“Shun neither the East
Nor fear the West
For it is Nature that sets
you turning each night
(wherever you may be)
To the morning bright”
Three years ago, Malaysians wrote history by weakening UMNO/Barisan Nasional’s electoral one-party state. For the first time since independence, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority, representing a great achievement for the opposition coalition: the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Ahead of the 2008 General Election, for the first time in the party’s history, PAS dropped the term ‘Islamic State’ from their manifesto and sought to create a welfare state.
‘Political Tsunami’, as it has been widely described, changed the dynamics of the national political arena. Many non-Malay, or non-Muslim voters bravely suspended their judgment on PAS’ new manifesto in order to vote for the party’s candidates during the last general election; breaking the obvious but silent trend in Malay politics of voting by race for decades.
Nevertheless, the coalition is undeniably an infant one – with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS seemingly promoting opposite agendas, with the PKR playing an active role as mediator. Not only are the PKR the most powerful and mature entity within the coalition, it is becoming clear that a number of Malay Muslim voters have lost confidence with PAS, due to their negative perception towards the DAP.
The National Race Empowerment Convention held by PAS on 19 February 2011 confirmed this. With dwindling Malay Muslim support, PAS affirmed its commitment to prioritise the dominant Islamic race in the country i.e. Malay, within the democratic system. Interestingly, Wong Chin Huat, a spokesperson for the group Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, advised PAS activists to become Muslim Democrat, instead of Islamist Malay, in order to remain relevant in the future political dynamics of Malaysia, and also to affirm their separate identity from the UMNO status quo.
Islam and Democracy, in spite of it being both a perennial and a complex debate, needs to go beyond theory to discuss practical steps that can be taken to promote political and social change at the grassroots level. A very simple reason why PAS activists must go beyond rhetoric is that they have been involved in the democratic process since 1955, two years before Malaysia’s Independence.
Surely, the next challenge is to ensure that the involvement in democracy is subsumed under the framework of Islamic law and principles, a central tool for the progress of Muslim societies – a tool which has unfortunately been ignored or misused. By virtue of this doctrine for example, Muslims are commanded to maintain peace and harmony and to safeguard the sanctity of life and property – indeed these ideals are completely conducive with the dictates of democracy. Demonstrated throughout history books, Muslim rule for centuries in Spain acts as a clear witness to the tolerance and spirit of ‘convivencia’ between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
In line with the true Muslim Democrat, PAS activists must take into consideration three important issues. Firstly, PAS must practically educate their activists to grasp the genuine ideas and concepts behind Muslim Democracy. As vibrant democracy needs vibrant opposition, education is the sine qua non of democracy. This is the biggest battle for PAS as they have a wide range of activists: from the youth to the elderly, from the white-collared to the unemployed, both men and women, and Muslim and non-Muslim. If they succeed, this will certainly help PAS contribute further in the coalition towards a better Malaysia.
Secondly, the ageing leaders of PAS are irrefutably full with experience, but in an era whereby strategic concerns drive political developments, it is unclear where and how the experience factor will figure. Led by a 64 year old, Tuan Guru Haji Abdul Hadi Awang evokes conservatism through his frequent portrayal in traditional Islamic attire. However with Malaysia’s emerging political dynamics, and given PAS’ recent questionable political moves, it is plausible to suggest a newer, younger leadership may help to steer the party more favourably.
Finally, their own activists must acknowledge the tension within PAS, and direct these disagreements into positive developments. If the next generation is to inherit the legacy of the Asian Renaissance, the leaders of this region must learn the lessons of the latest upheavals in the Middle East. In PAS there are at two significant camps to be acknowledged – the ‘Erdogan’ camp and ‘Ulama’ camp. Despite the denial of these categorisations by activists, there are inevitably different intellectual trends within PAS, contributing to the tensions over its political direction. PAS must battle with this and embrace the tension as an affirmative diversity and as a democratic gift too.
Democracy is always a worthy cause to fight for, and the words of Paulo Freire come to mind, as a source of reflection for PAS. The Brazilian educator writes in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’;
“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man … It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.”
The door for the party, and indeed for any Muslim organisation in the East or West, lies in going beyond theory and rhetoric, and starting with the fundamental question of democracy; ‘Given a choice between freedom and dictatorship, which one would you choose?’
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