Malaysia’s Islamic Party on road to change?

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Judging by Pas’s
pragmatic record and successes in the past, the Islamist party may
yet surprise the sceptics by adapting its Islamist politics to suit
the needs and aspirations of the younger generation of Malaysian
voters who voted for the party, observes Farish Noor. These voters opted for Pas not because they wanted to see an
Islamic state in Malaysia, but rather to signal the coming of a new
Malaysian politics at last.


As
the dust settles in the wake of the recent elections in Malaysia,
many political observers are asking the question of whether the
coalition of opposition parties, who are ever so close to gaining an
upper hand in the Parliament, are actually about to come to power for
the first time. In the midst of this intense speculation, some
cynical voices are raising doubts about whether the opposition
coalition can actually gel together as a cohesive political alliance
and present themselves as a viable alternative to the now
increasingly-decrepit and redundant National Front (BN) coalition

The
reason for this apparent uncertainty lies in the composition of the
opposition front at the moment: Dominated for the first time by the
People’s Justice Party (PKR), the two other major component parties
of the opposition coalition happen to be the secular-democratic
Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamist party (Pas). Now that
this opposition coalition seems poised to take over the country, the
question is being asked: Can the Islamists of PAS work with their
secular-leftist comrades of the DAP and abandon their long-cherished
goal of creating an Islamic state in Malaysia ?

One
is struck by such a question as it is a loaded one from the outset.
It presupposes a certain fixity of discourse and modality on the part
of Islamist parties like Pas which apparently (or so it seems to be
suggested) is not present in other parties; but why should we assume
such a thing?

For
a start, a quick look at the track record of all Islamist parties
worldwide will show that they have all evolved and adapted to the
needs and interests of politics like any other party. While it is
true that religious-based parties (be they Islamist, Christian or
Hindu) have as their fundamental ideology an interpretation of their
respective religions seen through the lens of politics, it is
precisely this marriage of power and faith that leads to the
adaptation of religion for political ends. (Of course this is also
the reason why religious conservatives and purists do not relish the
politicisation of religion, as it leads to the instrumental use of
faith for political goals – but that is another story altogether.)

Looking
at the rise and fall of religious-based parties worldwide, we can see
how many of them have indeed compromised for the sake of politics.
The Hindu right-wing BJP party of India , for instance, clamoured for
a Hindu state and foregrounded the exclusive demands of Hindus
primarily as long as it was out of power. But during its brief spell
in government even the BJP was forced to adapt to the realities of
multi-religious India and made enormous concessions to win over the
support of Indian Muslims and Christians, in the end.

Likewise
many Islamist parties and movements in the Arab world have also made
the same sort of important and symbolic concessions to non-Muslims in
their bid for power. Even movements like Hamas and Hizbullah have
opened the channels of dialogue with Christians and other faith
communities, cognisant of the fact that there can be no real and
sustainable path to power without pragmatic compromise and
adaptation.

Malaysia’s
Islamist party Pas has made some electoral blunders in the past,
admittedly. But Pas also has a progressive past it can and should be
proud of, when the party was led by its most progressive leader Dr.
Burhanuddin al-Helmy in the 1960s.PAS was then widely seen as a
left-leaning Islamist party due to its strong anti-colonial stand,
its support of the trade union movement and its willingness to
support the Malayan Communist party in its struggle against British
colonialism. If Pas could have been so farward thinking in the past,
then what is stopping it from being as progressive today?

The
fact remains that the ruling National Front coalition (BN) in
Malaysia today is on its last legs and fifty years of race-based
communalist and divisive politics has finally taken its toll on the
country. Malaysia and Malaysians have voted for change and it looks
as if the time for that change is drawing closer. Judging by Pas’s
pragmatic record and successes in the past, the Islamist party may
yet surprise the sceptics by adapting its Islamist politics to suit
the needs and aspirations of the younger generation of Malaysian
voters who voted for the party – not because they want to see an
Islamic state in Malaysia, but rather to signal the coming of a new
Malaysian politics at last. Pas should heed these signs and prepare
itself for the new era of Malaysian politics to come. After all, it
has survived five decades of repression by the colonial government
and then the Malaysian government, so why cant it adapt yet again?

Dr.
Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore;
and one of the founders of the
www.othermalaysia.org
research
site.

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