How Malaysia’s right-wing Islamist party became the country’s best hope for political reform

It was an odd turn for Malaysia’s competing political parties: The ostensibly secular UMNO was stoking Muslim outrage, while PAS, which was founded half a century ago with the stated goal of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state guided by the Quran, was calling for interfaith understanding.

BY DUSTIN ROASA, Foreign Policy

On Dec. 31 of last year, a Catholic newspaper with a circulation of less than 15,000 found itself at the heart of a major controversy in Malaysia. In 2007, the government had ordered the Kuala Lumpur-based Herald to stop using “Allah” to refer to a non-Islamic God, as the paper — located in a majority-Muslim country — had been doing for years. The paper sued, and when the case finally made its way to the High Court, a judge sided with the Herald and overturned the ban.

Protests followed immediately, with masked men on motorbikes firebombing several churches and demonstrators taking to the streets. Tension between the country’s Muslim Malay majority and its Chinese and Indian minorities was already at a low boil, thanks to Malaysia’s ruling coalition and its dominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Through policies such as pro-Malay affirmative action, the government had attempted to exploit the country’s ethnic divisions in order to deflect attention from its economic mismanagement and corruption.

But as Muslim anger with the Allah case boiled over, an unlikely ally came to the paper’s defense: Malaysia’s opposition Islamist party, the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). PAS President Abdul Hadi bin Awang (above) publicly supported the paper’s right to use the word. “PAS would like to state that, based on Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism is acceptable,” he said.

It was an odd turn for Malaysia’s competing political parties: The ostensibly secular UMNO was stoking Muslim outrage, while PAS, which was founded half a century ago with the stated goal of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state guided by the Quran, was calling for interfaith understanding. Yet it fit an emerging pattern. In the last five years, PAS has been moderating its onetime deeply conservative stance in order to reach out to non-Muslim Indian and Chinese voters, who account for nearly a third of the population.

The tactics have paid off. PAS has attracted more than 20,000 non-Muslim members, astonishing for a country where political parties are strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines. The support helped the party, along with its partners in the opposition People’s Pact coalition, win an historic one-third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 national election, denying the UMNO a two-thirds majority for the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Many Malaysian political observers are predicting that the opposition will finally wrest power from the UMNO-led ruling coalition in the next election, due by 2013.

But that victory is contingent on PAS’s ability to perform a delicate balancing act. The party must convince its Muslim base that it is not abandoning its religious principles while quelling fears among non-Muslims that it is a radical party bent on scrapping Malaysia’s secular constitution.

“I’ve always looked at the Islamic basis of the party as inclusive in nature,” Khalid Samad, a PAS reformer and member of parliament, told me recently. “The party is for the benefit of all, not just Muslims.” I had traveled to Kuala Lumpur’s predominantly Indian neighborhood of Brickfields to have lunch at a local hotel restaurant with Khalid and Hu Pang Chau, the Chinese head of the non-Muslim wing of PAS. The two men are a driving force behind PAS’s recent transformation, the second major shift in the party’s history.

Originally a branch of UMNO, PAS broke away as an independent party in 1955 as a challenge UMNO’s secularism. It was the first Islamist party in Southeast Asia — and one of the first in the world — to come to power through elections, winning more than a dozen parliamentary seats and control of two state governments in Malaysia’s first election after independence. But while PAS officially supported the establishment of an Islamic state, in its early years it did so only vaguely, preferring instead to emphasize Malay identity over religion.

Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which convinced Muslims around the world — including Khalid, who at the time was studying in Britain alongside Muslim peers from the Middle East and India — that Islam could be a political force. Following the Iranian example, PAS replaced its professional leaders with ulama, or religious scholars. By the early 1980s, the party was openly calling for an Islamic Malaysia.

The agenda sat poorly with UMNO’s Mohamad bin Mahathir, who won election as prime minister in 1981 and proceeded to rule for 22 years. Mahathir was openly contemptuous of PAS and often had its members — including Khalid — arrested under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act. At the same time, he worked to co-opt the Muslim vote, in part by enlisting popular Islamic activists to help the party. The tactics had the effect of pushing PAS further to the right in an effort to distinguish itself from the ruling party. By the early 2000s the party was once again aggressively touting its Islamist credentials.

By the 2004 parliamentary election, however, PAS’s piety had become a political liability. Mahathir had stepped down as prime minister, but PAS was ill-placed to fill the vacuum he left behind; Malaysia’s moderate Muslims and non-Muslims had come to embrace the progressive, development-focused Islam touted by Mahathir’s replacement, Abdullah Badawi. The party took a drubbing at the polls that year, winning only seven seats.

