How Malaysia's right-wing Islamist party became the country's best hope for political reform.
BY DUSTIN ROASA |
On Dec. 31 of last year, a Catholic newspaper with a circulation of less than 15,000 found itself at the heart of a major controversy in Malaysia. In 2007, the government had ordered the Kuala Lumpur-based Herald to stop using "Allah" to refer to a non-Islamic God, as the paper -- located in a majority-Muslim country -- had been doing for years. The paper sued, and when the case finally made its way to the High Court, a judge sided with the Herald and overturned the ban.
Protests followed immediately, with masked men on motorbikes firebombing several churches and demonstrators taking to the streets. Tension between the country's Muslim Malay majority and its Chinese and Indian minorities was already at a low boil, thanks to Malaysia's ruling coalition and its dominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Through policies such as pro-Malay affirmative action, the government had attempted to exploit the country's ethnic divisions in order to deflect attention from its economic mismanagement and corruption.
But as Muslim anger with the Allah case boiled over, an unlikely ally came to the paper's defense: Malaysia's opposition Islamist party, the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). PAS President Abdul Hadi bin Awang (above) publicly supported the paper's right to use the word. "PAS would like to state that, based on Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism is acceptable," he said.
It was an odd turn for Malaysia's competing political parties: The ostensibly secular UMNO was stoking Muslim outrage, while PAS, which was founded half a century ago with the stated goal of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state guided by the Quran, was calling for interfaith understanding. Yet it fit an emerging pattern. In the last five years, PAS has been moderating its onetime deeply conservative stance in order to reach out to non-Muslim Indian and Chinese voters, who account for nearly a third of the population.
The tactics have paid off. PAS has attracted more than 20,000 non-Muslim members, astonishing for a country where political parties are strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines. The support helped the party, along with its partners in the opposition People's Pact coalition, win an historic one-third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 national election, denying the UMNO a two-thirds majority for the first time since Malaysia's independence in 1957. Many Malaysian political observers are predicting that the opposition will finally wrest power from the UMNO-led ruling coalition in the next election, due by 2013.
But that victory is contingent on PAS's ability to perform a delicate balancing act. The party must convince its Muslim base that it is not abandoning its religious principles while quelling fears among non-Muslims that it is a radical party bent on scrapping Malaysia's secular constitution.
"I've always looked at the Islamic basis of the party as inclusive in nature," Khalid Samad, a PAS reformer and member of parliament, told me recently. "The party is for the benefit of all, not just Muslims." I had traveled to Kuala Lumpur's predominantly Indian neighborhood of Brickfields to have lunch at a local hotel restaurant with Khalid and Hu Pang Chau, the Chinese head of the non-Muslim wing of PAS. The two men are a driving force behind PAS's recent transformation, the second major shift in the party's history.
Originally a branch of UMNO, PAS broke away as an independent party in 1955 as a challenge UMNO's secularism. It was the first Islamist party in Southeast Asia -- and one of the first in the world -- to come to power through elections, winning more than a dozen parliamentary seats and control of two state governments in Malaysia's first election after independence. But while PAS officially supported the establishment of an Islamic state, in its early years it did so only vaguely, preferring instead to emphasize Malay identity over religion.
Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which convinced Muslims around the world -- including Khalid, who at the time was studying in Britain alongside Muslim peers from the Middle East and India -- that Islam could be a political force. Following the Iranian example, PAS replaced its professional leaders with ulama, or religious scholars. By the early 1980s, the party was openly calling for an Islamic Malaysia.
The agenda sat poorly with UMNO's Mohamad bin Mahathir, who won election as prime minister in 1981 and proceeded to rule for 22 years. Mahathir was openly contemptuous of PAS and often had its members -- including Khalid -- arrested under Malaysia's Internal Security Act. At the same time, he worked to co-opt the Muslim vote, in part by enlisting popular Islamic activists to help the party. The tactics had the effect of pushing PAS further to the right in an effort to distinguish itself from the ruling party. By the early 2000s the party was once again aggressively touting its Islamist credentials.
By the 2004 parliamentary election, however, PAS's piety had become a political liability. Mahathir had stepped down as prime minister, but PAS was ill-placed to fill the vacuum he left behind; Malaysia's moderate Muslims and non-Muslims had come to embrace the progressive, development-focused Islam touted by Mahathir's replacement, Abdullah Badawi. The party took a drubbing at the polls that year, winning only seven seats.
After some soul searching, the PAS leadership attributed the poor showing to its overtly Islamist stance and failure to attract young and non-Muslim voters. "Most non-Muslims, especially those in the Chinese community, would tell you that PAS are fundamentalists and extremists," Hu told me over lunch, as we looked out over a tangle of high-rise construction sites in Brickfields. "If you support PAS, everyone will have to convert to Islam and give up speaking their mother tongue." PAS's political niche sat awkwardly with the multiculturalism of modern Malaysia: "If you are interested in governing a nation that only has mosques and doesn't have temples or pig farms or alcohol, then you are restricting yourself to governing Mecca or Medina," Khalid said, to booming laughs from Hu.Continue reading.