Islam has emerged as the main battleground in Malaysia's election, with Prime Minister Abdul-lah Ahmad Badawi vowing to confront the fundamentalist opposition for suggesting pro-government voters will be sent to hell.
"This is a topic we have to face," Abdullah told a rally of supporters in Malacca state, quoted in the New Straits Times newspaper yesterday. "We cannot shrug if off just like that. We will reply."
The fundamentalist Pan-Malaysia Islamic party's spiritual leader, widely respected cleric Nik Abdul Nik Aziz, said earlier that Muslims "naturally, will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support un-Islamic parties will logically go to hell."
Other opposition officials have accused Abdullah of preaching Islamic virtue only when it suits him, and criticized him for not leading funeral rites for his mother last month.
Abdullah's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has for years been locked in a battle with the Islamic Party for support among Malays, who comprise about 60 percent of the 25 million population. Abdullah's 14-party secular coalition has a huge parliamentary majority and is certain to be returned to power. But any further inroads by the Islamic party would undermine his control of UMNO when it holds internal elections later this year.
The Islamic party wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state and advocates a Taliban-style criminal code, including execution by stoning. It accuses UMNO of immoral greed and corruption.
Abdullah has Islamic credentials that many perceive as making him better suited to checking the fundamentalists' influence than his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.