Rift in PAS as theories abound over "conservatives" and "liberals"

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What started as a media manufactured rift in Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS) soon became real after its top leader openly condemned a section of the leadership who has been in talks with the ruling UMNO.

The rift was supposed to have started in the weeks leading to PAS’s general assembly last month. Both the mainstream and opposition media were indulging in that usual and now-familiar analysis of contemporary Islamic political entities: imaginary divisions between “conservatives” and “liberals”. The outcome is that those lumped in the “liberal” category started believing that they were popular, only to find that their “conservative” brethren are far more liked by the younger generation who are often mistaken for seeking to challenge the “conservatives”.

The deluge of ‘expert’ analyses of a ‘rift’ in PAS reached its peak as elections were held for its top positions. Most of the news reports are based on self-styled “PAS experts” whose understanding of Islamic politics and Islamic movement is shallow. Yet they have succeeded in convincing most people that PAS, not unlike other Islamic organisations subjected to “expert” analyses, is locked in a power struggle between the “ulama” and “liberal” factions. The former in this case are represented by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang on one side, and the so-called liberals led by what they describe as “younger” party leaders who want closer cooperation with other opposition parties. In the weeks that passed however, it became clear who the “liberals” were: those who display their vehement hatred of UMNO. Ironic as it seems, this faction is called the ‘moderates’.

But a quick check would reveal that the experts’ formula for analysing the debate within PAS (as with other Islamic movements) is far from scientific. For one, lumped together with the so-called ‘liberals’ of the party was also Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the revered PAS murshid al-am who acts as the spiritual leader, and whose opinions and views have always been condemned by the media as conservative (and therefore “backward”). In this instance, Nik Aziz lent his support to those against Hadi who has been floating the possibility of cooperation with the ruling UMNO, a plan once mooted by former prime minister Abdullah Badawi before he was pressured to resign early this year over the UMNO-led National Front’s loss of support in the general elections.

Supporting Hadi’s call is his deputy Nasharuddin Mat Isa, who was widely criticised by other opposition activists last year after revelations that he had secret discussions with some UMNO leaders to form governments in states that the opposition coalition controls. This effectively means Nasharuddin is lumped with the ulama (read: conservative) faction. Yet only four years ago, he was being paraded by the media as the “progressive” face of PAS after winning the deputy president’s post, which was said to have effectively challenged the leadership of ulama in the party. This time around, when Nasharuddin was challenged for his post, many opposition politicians had discreetly thrown their support behind the “liberal” faction, represented by Husam Musa, seen close to Nik Aziz. As such, reports and analyses, coupled with internet blogs, were almost confident of Nasharuddin’s defeat. The result, which saw Nashar-uddin win by a large margin surprised many quarters, including PAS’s allies, the National Justice Party led by Anwar Ibrahim, and the staunchly Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, although they could not show their disappointment openly due to their political comradeship.

That did not stop some opposition leaders from generating an outcry over Hadi and Nasharuddin’s call to consider unity talks with UMNO. The controversy was a godsend for Prime Minister Najib Razak. Far from offering an olive branch to PAS, UMNO’s tactic has been to create divisions among PAS rank and file by praising PAS in the media and calling for dialogue to find common solutions. Many opposition leaders, especially the younger ones who sometimes underestimate UMNO’s capability despite its waned support, fell for this tactic and began condemnation of PAS leaders who want to talk to UMNO.

Nik Aziz appeared to be the least happy with the development, especially when PAS has been so far respected for honouring its word with allies. Moreover, it is the only political party whose elected politicians, in spite of being less “savvy” than other loud politicians, have withstood pressures to jump parties. This was proven during the last two decades of its rule in Kelantan, where UMNO since the era of strongman Mahathir has been known to entice PAS legislative members with lucrative offers, failed miserably due to strong discipline and loyalty to the party’s Islamic ideals, besides Nik Aziz’s charisma as the chief minister. Many would find it hard to contest the argument that the Islamic party’s discipline and credentials stand stark in contrast with other political parties.

If a “unity government” does indeed come into existence, its short lifetime is a foregone conclusion. It will not be the first time that PAS joins UMNO in a coalition government, only to break away after differences over issues such as Islam and policies related to it. Even Mahathir, who recently got a shot in the arm and started appearing more often in public after Abdullah’s departure, acknowledges this fact, saying that a unity government consisting of PAS and UMNO would not work.

In Malaysia’s highly racialised politics, a unity government will spell the end of multiracial governance, the battle cry of Anwar’s opposition coalition which earned it the support of voters of all stripes. There will be a dangerous dichotomy of Muslim-Malays only as the governing race on one hand, and the non-Muslim dominated opposition on the other. In a multi-religious Muslim country, this can have a destructive effect, especially if the non-Muslim opposition takes their grievances to foreign powers or gets financial backing to wrest power “democratically”, such as what has been happening in Nigeria and Lebanon.

In the long term, the bigger loser, needless to say, would be Anwar. Already grappling with yet another sodomy allegation with badly-plotted evidence reminiscent of a decade ago, any recognition by PAS of UMNO means his road to prime ministership will be rife with even bigger hurdles than the ones he managed to clear so far.

Nik Aziz, seen close to Anwar, is respected by all Malaysians. Not only his much-talked about austere lifestyle that has attracted many non-Muslims to re-evaluate their outright rejection of PAS as a replacement to UMNO, he has increasingly been seen as the grand old man of Malaysian politics, and his words are rarely opposed publicly by party leaders. Anwar knew this reality well; which explains why his close relationship with Nik Aziz may have paid off during the present crisis in the form of Nik Aziz’s slamming the door on any move to cooperate with UMNO.

The bigger question is where PAS sees its ultimate objective –” that of Islamising the society–”lie. Is it with Anwar –” an influential and highly-wired politician with the potential of becoming a prime minister –” or in UMNO, the most powerful party whose influence penetrates every corner of the country?

Or, does it lie in its own ability to recognise why it has so far failed to implement all that it has been fighting for, even when it has a share of power, such as now? Perhaps the current rift in PAS may be a time for contemplation and renewal of struggle, yet again.

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