A difference of opinion

(The Malaysian Insider) – Political witch hunts are among the most useless kinds of debate. Giving people a shelling, as many of us did to Insider columnist Hafiz Noor Shams last week, just because they believe something is a futile exercise.

John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at infernalramblings.com.

Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly once said that "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people." Hafiz may be mistaken in his support for Barisan Nasional, but let's discuss his ideas, and not just pick on Barisan supporters for what they believe.

First off, I want to clarify that I have personally known Hafiz for some time now, and I think he is a good person.

I don't agree with all his political beliefs, but that doesn't make him a political hack for Barisan who should be shunned. I don't make fun of or ignore my many friends and acquaintances who believe Barisan is still the best party around to lead the country, because I respect their point of view, which I know they have arrived at after careful thought.

Hafiz's column last week elucidated his opposition to the watered-down position of Pakatan parties on the hudud issue; Hafiz is an avowed secularist, and for him, it is a make-or-break issue. I too am a secularist, but even if I were not, I would have made an effort to see where he is coming from. In his write-up, Hafiz clearly explained why he cannot bring himself to support Pas in the upcoming Kuala Terengganu by-election.

There are good arguments for why even secularists should not abandon Pakatan just yet, but before we get to those, I really wonder why Hafiz's column created such an uproar.

Is it now a political crime to support a secular state, or to oppose Pakatan? Is this anything better than many Barisan politicians' practice of labeling their opponents as scumbags who hate the foundations of our country, and characterise any dissent towards the government as anti-Malaysian sentiment? Only a handful of people actually bothered to address Hafiz's thoughts; the rest decided to just call him names and accuse him of political thought crimes.

Hafiz is not mistaken just because he is a "closet BN supporter," as some charged him of being-and even if he was, why would this matter?

Are people from the other side automatically always in the wrong? If we want to be taken seriously, we must accord our fellow Malaysians the same respect for their views as we demand from them.

I disagree with Hafiz, not because I am a blind Pakatan-lover or Barisan-hater, but because I think he has misunderstood the intentions of Pas politicians with regard to the hudud law.

Yes, Pas supports an Islamic state and the establishment of Islamic law. This has always been clear and how things will remain for the foreseeable future.

But Pas supporting Islamic law is very different from Pas insisting that it will not participate in the Pakatan coalition unless the other Pakatan parties also duly support it.

We should not be too worried about the stances of individual parties; we ought to be more worried about the overall position Pakatan MPs will likely take. If there were a real chance that Pas could get a Bill enacting hudud law passed, then I would share Hafiz's concern. There is no chance, however, that a majority of Pakatan MPs would vote for such a law.

Moreover, Pas is not stupid; it knows that this is exactly what will happen. Pas has always insisted that although it will always support a greater role for Islam in public life, the extent of its success will always depend on whether the other component parties in PR agree.

Husam Musa, the Pas Vice-President who made the recent controversial remarks on hudud, said so himself (though this was often buried in an unobtrusive paragraph in most media reports). Pas recognises that other Pakatan parties probably do not share its position, and respects their right to disagree.

If Pas took a hardline, intolerant position towards dissent from the Islamic line, then we would really have reason to worry. Were Pas insisting it would pull out from Pakatan if the DAP and PKR refused to relent, we would rightly be concerned for the stability of the Pakatan state governments and that PKR or the DAP might cave to the hardline demands of Pas.

But Pas, for all its bluster, is still led by pragmatic politicians.

There is a big difference between believing something, and forcing that belief on others. I think of all people, Hafiz himself should be well acquainted with this principle-heck, we all should be, considering that we live in such a plural society. Pas believes that enacting the hudud law is the right thing to do; most Malaysians do not. Pas has however shown no sign of trying to coerce those who disagree vehemently, like many DAP leaders, into joining their ranks.

I disagree with Hafiz's conclusion about Pas and Pakatan not because he is a filthy Barisan supporter (I really don't even think he is one).

No, I disagree with Hafiz not out of any personal problem with him, but because I think he has misread the situation. The important thing about the hudud issue is not whether Pas is making noise about it, because it will always be reassuring its hardcore base of supporters that it remembers its roots.

The important test is whether or not Pas wants to force the hand of the other Pakatan component parties to the point that they cannot work together anymore. If you ask me, so far that is a test they have passed with flying colours.