Birds of a feather

Raja Petra Kamarudin

25 years or so ago, I engaged Mustafa Ali, the Terengganu State Commissioner for the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), in a debate on how the party should promote itself amongst the younger generation. Mustafa was then the PAS Terengganu youth leader and Anwar Ibrahim was not yet in Umno.

My argument was based more on logic and strategy rather than theology.

Many Malays, in particular the more fundamentalist Muslim Malays, until today are not prepared to accept logic in any arguments touching on religion. To them, religion is based on faith, and logic is incompatible with faith. Faith is based on the intangible whereas logic is based on evidence — thereby the incompatibility of the two.

I did not, and still do not, agree with this line of reasoning.

I pointed to the problems faced by the churches in England. And we were talking about the era of the 1960s and 1970s. The young no longer went to church. How could the church attract the young and make them return to the fold? The young of the 1960s and 1970s had this passion for music, as they still do today. Why not then introduce music into the churches? This would attract them to return to the churches, if not for their love for God at least for their love of music. Once they return to the churches, though due to the music, then God’s message could be relayed to them, through music.

Mustafa laughed. This may be fine as far as the English churches are concerned. But this certainly would not be acceptable to mosques in Malaysia.

Sure. But we are not talking about rock or heavy metal music. We are talking about ‘religious’ music, something similar to the Christian gospel music, which of course had not been ‘invented’ yet 25 years ago.

Mustafa was not convinced. Certainly Islam could not be promoted through music, music of any kind. This is just not Islamic culture.

A few years later, I think it was a decade or so later, the Malaysian government banned the Al Arqam movement and detained its leaders under the Internal Security Act. Some members of the movement moved on and continued their propagation of Islam through Nashid music, a sort of Islamic ‘gospel’ music. And from this was born the first Nashid group, Raihan, which took the country by storm.

(I attended the recording session of Raihan’s first album at the Utusan Light and Sound recording studio and I was smitten. The music sounded great, the harmonizing fabulous. I was captivated. I knew Raihan had a winner on its hands).

Since then, scores of Nashid groups have emerged, some Raihan wannabees and look-alikes, and others with identities and styles of their own. Today, propagating Islam through music is not just acceptable but in fact quite popular. The harmonizing of some of those Nashid groups is almost at par with that of the Bee Gees and definitely most pleasant and soothing to the ears.

The second issue I debated with Mustafa was about the presentation and packaging of PAS. And to support this argument I used a combination of logic and theology.

We are told, I argued, that Gabriel came down to earth to teach Prophet Muhammad the first verse of the Koran. Gabriel, of the angel species, was such a frightening sight that the Prophet ran home to his wife and became sick.

We are also told, I argued, that humankind is such a weak creature while the angels are perfect. Why then did God choose humans as prophets instead of angels, who because of their perfection and lack of weaknesses would certainly make better prophets?

I answered my own question to the amusement of Mustafa. Imagine Prophet Muhammad getting so sick with fright on sighting an angel. Would not all of humankind react in that same manner? No man or woman would allow an angel to get close to him or her, let alone listen to or follow it. Therefore, it needed a fellow human to do the job, a creature similar in looks and nature. If not, there is no way another human could identify and associate with the Prophet if it was a creature so diverse in every way.

“Now, can you imagine PAS in that same situation?” I asked Mustafa. The PAS leaders are dressed in turbans and long robes. We younger set (and I was about 30 then so I could qualify as young) who dress in jeans and T-shirts (which I still do today) would find PAS strange and different. Just as humans fear the very sight of angels, so would the young fear the sight of PAS leaders.

Give us jeans, give us music, and we would be most comfortable in that environment. But classify jeans and music as the devil’s culture and anti-Islamic, then we would keep our jeans and music and reject PAS. A preacher riding a Harley, dressed in jeans and leather jacket, would be able to mingle with the younger set. One in a turban and robe would find it hard going.

The third issue that I raised was about the very objective of PAS. What is PAS? Is it a political party or a missionary movement? Certainly PAS is a political party and the purpose of any political party is to win elections. Politics is about the attainment of power, not about the propagation of religion.

Granted, there are those amongst PAS who wish to propagate Islam. Then let them do so through the many missionary groups. And Malaysia does have many. Let PAS focus on the core issue, and that is winning elections.

Winning elections is not achieved through propagating Islam. It is done through winning the hearts and minds of the voters. And, to be able to win the hearts and minds of the voters, we must first find out what they want. And after we know what they want, we then have to cater and pander to their needs.

Voters want a stable and growing economy. Voters want freedom of choice. Voters want a clean and just government. Voters want progress and development. Voters want a peaceful and safe nation. Voters want laws that are consistent with and which comply with the Federal Constitution and not laws that breach or violate the Constitution. Voters want equality. Voters want a judiciary that can guarantee them a last bastion in seeking redress and justice and not one that can be manipulated and panders to the whims of the powers-that-be. And so on and so forth.

Can PAS guarantee the voters all this and much more? And can the guarantee given by PAS be accepted at face value? In short, can the voters trust PAS to both keep and deliver its promise?

Of course, I am talking about PAS here because this is a debate I engaged Mustafa in 25 years ago when Parti Keadilan Rakyat did not exist yet. But this same argument could easily apply to keADILan today.

Maybe 25 years ago what I argued did not make sense. Today, many of this has become reality. The question now to ask would be: adakah nasi dah jadi bubur (has the rice already turned to porridge)? Is it too late for PAS to do anything about it? Can PAS still change its fortunes?

Only PAS can answer this question. But it would all depend on the political will of the party. Does it indeed want to regain lost ground? Does it want to be the new political force in Malaysia? Does it want to be second to Umno? Does it want to retain Kelantan and recapture Terengganu, and maybe add some other states to the list of states under its control?

One thing all must remember is that there are two things most dear to the hearts of Malaysians of any ethnicity and religious persuasion. And these two things are race and religion. Unless these two issues can be addressed to the satisfaction of the voters, there is no way PAS, or any party for that matter, can win the hearts and minds of the voters.

So, address these issues. Satisfy the voters that you have a fair and just solution to these nagging problems. Assure the voters that your word is good and that this is not mere rhetoric aimed at vote fishing. If you can do this, then you have a future. But if you cannot successfully restore your credibility, then your future is certainly most bleak.

A successful PAS means a successful opposition. A dead PAS would mean a dead opposition. And DAP and keADILan are part of this opposition; so their fortunes are tied to PAS just like Siamese twins.

PAS must not speak as PAS. DAP must not speak as DAP. And keADILan must not speak as keADILan. PAS, DAP and keADILan must speak as one. At the moment, they are not. And most likely they never will. So expect the Barisan Nasional to rule forever.

And this will not be so because the BN is strong. It will be so because the opposition is weak and directionless.