PAS goes on soul-searching trip

By Karim Raslan, The Star

PAS in the midst of an ambitious push into “Middle Malaysia”. The victory in June, of the party’s progressives – dubbed the Erdogans after the visionary Turkish Premier, Racep Erdogan – in internal party elections seemed to herald an era of multi-racial leadership.

However, recent events and more, especially PAS’, hesitant and divided response to the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais) raid on the DUMC church would suggest that the party is not ready for prime-time.

Indeed, the Islamist party is more divided than many would realise and this divide reflects a community-wide level of uncertainty.

Frankly speaking, the Malay community is unsure whether it wants to proceed down the road to greater equality among the races.

Much of the support for the Opposition is driven by anger at corruption and abuse of power – two areas in which PAS remains relatively strong and credible.

As a matter of fact, the recent Jais raid on a function by the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) raises significant questions over PAS’ – and by extension Pakatan Rakyat’s – commitment to pluralism.

The former’s divided approach – with Selangor exco Hassan Ali supporting the raid and Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad condemning it – indicates that the Islamist party’s much-vaunted move to the centre has not been as smooth as their insiders wish us to believe.

The raid should also alarm moderate voters, as it came just weeks after the PAS-led Kedah Government initially announced a ban on entertainment outlets during Ramadan without consulting its Pakatan partners.

Indeed, these incidents are clear signals that a struggle is now on-going for the “soul” of the party, over whether it should adopt a more broad-based approach or seek refuge in the traditional boundaries of championing racial and religious supremacy. But some caveats are necessary here.

First, as a largely Malay party, PAS is not immune from familial considerations and factionalism.

Hence, when pundits talk of “internal disputes”, we must take care to ascertain whether these are really over ideology or merely dynastic and cabalistic manoeuvrings. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that things are rarely as they seem.

In the last party elections, the PAS moderates (or Erdogans) triumphed over the conservatives.

Khalid, who belongs to this group, won a seat in the party CWC together with Hassan, but the latter was dropped from his Selangor Commissioner post.

Hence, this latest spat could be an attempt by PAS conservatives to re-assert themselves after the rout.

Moreover, Hassan has stressed that he is willing to lose his position in the party defending Islam – the insinuation being that some of his party members are not committed to “upholding” their faith to the utmost.

Second, Jais and the other Islamic establishments in Malaysia often act independently from political control.

Malaysians ought to be questioning bodies like Jais – who seem to claim a sort of immunity from public scrutiny in religious matters – as much as elected officials.

The sad fact is that civil servants are as much a part of the problem, if not more than politicians, in this and other issues.

Still, this should not distract us from the real issues facing PAS.

Hassan and Khalid are emerging as the public “faces” of the party as the careers of Hadi Awang and Nik Abdul Aziz draw to a close.

PAS needs to decide, and very quickly at that, which of the vastly different political visions these men embody it wants for itself.

If it is serious about its push to the centre, and of championing a “welfare state” with “Islam for all”, then it cannot countenance such heavy-handed actions or rhetoric as per the DUMC raid wherever or whenever it occurs.

To dither over making difficult choices or taking unpopular but right stands (i.e. refusing to accept “my race/religion right or wrong”), would be a betrayal of the non-Muslim Malaysians, who are warming up to PAS.

It would also further alienate many progressive and urban-based Malays, many of whom are disgusted with the ruling party but are also wary of PAS’ desire to interfere in the public and personal sphere.

To be fair though, it could be that PAS is attempting a delicate balancing act, trying to maintain its rural and conservative base while flirting with Middle Malaysia’s exciting new possibilities and vote banks.

One can hardly blame them for that, and it is perhaps an indication of how schizophrenic the Malay political discourse has become – torn between the competing demands of tradition and modernisation.

We must also ask why its partner PKR has thus far remained silent on the issue – is its hesitation motivated by Anwar Ibrahim’s high-profile moral and legal troubles?

Still, Malaysians have wised up to the ways of the politicians and will not tolerate such disingenuousness in PAS or anyone else.

Voters will certainly punish the party if its talk of pluralism does not live up to its actions.

As I’ve said earlier, it is no longer possible to insulate ourselves from the multiracial make-up of our country as before.

Either we choose to embrace this and its associated implications, or cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.