Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Political Maturing of PAS: Recognition of the Need for Inclusion of Non-Muslims and Non-Malays

From Malaysia-Today: Read here

Excerpts: Read here for more article by Zuraidah Ibrahim (THE STRAITS TIMES)

".... Kelantan is the only state in Opposition hands, having been under the leadership of Datuk Nik Aziz for the last 18 years.

In this election, there is NO talk about an Islamic state or the imposition of hudud, or strict Islamic laws.

The speeches at PAS rallies centre on a just society in which every citizen has rights.

At a time of great anxiety among Malaysia's racial and religious minorities and declining trust in the ruling parties' willingness to protect their interests, PAS is offering itself as the party of national healing.

This time, PAS is anxious to stay on message. From the speeches to its election manifesto that has conspicuously left out the vision of an Islamic state, it would appear that PAS is learning the lessons of its past electoral fortunes.

PAS's manifesto calls for 'negara berkebajikan' or 'caring country'.

According to 49 year old PAS leader Husam Musa:

"The Islam I know considers race irrelevant. Islamic state is not the issue.

The issue is governance. What kind of governance? We want a just, caring society, an accountable government.

The most important thing right now is for the people to unite and try to stop widespread corruption and issues like the judiciary.

These are issues that will bring down this country. It's not about Malays, or PAS, or Chinese. It's about fighting cronyism.

Every segment needs to get what help they deserve. If they are poor, they need help. We cannot restrict that into a racial agenda. There are not just poor Malays, but also poor Chinese, poor Indians."

(PAS) party leaders claim Indians and Chinese voters have noted its corruption-free regime in Kelantan and believe PAS can be an antidote to the excesses of a rapacious urban elite jostling for lavish projects paid for out of public funds.

PAS' youth chief and another young Turk, Datuk Salahuddin Ayub, 46, says:

"In 2004, we lost ground with the intellectuals and the middle class in the west coast.

We have indications they are returning to us and also Chinese and Indians are coming to us in full force.

There is not a single party that can rule Malaysia on its own. PAS therefore needs to be more open, engage all the groups."

PAS veteran Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah, 56, is candid when he tells The Straits Times:

"PAS is a political party that accepts the political realities of Malaysia. The aim for an Islamic state has not been accepted in our multiracial society, especially by non-Muslims.

The brand of Islam that we need to project must be popular. PAS has realised that it will never be able to form a government unless it transforms its vision.

We are not even contesting half of the seats in Parliament. This is the reality we must confront.

The journey to an Islamic state cannot happen so fast. Maybe, we need another 100 years."

The PAS Young Turks, trained in both secular and religious disciplines, rose to the top of the PAS leadership after last year's hotly-contested internal party polls.

They are determined to be seen as incorruptible and moral, differentiating themselves from politicians of the ruling coalition. The group is poised to make it big, or lose big.

Rebranding of PAS

Their rebranding of PAS' Islamic vision is a bold gambit. It risks alienating the party's ultra-conservative base. However, if the strategy succeeds in broadening the party's appeal and pays off on polling day, this would vindicate the Young Turks' reinterpretation of PAS ideology.

This could in turn give them the political capital within the party to exercise the 'give and take', as Mr Husam puts it, required to work more closely with other parties.

In short, if Kelantan falls to the BN, the recriminations that follow could throw PAS off its current track; if PAS retains Kelantan, the transformation of the party will continue.

For now, though, the proof of PAS' ability to reach out to non-Malays is harder to ascertain as it is an underwhelming presence in urban areas where the minorities dominate.

It is still largely dependent on the discontent of the Malay voter. Malays have tended to cast their lot with PAS when they are unhappy with Umno.

But their abiding loyalty - at least for most states - is with Umno. PAS has not made much headway beyond the northern Malay belt of Kelantan, Terengganu and pockets in Kedah and Perlis.

In Kelantan, there are posters showing Datuk Nik Aziz leading not just the Malays but also of him with the Chinese community, including giving out bags of rice and attending lion dances. His state boasts some undeniable symbols of religious tolerance, such as large and active Buddhist temples.

Still, the party's relationship with non-Muslim political forces remains ambivalent at best, deeply suspicious at worst.

Religious Tolerance in Kelantan

Though the population of non-Muslims in Kelantan is small, it does appear to be the case that the community has not been disadvantaged.

There are Chinese leaders here who are appointed village elders, and an insurance scheme for payouts upon death includes the Chinese. Their places of worship too have not been affected and the number of Buddhist temples in Kota Baru would surprise the first-time visitor.

Churches do not have to be disguised as houses, as is the case in many parts of KL.

PAS is, therefore, claiming that it has a more genuine and longer track record than the ruling Malay party at assuaging the concerns of religious and ethnic minorities.

This claim comes amid growing fears of perceived Islamisation of the country by a ruling party fanning insecurity about the Malays' place and position.

Malaysia's minorities have witnessed, under PM Abdullah's Umno, the demolition of temples, obstacles to church building, confiscation of Bibles, mobs breaking up peaceful inter-faith events, and declarations that non-Muslims are banned from using the Arab word for God, 'Allah'.

In contrast, PAS presents itself as a party confident enough in its Islamic identity not to need to resort to such extremes. Neither does it need to play the race card to feed off the insecurities of the economically worse-off Malays.

The battle over the right brand of Islam for Malaysia will not end with this election. But for PAS, the polls are critical in determining which way its internal driving forces will sway.

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