Political Islam at the crossroads in Malaysia

December 29, 2012


Political Islam at the crossroads in Malaysia

by Dr Zulkefly Ahmad

Dr. Dzulkefly AhmadIn 2005, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the America Enterprise Institute wrote in ‘Bitterlemon International’ that ‘Islamists are intrinsically anti-democratic’. He asserted that as Islamists base their legitimacy upon a higher power, they are intrinsically anti-democratic and unwilling to accept popular rebuke.

Fast forward to Bobby Ghosh who penned Why Islamists are better Democrats in Time Magazine (December 5, 2011). The writer argued for a bright future for Islamists in the emerging democracy for the newly liberated Muslim world post Arab-Spring. He opined that Islamists are poised to do better than their liberal rivals because they were people-friendly and not corrupt.

The above contrasting scenarios of Islamists depicted by the western media in less than a decade aptly illustrate the changing perception of ‘Political Islam and Islamists’.

Lest you have been oblivious to “Political Islam and Islamists”, let me recapitulate. A good grasp of these value-loaded ideological terminologies would facilitate understanding of one of the most misunderstood political actors in contemporary power politics.

Admittedly though, ‘Political Islam’ is an invention of both Orientalist thinking and Socio-Political scientists of both Western and Middle-Eastern origin. Western discourse defines Political Islam as ‘the contemporary movement that conceives Islam as a political ideology and describe the people who subscribe to this view as ‘Islamists’.

An Islamist, going by this definition, ranges from a “Jihadi” to “Democrat”, in an ideological milieu that is far from monolithic or homogeneous. That said, one immediately perceives that this ‘narrow’ definition of ‘Islamic activism’ presupposes that Islam per se is ‘apolitical’, hence the need to affix the term ‘Political Islam’.

That premise is both misconceived and fundamentally flawed. The holistic paradigm of Islam includes its inherent and intrinsic interests in matters of ‘government and governance’, thus making it political from the very outset.

The West must come to grasp with this fundamental concept. Indeed as autocracies and despotic regimes crumble during those historical moments dubbed the Arab-Spring, vibrant Islamist political parties have emerged as winners, to evolve a new political landscape.

Ustaz Hadi AwangInterestingly, at home, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), represents the world phenomenon of “Political Islam”, although with its own political backdrop and historical narratives.Nonetheless, it would be appropriately categorised as ‘Political Islam’, insofar as undertaking the “political project” of advocating Islam as seeking ‘political dominancy and relevance’ in an open electoral contestation, ever since its inception.

Indeed, PAS was engaged in electoral contests and democratic processes earlier than its couterparts, such as the Middle-Eastern Muslim Brotherhood, Indo-Pakistan’s Jamati Islami or as well the Indonesian ‘Islamists’. Simply put, PAS were earlier ‘Democrats’ than many of her contemporary Islamists movements around the world.

That ‘Political Islam’ is currently undergoing a critical crossroad is indeed an understatement. The reasons are many folds and this piece attempts at exemplifying this phenomenon. Does PAS and by extension her Islamists counterparts, truly understand the challenges? Will they survive the political trajectory they choose to tread?

Retrospectively speaking, one of the distinguishing and defining features of ‘Political Islam’ in the early twentieth century was its call for the creation of an Islamic state. Methods and strategies of the many Islamists movements might differ with time and space, but the aim remained one and the same for all.

It is no coincidence that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed Islamists advocating the Islamic state agenda, conceptualised and premised on Islamic principles and articulated around the core concept of the Islamic Law or the Syariah.

But Political Islam has in the very recent times undergone a transformation of sort that immediately places them at a crossroads. In tandem with the ‘changing approach’ or ‘a generational shift’ of her counterparts, to paraphrase Professor Tariq Ramadan, PAS has similarly registered its coming of age.

 In a rare exercise of intellectual renewal or Ijtihad and Tajdid (Revivalism) the party committed to and shifted itself – prior to the 12th General Election 2008 – to a political trajectory and a manifesto of ‘Negara Berkebajikan’ (The Benovelent State) from an overworked concept of the Islamic State.

 While ostensibly playing down on its historical demand for the specific implementation of the ‘legal aspects’ of the Syariah (the Islamic Penal Code namely Hudud), PAS now prioritises and mainstreams a Political Islam that more importantly advocates for the cardinal Quranic message of ‘Justice’ or”Al-’Adaalah”. PAS outrightly ‘de-ethnices’ and distances Islam from Malay supremacy and the racial-religious bigotry while assertively proclaiming ‘Justice for all’.

The transformation of PAS towards the middle political ground is not without its attendingNik Aziz and Hadi Awang consequences. PAS’ political nemesis wasted little time in mounting a campaign accusing the Islamists party of ‘deviation’ and ‘compromises’ from its original advocacy of Islamic State. PAS must not bow down to these intimidations.

More challenging on a longer timeline is to explore and advocate a ‘Political Islam’ that goes beyond the usual ‘prohibition-oriented approach’. For Islam to be at the centre of national cohesion and solidarity, the promotion of Islam must be inclusive, voluntary and just as to exemplify the worldview of Islam of enhancing justice and fairness, and of prosperity and sustainability of the nation at large.

