Sunday Star
December 7, 2008

Taking a more moderate line
By SUHAINI AZNAM

The changing face of PAS is attracting today’s ‘modern’ Muslims as
well as non-Muslims. While the party remains consistent in its
commitment to Islam, its younger leaders have shed their physical and
psychological robes and turbans.

TWO decades after shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) rang out in
the still night air in the PAS stronghold of Marang, Terengganu,
frightening “infidels” after a packed ceramah, the nation has seen the
birth of a PAS supporters club – comprising non-Muslims.

This is the target group PAS’ younger generation of leaders are
wooing, for, in a decade, it is they who will inherit the party.

The jostling has already begun. The lines being drawn between the
conservative ulama and the younger moderates are geared to the party
election anticipated in mid-2009.

Ironically, Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat,
despite his stature as PAS Mursyid’ul Am (spiritual leader), is the
iconic figurehead for the moderates.

His protege, PAS vice-president Datuk Husam Musa, is expected to take
on incumbent Nasharuddin Mat Isa for the deputy president’s post.

The latter, meanwhile, is seen as the favoured successor of PAS
president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, an ulama of the old school,
although he, too, in the early 1980s, was considered a “young Turk”.

If Kelantan is solidly behind their Tok Guru Nik Aziz, Terengganu is
similarly 100% behind Haji Hadi and his band of al-Azhar University
graduates. It is in the racially mixed west coast, erupting most
recently in Selangor, that both streams of opinion play a tug of war.

Late last month, Selangor PAS Commissioner Datuk Dr Hassan Mohd Ali
removed Shah Alam MP Khalid Abdul Samad as deputy commissioner II and
Hulu Kelang assemblyman Saari Sungip from the state’s 11-man Dewan
Harian (PAS management committee), following a series of “differences
in opinion,” as Khalid put it.

At 51, Khalid and Saari are considered PAS’ new wave of Muslim
intellectuals. Both were labelled as being of the Erdogan group –
after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – for their liberal
stance on a clutch of issues.

The perjorative term painted them as supporters of PKR leader Datuk
Seri Anwar Ibrahim, but their removal had less to do with their Anwar
links than with differences in state level party policy.

“Khalid was a good sport about it,” said a PAS leader, requesting
anonymity.

“He admitted that he and Dr Hassan had not been seeing eye to eye on
several issues, from as early as former mentri besar Datuk Seri Dr
Mohd Khir Toyo’s invitation to talk about forming a joint state
government soon after March 8.”

At that time, there were even rumours of Hassan being offered the MB’s
post in such a scenario. The talks fizzled out and PAS remained with
the PKR to eventually form the Pakatan Rakyat, together with the DAP.

Sensitive issues

Nevertheless, thorny issues remained. One was a highly publicised
integrated pig farm in Ladang Tumbuk, Selangor, which Khalid feels
could be “run professionally and if possible cleanly”. It did not make
sense to him for those of other races to import all their foods. There
would be a “ruckus among non-Muslims” since their food import bill
would be too high.

More recently, Dr Hassan submitted an alternative list of names to
Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, of the PKR, after the
latter appointed the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS)
deputy general manager, a Chinese woman, to serve as acting head of
the state corporation. Dr Hassan’s list comprised entirely of Malays.

In late November, when Selangor PAS tried to ban the sale of alcohol
in sundry shops and 7-eleven outlets in the state, Khalid disagreed.
He felt that “banning alcohol is not practical when Muslims comprise
only 51% of Selangor’s population.”

Khalid does not want the press to “fan the flames” between Dr Hassan
and himself. He does not want to hear their differences formalised
into talk of factions. As one of the more open PAS MPs, he had scored
points among non-Muslims when he attended a church service in Shah
Alam, saying: “I am the MP of all my constituents, including Umno
members if they would have me,” adding with a laugh “many of them had
in fact voted for me.”

Being accommodative Muslim professionals “who can absorb differences”,
Khalid, Saari and like-minded colleagues see themselves as the “big
fishes in a small pond”.

“If 90% of PKR are graduates, PAS is more diverse,” said Saari.

Saari officially joined PAS in 2004 after two decades of participation
with Muslim movements, initially as a student leader in the United
Kingdom and later as the first president of the Jamaah Islah Malaysia
(JIM), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded in 1990. He has
written some 40 books on various aspects of Islam.

