Understanding PAS’ historic rise beyond the ‘Taliban’ narrative

Prominent academic Chandra Muzaffar says the Malay voting pattern has always been rational, and what happened in the recent polls is a repeat of 1999 but on a larger scale.

(MalaysiaNow) – In the run-up to the 1999 general election, where one of the most fractious election campaigns was held just a year after the dramatic sacking of Anwar Ibrahim, a major media blitz was launched targeting mainly PAS, which had then gained from the exodus of Malay support from Umno.

Print and broadcast media, still considered “mainstream” in the absence of a fully fledged online media or social media culture as now seen, began carrying images and articles depicting the Islamist party as represented by rabble-rousing mullahs out to turn Malaysian into a theological state.

It also warned non-Muslims against supporting DAP, seen an ally of the reformasi movement alongside PAS.

The campaign was most visible in media outlets where the bulk of the audience were non-Malays – considered by the Umno-led government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a key demography to beat back the rising influence of PAS at the ballot box.

To an extent, the intended result was achieved. While PAS, which had an understanding with DAP, won handsomely in Malay-dominated seats, DAP took a lashing among its traditional vote banks, with even party stalwarts such as Karpal Singh and Lim Kit Siang losing their seats.

More than two decades later, the narrative of PAS as “extremist” has been repeated, although more amplified in the aftermath of the general election, and through informal channels such as chatter and comments posted on social media.

A few of the accusations came from PAS’ enemies, most notably the controversial comments by DAP’s Nga Kor Ming, who said PAS would deny non-Muslim rights while pushing for extremist policies such as those by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Prominent sociopolitical observer Chandra Muzaffar, who was among those at the centre of the 1999 election, said such a label on PAS was not only unfair, but also showed the failure of its critics to study the party’s seven-decade history.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Chandra zeroed in on Nga’s comments.

“It shows he doesn’t understand PAS at all,” he said, adding that a quick study of both PAS and the Taliban would put to rest such allegations.

The well-documented repression of women by the Taliban is nowhere to be found in PAS, as the party’s Muslimat wing has been an inseparable part of its decision making.

Chandra said the fact that the majority of tertiary-level students in Kelantan are female, after more than three decades of PAS rule in the state, would also debunk the “PAS is Taliban” slogan.

“This is different from the Taliban. And if we look at Kelantan’s economic power, who controls most of it? It is women,” he added.

Chandra said from the early stages of independence, PAS was already far ahead among Islamic political movements in recruiting women leaders.

He cited the example of Khadijah Sidek, who was the head of PAS’ Kaum Ibu in the 1950s, and went on to become the Johor PAS chief.

Khadijah, who died in 1982, was known as the “Puteri Kesatria Bangsa” (princess knight of the nation).

In 1959, she became the first female MP from PAS after winning the Dungun seat in Terengganu.

Chandra said that Taliban policies, especially its past ban on women’s involvement in education, were a far cry from the attitude of Muslims elsewhere.

He said the fact was that Muslims had developed education for women even before the modern West’s ideas of women liberation.

He added that disagreements could be held with PAS on many issues.

“But if we want to criticise, it must be based on facts and what really happened,” he said, adding that it was disappointing that Nga had been promoted to a minister.

Chandra said the fear of PAS was based on the assumption that it would impose laws affecting people’s lifestyle, such as a ban on concerts.

But he pointed out that the reason behind PAS’ historic gains in the recent polls, where it won the most seats by any individual party, was a manifestation of the majority of Malays’ disappointment with Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN).

“This is an anti-Umno vote, not a pro-PAS vote. There is no cause for worry. It is a phenomenon that we can understand. When the Malays are disappointed with Umno, they don’t trust it due to corruption and abuse, which is why they switched to PAS.”

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