no foundation.
If Mr. Anwar were convicted and jailed, political observers say, it could put a damper on the country’s democratic development. He is one of the few Muslim-Malaysian leaders capable of slowing the country’s lurch toward a more explicitly political interpretation of Islam. He has managed to unify Malaysia’s disparate opposition groups—including an Islamic party and the ethnic-Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party, as well as his own multiracial People’s Justice Party.
Mr. Anwar is “the only person who can link the Islamist party with other members of the opposition coalition,” says Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at Australia’s University of New South Wales. “And that makes him a target.”
In recent years, Malaysia has become increasingly Islamic, partly to deflect home-grown radicals who wish to turn the country into Southeast Asia’s first Islamic state.
A High Court ruling on Dec. 31 that Roman Catholics can use the word “Allah” as a translation for God in the Malay-language pages of their weekly newspaper, meanwhile, provoked uproar. Mr. Najib’s government appealed the court decision, saying the Arabic term should be reserved solely for Muslims, despite widespread use of the word by Christians and other minorities in Arabic-speaking countries and places such as Indonesia.
Vandals later fire-bombed or defaced at least 11 churches, upsetting Mr. Najib’s efforts to win support from ethnic-Chinese and Indian voters, who make up nearly 40% of Malaysia’s 27 million people, ahead of national elections due by 2013. Attackers subsequently tried to burn down a number of Muslim prayer rooms, and on Wednesday, worshippers attending early morning prayers found severed boar heads at two mosques near Kuala Lumpur—a gross insult in Islam, whose adherents believe pigs to be unclean.
Mr. Najib didn’t respond to requests for comment, but he said in a statement following the initial church attacks that he condemned them and said they “do not represent Malaysia and Islam.”
Mr. Anwar and his opposition-bloc allies say Christians have the right to use the word Allah, which is commonly heard in Malay-language church services.
Some businesses and investors now worry that Mr. Najib is so concerned about provoking Muslim ethnic-Malay anger that he will slow down tentative overhauls of Malaysia’s decades-old race-based affirmative action policies. The program originally was designed to give a leg up to ethnic-Malay Malaysians by guaranteeing university placements and equity holdings in stock market-listed companies, but many economists see it as a drag on Malaysia’s economic growth. Mr. Najib says he plans to push more liberalization to encourage investment.
“You’ve now got to ask whether there will be more reforms,” Tim Condon, a senior Asia economist with ING in Singapore.
Mr. Anwar says he is committed to ending the country’s affirmative-action agenda and replace it with a program for all Malaysians who need help. “There’s been a failure of Muslims across the world to promote freedom and human rights, and not to allow our discourse to be hijacked by fringe fanatics,” Mr. Anwar said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal at his People’s Justice Party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. “Now, more people appear to be listening.”