To top off his credentials, Saari had twice been detained under the
ISA, first for “a tough 16 days” for his involvement in the nascent
Reformasi movement in 1998 and subsequently in Kamunting from 2001-03.
Today he is a much sought-after speaker nationwide.

He had twice stood on the Keadilan ticket, in a Kuala Langat
by-election in 1999 and Paya Besar, Pahang in 2004.

“When Anwar was released, I told him I wanted to be active in PAS,
without any ill feeling with Keadilan. I just wanted to give the best
that I have to PAS,” said Saari of his return to more familiar ground.

Now Saari wants decision-making to be more open and regulated.

“There should be no pre-council meeting when the Dewan Harian already
comprises only 11 members.

“The merits of our arguments should be based on the quality of our
debate, rather than emotion.”

For PAS to grow stronger, its leaders should “not bulldoze (ideas)
through, or sweep them under the carpet,” said the professional. He
believes that in negotiating, one should either “agree, or agree to
disagree” on issues.

“Before the election, we kept saying that we are for all. Now is the
time for us to prove it. Suddenly PAS seems to be placing more
importance on Melayu. We are over-sensitive. We should be talking more
with the DAP.

“Since we are in Pakatan, the leadership must show that we are
together. Our main opponent is Umno,” said Saari.

“In a coalition, getting from here to there is not as easy as when we
are on our own,” Khalid conceded.

However, having known Anwar since his Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia
days has made them more receptive to the PKR way of thinking.
Certainly, neither has second thoughts in endorsing Anwar as the next
prime minister. “He is the person who can get the allegiance of the
different groups,” said Khalid pragmatically.

He echoes a stand made even before the 1999 general election among
Keadilan, DAP and the late PAS president Datuk Fadzil Noor, who agreed
that if the Barisan Alternatif won, Anwar would be the prime minister
even though he was then under detention and did not stand, recounted
Kota Baru MP Datuk Wan Abd Rahim Wan Abdullah.

“That agreement stands to today and need not be replaced with
another.”

Reasonable expectations

Since Anwar’s self-imposed Sept 16 deadline to take over the federal
government failed to materialise, his fan club has diminished. Anwar
addressed their disillusionment at last weekend’s PKR convention.

But among his PAS allies, the criticisms were almost non-existent.

“PAS does not have high expectations,” explained Wan Rahim.

“To be able to get five states between us was already a big surprise.”

Still, it is not inconceivable that PAS and Umno might yet work
together again.

Already Umno and PAS have held three rounds of Malay unity talks at
the highest level, between no less than the party presidents of each.
These talks ceased after PAS leaders at its party assembly last August
drew fire from the rank and file.

Leading the charge was Nik Aziz himself. Today, he and Terengganu PAS
Commissioner Datuk Mustapha Ali are the only two from PAS’ top
hierarchy who were party to the 1970s cooperation between PAS and
Umno. PAS became a founder member of the Barisan Nasional in 1974. In
1978, PAS was evicted after it opposed the Barisan’s attempt to pass
the Emergency Ordinance through Parliament.

This was followed by 18 years of bad blood during which PAS worked
with a clutch of tiny parties like Nasma, while Umno backed Berjasa
and Hamim to try to topple PAS in Kelantan.

“Today, 10 of PAS’ top 12 leaders have no experience of working with
Umno and being played out,” said Wan Rahim.

It was those memories that had led Nik Aziz to famously say “one
should never be bitten twice by the same snake coming out of the same
snake hole.”

Both Malay-based parties have since evolved. The question before PAS
now is whether it is to be more Malay or Muslim in its direction.

“It’s the same thing,” said Wan Rahim simply.

“Malay equals Muslim and vice-versa.

“We are practical. We acknowledge our limitations in a multi-racial
society. And we have been consistent since 1951 in championing Islam.”

This consistency has won it respect and friends, even among urban
Malays who are not its natural constituents. A few confessed that if
PAS were to contest in Kuala Lumpur, they would vote for it.

But they are not PAS’ targets.

“PAS has to focus more on the rural areas, including Felda schemes,
where people are less educated and have less exposure to information
apart from the Government media and Malay national dailies,” said Wan
Rahim. “This is where Umno has long held sway.”

“PAS will have to deliver these rural constituencies. DAP cannot and
PKR does not have the grassroots.”

“It is up to PAS,” he added.

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