More specifically is to impress the urgency to embody the Maqasid al-Shariah (true compass and purpose of the Syariah) in the critical domain of government and governance. It must continue to mount an attack on the endemic corrupt and crony practices and gross mismanagement of the nation wealth and finances that have resulted in ‘inequality’ and ‘marginalisation’ of the rakyat ― both a yawning income and much worse, a wealth divide.

Besides, it is of vital importance to draw the line clear for Muslims and non-Muslims, when it comes to specific prescriptions as to avoid untoward consequences. The latest incidents on the issuing of summonses to the unisex saloons in Kota Baru and non-Muslims apprehended for indecent behaviour have been spun viciously by the BN main-stream media.

Again this calls for an appropriate and judicious response of Islamists in balancing, oftentimes mutually exclusive demands. The raging issue of the “kalimah Allah” will be another challenging case in point.

PASPAS’s consistency and steadfastness in upholding its conviction, policies and programmes will endear further trust and respect from the nascent support of the non-Muslims constituencies and the more discerning Malay-Muslims middle-ground citizenry. Similarly, PAS must be cautious and tactful as not to inadvertently alienate its traditional supporters wary of PAS’ changing trends.

Does PAS have what it takes to proceed on a longer term trajectory to maintain and enhance its support-base and the acquired trust and remain a ‘centrist’ Islamists party?

This writer is of the conviction that if PAS truly understands and internalises its current strength of being capable of strategically positioning itself in the ‘middle-Malaysia’, due essentially to its embodiment of the Quranic imperatives of ‘Al-Wasatiyyah’ (Middle Nation)and ‘Rahmatan Lil-’Alamin’ (A Mercy unto all Mankind), the negative perceptions will eventually give way to a more profound mutual trust and respect.

Together with its Pakatan partners, that would indeed provide for a sound and vibrant foundation for a mutually rewarding socio-politico-religious relationship of ‘A New Malaysia’.

* Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad is the member of parliament for Kuala Selangor and executive director at the PAS Research Centre. This article first appeared in The Edge.


5 thoughts on “Political Islam at the crossroads in Malaysia

  1. Dr. Zul belongs to the liberal Erdogan wing of PAS, which is supportive of Anwar Ibrahim. There is also the pro-UMNO arm in favour of Malay unity, and the Ulamak wing advocating huddud and the Islamic state.

    Sometimes, we are confused about PAS and its political and socio-economic agenda. Recent statements from PAS, for example, does not give non-Muslim voters much comfort.These statements from the Allah issue to entertainment and gender are of concern to the Pakatan coalition. Netto’s article raises some issues for us to think about.

    Conflicting messages do not help PASas they raise questions about its true identity as a political party. I am not sure if this article sufficiently addresses this point. –Din Merican

  2. I never for once thought that PAS represent ‘political Islam’ ,for me Islam there is just a campaign tools to attract but was never seen as a belief .
    Never sure what kind Islam PAS is promoting except for physical appearance of jubah and sarban which an’t really required in Islam.

  3. Political imperatives will dictate PAS towards middle ground to compete for younger constituencies in an increasingly open environment as they will form the party’s life-line in the mid-term and long-term.

    Any internal prolonged disagreement and hesitation will mean losing out potential members to PKR and/or DAP as PAS leadership is all too aware of, I believe.

    The moment of reckoning for PAS as a progressive party is coming if it chooses to or else the Ulama and the pro-integration faction (with UMNO) will come to the fore.

    So actually it is PAS at the crossroads.

  4. Look, these guys can’t even agree on the term ‘Democracy’.
    Neither do they understand the nitty-gritty of ‘Theocracy’.
    Their concept of ‘Eudaimia’ (Greek) literally meaning, ‘well-spirited’ or ‘well being’ is limited to their constricted world view in the Hejaz of 7th century CE.
    So what do you have? A naked Politikus who licks itself black and blue.., because they react instead of Interact – not much different from their nemesis who has the tendency to Gostan or else, don’t act at all.

    If i may be so bold to ask: If the Kelantanese are the most enterprising among the Malays, especially their womenfolk, why is it they remain so ‘constricted’? No need to blame the oil-gas percentages owed to them by the Feds. Money or heavy dialect isn’t everything – courage, honesty, knowledge, inclusiveness and open mindedness is.

    Fyi, one of their chiefs, was a intern under me many years ago. Good grief!

  5. PAS has taken the sacred religion of Islam for their “political ride” far too long. Over the years their political chants smelled like “rotten eggs” over many religious issues inconsistent with the true teachings of Islam. The Erdogan factions within the party has made matters worse with their inclination and supportive to Anwar’s so-called liberal policies. Efforts by the Ulamaks factions to streamline the party towards its former aspiration and hope has fallen onto deaf ears amongst the party stalwarts including Hadi and Nik Aziz. To them the party main aim is to capture Putrajaya, nothing more or less ( …persetankan dengan perkara2 lain asalkan tujuan politiknya berjaya). PAS has made a mockery out of this beautiful religion.

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