Lesson in Pas history: M’sian public doesn’t like extremists

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A quick re-visit of Pas’ history from the 1980s to the present will show that the Malaysian public has never had much appetite for violent, extreme and exclusive political discourse and behaviour, be it from Pas or Umno, observes Farish Noor.

 

The repercussions of the somewhat clumsy attempt by some sections of Pas to call for the investigation, and possibly banning, of the Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam are still being felt today. Many questions have arisen in the wake of the proposal that was passed without debate at the recent Pas general assembly: How and why was the proposal passed as one of the ‘non-debated proposals’ in the first place? Why was it not vetted properly and why was it tabled at all? What does this say about the Pas’ internal cohesion and internal discipline? Does this proposal reflect just a faction of opinion among PAS members, or is it actually representative of the party as a whole? And what does this mean with regards to Pas’ avowed claims to be a modern party that supports the democratisation process and dialogue with others?

It is hard, to say the least, to believe that a party can be supportive of democracy if it starts by calling for the banning of NGOs even before it comes to power…

For now, however, we are left to watch the internal and external drama of Pas unfold as the party seeks to re-consolidate itself after what was clearly a hectic assembly for all. The lingering question of where Pas really stands and where it goes from here though will have to be addressed sooner than later.

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To help answer this question, we would like to propose a quick re-visit to the history of Pas from the 1980s to the present to illustrate a simple yet important point: namely, that the Malaysian public has never had much appetite for violent, extreme and exclusive political discourse and behaviour, be it from Pas or Umno.

In the 1980s, some of us will remember that Pas was heavily engaged in a fiery war of words with its nemesis Umno. The Pas leaders then – notably Yusof Rawa, Hadi Awang and Mat Sabu – were at the forefront of attacking and condemning Umno leaders – notably (now Tun) Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim. It was during this period that Umno and Pas both jointly raised the political temperature in the country, leading to the controversial kafir-mengafir episode where both sides were accusing the other side of being hypocrites (munafik), secular and un-Islamic. This culminated in a number of bitter incidents such as the killing of Ustaz Ibrahim ‘Libya’ Mahmood at the village of Memali in 1985 and the controversy around the book ‘Hadis’ by Kassim Ahmad some years later.

Pas then had gone onto overdrive with its fiery polemics against Umno, and Hadi Awang’s infamous proclamation that accused Pas’ opponents of being the enemies of Islam had done wonders to transform image of Pas into that of a violent and extremist party. At the 1986 elections, the result of this overheated rhetoric was obvious: Pas’ vote share dropped to 15.3 per cent and parliamentary seats to 0.6 per cent, winning only one seat.

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Then, as now, Pas was trying to court non-Muslim support in Malaysia through the Pas Chinese Consultative Councils (CCCs), but to no avail. The Malaysian public demonstrated that they were not able and willing to tolerate the violent oppositional dialectics of Umno and Pas, but were more worried about Pas’ language of jihad and kafirs.

Fast-forward to 2002 and we see a similar scenario in the off-ing. In the wake of Pas’ victory at the elections of 1999, an over-confident Pas took it upon itself to once again play the role of the ‘defenders of Islam’. In 2002, Muslim writers, academics and NGOs (including Sisters in Islam) were once again attacked and accused of all manner of things. In the same year, Pas declared its support for the Taliban in the most blatant manner when Pas members demonstrated in front of the US embassy with posters and banners that read “Taliban are our brothers”.

The rest of the Malaysian electorate, however, were not inclined to think of the Taliban as their brothers, and once again Pas was badly damaged at the elections of 2004.

These incidents demonstrate a simple fact: the Malaysian public may vote for Pas as a reaction against Umno, but this does not mean that the vote is a vote in support of an Islamic state, liberal-bashing or Taliban-supporting. Consistently the Malaysian public has shown that whenever Pas (or Umno) resorts to extreme communitarian politics and discourse, its votes will swing in the other direction.

Pas, like all political parties, has to learn the simple lesson of representative politics, and realise that the vote given to Pas in 2008 was given by the Malaysian public to the Pakatan Rakyat and what the Pakatan stands for: a new, freer, more democratic and plural Malaysia where diversity is respected and enhanced. The call for the investigation and possible banning of a Muslim women’s NGO like SIS on the spurious basis that it is ‘un-Islamic’ beggars belief, and makes a mockery of the Pakatan’s efforts thus far. But the ones who have the most to lose are Pas members themselves, who should always study their own history to learn from the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

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Pas has indeed come a long way, and no doubt will remain on the scene for a long time to come. We hope and pray that as it develops and evolves, Pas will evolve in tandem with the new spirit of the new Malaysia that we are trying to build, and not against it. Having learned from its history, Pas should not condemn itself to becoming a historical relic instead.

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