This week will witness the 55th General Assembly of Pas. In a sense, the party is at a crucial turning point. The vote swing that took place in March 2008 was not an endorsement for an Islamic state, or moral policing, or a theocracy under the thumb of a bunch of Ayatollahs. Instead, Pas needs to understand that to be a national party with national aspirations means having to develop an inclusive political rhetoric and platform that reflects the multifarious character of Malaysia’s complex society today, observes Aliran member Farish Noor.
This week will witness the 55th General Assembly of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Pas), that has been on the political landscape of Malaysia since 1951, though its actual historical presence in Malaysia dates back even further, to the country’s first Islamic party, Hizbul Muslimin, in 1948. Malaysia-watchers and analysts are looking very closely at Pas today, and there has been ample speculation about the fate and future of key Pas ideologues and leaders, notably the representatives of the two camps in the party otherwise known as the conservatives and progressives.
Distinctions such as ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ are not very useful in cases such as these, however, for they tell us little about the goings-on in Pas and they lend the mistaken impression that the differences within the party can be essentially reduced to such simple binary opposites. Needless to say, Pas’ opponents are likewise tempted to use such dichotomies in their own lame efforts to divide and weaken the party, and such divisive tactics are long familiar to those who have studied Malaysian politics over the past half a century or so.
The fact is that Pas is an infinitely more complex party that outsiders may think, and that its complexities run deep into its history. In the 1950s, Pas was seen and cast as a Leftist-Islamist party while it was under the leadership of Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Zulkiflee Mohammad; and the party’s concerns were directed towards the national liberation struggle against colonialism and all forms of neo-imperialism in Asia and Africa. In the 1970s, Pas transformed itself to an ethno-nationalist party during its brief courtship with Umno. Since the 1980s, the party has become one of the most vocal and visible Islamist parties in Asia and the Muslim world, standing on par with the Jama’at-e Islami of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan’ul Muslimin) of the Arab world on the other.
Despite the rise in its profile and its growing standing in Malaysian politics, Pas has remained a Malaysian party that has sought to gain power on the stage of Malaysian politics. Following the elections of March 2008 when the opposition alliance broke the Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority, Pas is now poised to become a national party with national aspirations.
Which brings us to the question of what the Malaysian nation is today, and whether Pas can speak on behalf of the new Malaysia that is more complex than ever.
Regardless of whether Pas leaders describe themselves as moderate, liberal, progressive or conservative, the fact is that Malaysia and the Malaysian nation they hope to lead and represent is far more complex than even their own party. Pas and whoever leads the party must come to realise this by now and must have the political will to deal with the complexities of Malaysia in a rational and objective manner. The days when it was assumed that all Malay-Muslims were simple pious Muslims are over: In the urban industrialised zones of West Malaysia, we have seen the proliferation of a myriad of new social constituencies that defy all the stereotypes of the nation thus far. Malaysia is now a country where Malaysians of all walks of life, ethnic and religious backgrounds, gender orientations etc are coming to the fore to demand their share in the politics of representation. I am personally acquainted with a number of gay Muslims who have openly and privately declared their support for the Islamic party, but can the Islamic party they support also show them the same level of support, sympathy and understanding?
Pas needs to understand that to be a national party with national aspirations means having to develop an inclusive political rhetoric and platform that reflects the multifarious character of the complex Malaysia we see around us today. This is what all political parties need to do, be they Islamist, Socialist, Liberal or Conservative anyway. Failure to do so would mean ignoring the realities on the ground to their peril and at their own long-term political expense.
Sceptics have claimed that Pas can never succeed in re-inventing itself ever since the 1980s, when it adopted the mould of being a politically Islamist party similar to its counterparts in the Arab world and South Asia. But the historian would remind us that political parties, like nations and communities, are abstract collections of individual subjectivities that merge and melt and reconstitute themselves all the time. Pas was always a dynamic party that dealt with the realities of the day, from the realities of colonialism in Malaya to the rise of authoritarian politics in the 1980s. Today, Pas has seen and felt the goodwill of millions of non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians who have given the party a shot at becoming part of the new government of Malaysia, should the opposition parties take over sooner than later. Pas has also benefited from the goodwill of millions of moderate liberal Muslims who are prepared to give the Islamic party a chance to demonstrate its commitment to a new politics of accountability and transparency.
Thus, for the sake of those Malaysians who are prepared to give Pas a chance, the party now has to set its sights on the biggest prize of all, to become a national party that reflects the pluralism of Malaysian society. The vote swing that took place in March 2008 was not an endorsement for an Islamic state, or moral policing, or a theocracy under the thumb of a bunch of Ayatollahs. It was a sign that Pas’ time has come, and that the party should delve back to its complex past to recover a means of becoming a modern Islamic party that can finally be a Malaysian party as well.