After some soul searching, the PAS leadership attributed the poor showing to its overtly Islamist stance and failure to attract young and non-Muslim voters. “Most non-Muslims, especially those in the Chinese community, would tell you that PAS are fundamentalists and extremists,” Hu told me over lunch, as we looked out over a tangle of high-rise construction sites in Brickfields. “If you support PAS, everyone will have to convert to Islam and give up speaking their mother tongue.” PAS’s political niche sat awkwardly with the multiculturalism of modern Malaysia: “If you are interested in governing a nation that only has mosques and doesn’t have temples or pig farms or alcohol, then you are restricting yourself to governing Mecca or Medina,” Khalid said, to booming laughs from Hu.


So just as it had in the early 1980s, PAS again began replacing its leadership — this time with younger, more progressive activists. The party turned accordingly from religious purity to pragmatism. Party leaders toned down their Islamist rhetoric and began speaking instead about civil liberties and electoral reform. In 2005 it formed a multi-ethnic coalition with the secular People’s Justice Party and the Chinese Democratic Action Party.

But PAS’s reputation for conservatism is hardly unfounded. It has sent mixed signals about the compatibility of democracy and Islam over its 50-year history, most recently in its “2003 Document,” a communiqué designed to clarify the party’s definition of an Islamic state. While the document notes PAS’s commitment to working within the framework of parliamentary democracy, it states that sharia must be the “law of the land” and that “Islam is the solution to all human problems.” While PAS leaders later privately admitted that the brief had become a political liability, the party has never publicly disowned it. “They have quietly allowed the document to fade into the background of party politics,” said Dr. Joseph Liow, a Malaysia expert and author of Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia.

The party’s political base remains the Malay belt, a group of states with an overwhelmingly rural and Muslim population. In Kelantan, where PAS controls the state government, it has tried to implement the Islamic hudud penal code, which calls for adulterers to be stoned and thieves to be punished with amputation. No one has been sentenced as such — the federal government would likely intervene if they were — but strict social controls are enforced, including segregation of the sexes in public and restrictions on alcohol and gambling.

The UMNO-run government has stoked Malaysia’s non-Muslim minority’s fears of this kind of rule, linking PAS to radicalism in the government-controlled broadcast media by, among other things, running a prime-time television commercial that showed PAS leaders interspersed with text about the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan. In response, PAS has made some very public displays of tolerance, including supporting the Catholic Herald. Hu does outreach work in the Chinese community, where he says fear of PAS has softened, and Khalid has made public visits to churches, temples and pig farms — sometimes to the outrage of Muslims.

These controversies point to a very real contradiction at the heart of the party as it attempts to adapt to the realities of modern Malaysia. Conservatives in PAS see the Malay belt as the party’s natural constituency, while reformers like Khalid are attempting to court voters in Malaysia’s rapidly expanding cities, where religion and ethnic identity matter less than concerns about jobs and government corruption. This has created fissures within the party. “Some say that we must highlight the Malay agenda” — the concerns of ethnic Malays irrespective of religion – “and the Islam agenda,” Khalid told me. “There are still some differences of opinion on this issue today. It’s an awkward situation.”

Who wins the argument hinges largely on how the party does in the next national election, the first since PAS’s major gains of 2008. If PAS and the rest of the opposition perform as well as expected, reformers like Khalid will be vindicated. If not, the party’s conservatives will no doubt look to reassert their authority. The ruling coalition has complicated things with its prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim, an UMNO politician turned opposition leader. In 2008, the government charged Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who is now head of the People’s Justice Party, with having sex with a male aide. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison and the probable end of his political career. The PAS-led opposition would lose its most credible candidate for prime minister, and most likely its short-term political hopes as well.

Even if UMNO wins the next election, however, the party’s long-term prospects for holding onto power are dim. “Malaysia is on the cusp of major change,” Liew Chin Tong, an essayist and parliamentarian for the opposition Democratic Action Party, told me. “The ruling party is refusing to live in a competitive environment, and the atmosphere has become very poisonous. The major shift is that non-Muslims no longer feel that PAS is an extreme party.” For the first time, voters in Malaysia have a viable — which is to say multi-ethnic — alternative to UMNO, and confidence is high that the opposition’s time has finally come. “For all of UMNO’s talk of being secular, it practices a very bigoted form of Islam,” Khalid said. “This can only go on for so long.”