Death of PAS leader leaves party facing difficult decisions

Fadzil Mohammad Noor, president of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and parliamentary opposition leader, died on June 23, two weeks after undergoing heart-bypass surgery.

His death comes at a time when the party he led is struggling against accusations of militancy since the crackdown on ‘Islamic terrorism’ by the Malaysian government. But his departure also comes at the height of PAS’s prominence; under his leadership the party has become a force to be reckoned with.

Fadzil, 65, was last seen at the PAS annual muktamar in May, held in the northeast Kelantan state it controls. There he spoke on the need for Islamic activists to be innovative in facing future challenges after a worldwide campaign against the Islamic movement. Hailed as the voice of a ‘moderate’ in PAS by many political analysts, Fadzil displayed enormous courage and strength of leadership when PAS was suddenly thrust into the limelight following the sudden dismissal of then prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. Perhaps the person who will feel the loss most will be Anwar himself, who is now serving his sentence after court trials that exposed the country’s judiciary.

Noor’s leadership ensured that PAS, rather than isolating itself, seized the disarray and vacuum in UMNO to put the Islamic agenda into the waves of opposition against Mahathir’s injustices. Through Fadzil’s levelheaded leadership, PAS converted the Malays’ anger into support for the Islamic ideal. For this, Fadzil was initially criticised and warned that he was falling into the same trap by engaging those former UMNO leaders like Anwar who had once deserted him by joining Mahathir’s government. Others said that Fadzil was acting as Anwar’s spokesman, and warned his leadership against support for Anwar’s reformasi movement. But Fadzil maintained that the struggle for justice knows no personal vendetta.

The criticisms, however, had to do with Fadzil’s connection with ABIM, the radical ‘Islamist’ students’ movement of the seventies, in which he served as deputy president when Anwar was its president. He was ABIM’s acting president in 1974 when Anwar, then a student activist, was arrested under the Internal Security Act for organising demonstrations against poverty in Kedah. Years passed and both men went their separate ways. Anwar joined Mahathir’s government, dealing a blow to ABIM, whose influence has since declined, and PAS. When Anwar was removed, Fadzil surprised many by visiting him at his home. In fact, when Anwar was on the threshold of power and ready to replace Mahathir as prime minister, many predicted that Fadzil would join hands with Anwar and bring his party into government. Whether or not that would have happened was a question left answered by Anwar’s fall from grace, and by Fadzil’s speedy rise to the opposition leadership.

Fadzil led PAS at a time when the party was transformed from a village ‘anti-government party’ to a national opposition force. Its membership increased to almost a million, largely due to the Malays’ anger over the Anwar affair. Scores of young professionals and middle-class Malay Muslims began to attend its road shows and read its paper, Harakah, whose readership has now grown to a staggering 1.5 million. It was during this period that PAS owed its survival to Fadzil’s leadership, trying to adjust to the new realities of power after the dramatic increase in support that led to its taking over two important states in the north, Kelantan and Terengganu.

Yet with power also come many challenges and compromises, namely having to work within the narrow confines of ‘democracy’ as dictated by the Mahathir government. Fadzil perhaps knew of these disadvantages of working within the system, which was why his leadership often refused to bow to the ‘moderates’ within the opposition front he led, who wanted PAS to be more accommodating.

Despite being president of PAS, Fadzil himself did not enjoy any personal following, unlike the party’s two other leaders, Ustad Abdul Hadi Awang, the deputy president who now heads the government of Terengganu, and PAS supreme leader Nik Abdul Nik Mat, the widely respected chief minister of Kelantan. Yet he was always sought after to diffuse crises within the party that resulted from differences among PAS leaders. Fadzil will not be remembered as someone who made fiery speeches, nor did he often speak on religion or issue fatwas, for he did not have the reputation of a “Tok Guru” (revered teacher), as many past PAS presidents have. He was nevertheless loved by all, and this was shown when tens of thousands thronged the hospital compound upon hearing news of his death. His janazah was forced to inch its way through a sea of mourners, with several imams taking turns to lead repeated janazah prayers to accommodate the swelling crowd.

Fadzil, who had been president of PAS since 1989, was married to Siti Khadijah Ibrahim; they had eight children. He made his debut in active politics when he contested the Kuala Kedah parliamentary seat and the Alor Merah state seat in 1978 but lost both. In 1980 he contested the Bunga Raya state seat and won. Three years later he was elected as deputy president of PAS. Fadzil again came into prominence in the aftermath of the Kampung Memali massacre, which took place in his home state of Kedah. It was perhaps the most challenging time in his career, he having to counter huge government propaganda against his party. In 1999 he won both Anak Bukit state seat and Pendang parliamentary constituency, and was elected as opposition leader.

Like many other PAS leaders, Fadzil was educated at al-Azhar in Egypt, was fluent in Arabic, and graduated in Shari’ah. In the 1970s he taught at the University of Technology of Malaysia, before he was dismissed because of his involvement in opposition politics. Despite a court ruling that his dismissal was illegal Fadzil decided that the academic world was not for him, and went into active politics with PAS.

Unlike UMNO, however, the loss of one of its top leaders may not be a disaster for PAS. Like many of its counterparts within the global Islamic movement, PAS does not depend on personality-worship that invites power struggle to fill the vacuum. This is in vivid contrast with UMNO, whose president’s 55-minute resignation from all party posts on June 22 created pandemonium at the party’s general assembly, and reflecting badly on UMNO’s ability to carry on without Mahathir.

It is a general rule of PAS that the deputy president assumes the presidency. Whether or not Abdul Hadi Awang can lead the party, during a critical period for the global Islamic movement, will be discovered by the experiences of the months ahead.