Malaysia’s PAS facing pressure to change tack because of association with Anwar Ibrahim

The rise and fall of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) seem to be tied to its arch-rival United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Now that UMNO’s worst crisis is over with the end of the Anwar Ibrahim saga, all indications are that PAS is declining, with even party leaders becoming defensive when trying to answer accusations that the party has lost its direction.

If conversations with PAS supporters and feedback sent over the internet are any indication, this decline is real. PAS’s basis for existence –” to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia –” is under threat as it prepares to try to regain its support after the Anwar Ibrahim saga. The departure of both the Anwar saga and its chief player, Mahathir Mohamad, from the political limelight have put PAS back to where it used to be: on the fringe of the system, merely an opposition political party with its own set of leaders and views.

Now that Mahathir is gone, the question is what PAS can do to make its way back to mainstream politics. Right now there is not much sign that this will happen, except that its leaders are seen to be increasingly tying the party’s political destiny to Anwar Ibrahim, the man whom many political analysts will not discount just yet as a possible future prime minister, either through the opposition or through the ruling UMNO, the party which once ostracised him. Given the short memories in politics, either scenario is possible.

Anwar will have to be content with the opposition camp for the time being. Being on the other side of the fence after so long in the government is something he has been reluctant to do, believing that the opposition cannot come to power, at least in his lifetime. With little idea of what he should do, Anwar is postponing his immediate planning by paying more attention to topics such as “inter-civilizational dialogue” and preaching “democracy” and “freedom” in Muslim societies. Clearly his portrayal of a man concerned with global issues is overshadowed by his domestic ambitions, and many of his audience are more curious about his plans in Malaysia than about his new interest in “bridging the West-Islam divide”.

Like it or not, Anwar and the party he advises are now closely aligned with PAS, under what used to be known as the Alternative Front. This poses a lot of problems for him personally, especially because he feels he has to engage the world’s interest, for instance by meeting right-wing leaders from Washington and shady European think tanks, that would all like to groom him as a “moderate Muslim leader”. Anwar’s around-the-world trip to meet political leaders and his friends who occupy key posts in Washington and Europe had a twofold and win-win objective: his recruitment in the West’s effort to groom him as an agent of ‘change’ before he takes power; and to make the point that PAS is not a “fundamentalist” Islamic party, as Western leaders fear, but a liberal and democratic party which the West could “work with” should it come to power.

His ties with PAS are one of the hurdles he has to clear for the sake of his otherwise more than cordial relations with Western leaders. While Anwar might view them as a liability as he travels to Washington and Europe, where he can be “grilled” on his alliance with a fundamentalist, anti-Western party like PAS, in Malaysia he is perceived as being in the same camp as PAS because of its championing his cause during his six-year imprisonment, during which the party mobilised people to sympathise with him through its once-popular tabloid Harakah.

That was then; now things have changed. With the crisis largely gone from public memory, PAS is again left to fend for itself. After having tasted some sort of political power when it took control of two states and nearly formed state governments in two others, PAS lost heavily in elections last year. Now, with the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan, led by Anwar’s wife and sundry loyalists), PAS finds itself under increasing pressure to reformulate its agenda, even to repackaging its raison d’etre, the establishment of an Islamic state. Many regard PAS’s espousal of an Islamic state (especially during general elections) as the main reason that opposition parties could never be as united as the ruling coalition, and why the opposition alliance almost always collapses soon after elections. Non-Muslim politicians, secular Muslims and former UMNO strongmen, who are disgruntled with the current leadership, are now campaigning for PAS to change its stance on the aspiration for an Islamic state; in other words, to take the ballot-box more seriously. Some Keadilan leaders, including Anwar, have taken it on themselves to speak on behalf of PAS, trying to defend its Islamic state agenda, especially during interviews with the western media and in talks organised in the West, and at local gatherings attended by “moderate Muslims” and non-Muslims.

On May 10 Anwar Ibrahim was interviewed by the BBC in its Hardtalk programme. Anwar’s transformation from what is often called a “firebrand Islamic leader” to a “moderate Muslim” promoting “dialogue between Muslims and the West” was for the first time openly challenged. His relationship with the right-wing Bush administration (most notably with Paul Wolfowitz), and how he sells it to his supporters back home, were among the things he was questioned about. When asked whether he agrees with PAS’s struggle for an Islamic state, in a loaded question that implied that an Islamic state means denial of freedom to non-Muslims to practise their faith, Anwar’s answer only reinforced such perceptions: he said that PAS would work within a “constitutional guarantee” of freedom of religion to non-Muslims, as if there were no such guarantee in Islam.

While all this has been going on, the PAS leadership has been quiet. Many analysts and supporters have attributed this to a leadership vacuum, particularly since the death of Fadzil Noor, its previous president, in 2002, but there are other reasons: among them is PAS’s obsession with taking power from UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since the country was created. At the peak of PAS’s popularity, mainly because of the public’s anger against Mahathir over his treatment of Anwar, the leadership of PAS was not an issue.

As the party’s internal elections draw near, in which members will elect their leaders, the divisions are laid bare not by their age differences but by the gap of political maturity. Those who have been nominated for top positions include young leaders whose jobs have only been important during elections because of their aggressive campaigning style. ‘Traditional’ leaders such as Abdul Hadi Awang and Nik Abdul Aziz excepted, many in PAS would agree that their leaders are not really in tune with the party’s political perspective. Hadi and Nik Aziz, like the late Fadzil Noor, have performed well as a unifying force and are able to engage government leaders in debate. The new breed of leaders, some of whom are called ulama because of their Arabic education, risk further pushing PAS into”repackaging” its agenda to appease “secular Muslims” who are reluctant to vote for it despite their opposition to UMNO.

Speculation is rife that a set of new “ulama” and “professionals”, who joined PAS because of their anger about Anwar’s mistreatment, are set to take over the party’s leadership; there is also talk of plans to work more closely with Anwar, or even to bring him into PAS’s ranks. How PAS will deal with Anwar’s patronage by shady figures in Washington and with the West’s political interest in him is partly answered by the fact that some leaders of PAS have begun to speak about ‘image’ (an obsession among some Muslims since September 2001), rather than PAS’s role as a movement that could put pressure on the government of a Muslim-majority state. Some PAS leaders are holding private talks with American and Australian diplomats, and there seems to be a suspicious absence of key leaders at anti-US demonstrations.

The pressure on PAS to give up its Islamic-state ambitions may or may not alter the political landscape of Malaysia, where the Islamic and racial cards have ensured that the ruling coalition stays in power despite the challenges of those who oppose it. The question is whether the current leaders and activists in PAS, as well as the incoming “new blood”, will be able to tackle these challenges from within the Islamic intellectual framework, rather than by crude politicking and empty arguments. The Islamic state cannot be taken off the agenda of any Islamic movement; what varies is methods and what form the Islamic state is expected to take. It would be wise for PAS to be wary of the pressure, and re-evaluate its aspirations not apologetically but with a view to laying the foundation for Islamic states to emerge within complex realities such as those that obtain in Malaysia.

In ‘democracies’ such as Malaysia, the number of parliamentary seats and crowd attendances at public talks can be used to gauge a party’s support. Although these are both at present very low for PAS, its leadership should realise that they cannot be used to gauge how far it has progressed with its real work. It is only its ability to move on a higher intellectual plain that might bring PAS back to a respectable place in the eyes of Muslims in Malaysia and around the world.