The PAS dilemma – to talk or not to talk

THE majority view among the Malays seems to be for PAS and Umno to sit down and discuss Malay and Muslim unity. PAS’ spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat may find it foolhardy to ignore that sentiment.

By Baradan Kuppusamy, The Star

IN his stringent opposition to the PAS-Umno unity talks, PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat may have bitten off more than he can chew.

One question the PAS rank and file are asking is why he can agree to PAS forming a coalition government with secular DAP and multi-racial PKR but opposes “discussions” with Umno which, unlike the DAP, is Malay and Muslim, just like PAS.

“Why can’t Muslims come together and talk about cooperation, Malay unity and Islam?” asked a PAS Supreme Council member who supports “unity talks” with Umno and others.

It is a question the venerated Tok Guru has difficulty answering except to say that going by precedent, Umno could not be trusted.

“When they need us they embrace us. When they don’t, they stab us in the back,” Nik Aziz said on Thursday when answering questions on why he opposes co-operation with Umno.

His distrust of Umno goes back to the early 1970s when PAS was nearly destroyed after it joined Barisan, quarrelled with Umno and left beaten and destitute.

As a consequence, PAS split in 1978 with one faction led by former Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Mohamad Nasir, forming Parti Berjasa and another under former PAS president Tan Sri Mohamed Asri Muda, forming Parti Hamim.

The two parties sided with Umno and constantly attacked PAS, causing considerable damage to the party in the 1978 general election.

It was emerging religious leaders like Nik Aziz who pulled the party out of the doldrums and instituted kepimpinan ulama (rule by clerics) as the party’s guiding leadership principle.

Nik Aziz went on to become the party’s Murshidul Am or spiritual adviser but the early experiences with Umno still colour his views and influence his decisions.

The ulamas have always believed that Umno was the hidden hand behind the disaster they suffered in the 1970s. The Tok Guru had always been in the forefront of opposition to any “coming together” of the two premier Malay parties – Umno and PAS.

As the public face of the “unity talks” with Umno, the newly-elected PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa has come under fire from Nik Aziz and his supporters in PAS and the Pakatan Rakyat.

Pakatan leaders like DAP chairman Karpal Singh, who fear that PAS and Umno getting together would spell the end of the Pakatan alliance, are equally vociferous in asking for Nasharudin’s head.

Nasharudin’s mentor, president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, is returning on Sunday from London where he regularly travels to for consultation with world-renowned jurists in the Ikwan Muslimin brotherhood on the options open to an Islamic party confronted with difficult choices.

A series of meetings will be held both within PAS and among Pakatan partners, on his return, to discuss the issue.

But the issue is fundamental to a Muslim party like PAS and beyond any individual. Merely chastising individuals who support dialogue with Umno and demanding for their resignation would not resolve the fundamental differences.

PAS has always been at odds with itself over whether it is primarily a Malay party that should defend and promote Malay interests or essentially a party that is driven by the Quran and exists to promote and propagate Islam.

Where the line is between defending Malay and promoting Islam was never an issue because PAS was confined to the Malay Muslim heartland states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

But after the victories of 2008 and with its active co-operation with secular allies in Pakatan, PAS which is evolving into a national party with ambitions to lead the country, is faced with a dilemma.

With the once formidable Umno/Barisan coalition considerably weakened there is rising demand in Malay society for both PAS and Umno to co-operate to “regain” Malay strength and not let the Pakatan, which is seen as “secular and non-Malay” gain strength.

While Umno sees dialogue with PAS as strengthening Malay unity, advocates of dialogue in PAS see it as promoting Muslim unity and providing an opportunity to outsmart Umno, move a step ahead and possibly lead the nation.

Under the circumstances Nik Aziz might be running against the mood in Malay society that is clamouring for PAS-Umno accommodation with his outbursts against Nasharudin and Umno.

PAS is already deeply divided over the issue especially with about half of PAS’ 23 MPs openly declaring their support for Nik Aziz.

Taking any action like sacking Nasharudin would only worsen matters for PAS. Besides, it is facing Umno in a by-election battle in Manek Urai next month.

Nik Aziz’s fears for PAS in any deal with Umno are real but he cannot ignore the growing demand among Malays for co-operation and an end to the PAS-Umno enmity.

Such co-operation, if it materialises, would leave its Pakatan allies out in the cold.