Thinking Liberally

Published: Tuesday August 19, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 19, 2014 MYT 7:02:13 AM

Learn from the dynamics in PAS

The progressives are usually the ones engaging with non-Muslims and urbanites, but the conservatives are still firmly in control of the party.

LAST Sunday evening, I attended an event where the PAS “poster boys” once again tried to convince the public that their party can be trusted despite what happened in the Selangor MB crisis.

The speakers were Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, PAS central committee member Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and PAS Youth chief Suhaizan Kayat.

I am not using the term “poster boys” in a derogatory way. These individuals are truly the more acceptable faces of PAS. They are much more acceptable to the thinking public compared to the conservative leaders. That is why they are the ones who are regularly called whenever there is damage that needs fixing. And that is why if anyone were to make posters of PAS, these are the faces that should be plastered everywhere.

But the event was also a painful one to observe. The speakers tried their best to justify PAS’ inaction over the last two weeks. They had to come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses to defend the lackadaisical attitude shown by the likes of Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and other conservative figures in the party.

The speakers had to endure laughter from the hall when someone in the audience asked about the “Gerak 2.0” campaign to defend Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim called by another PAS central committee member, Temerloh MP Nasruddin Hassan Tantawi. The campaign received zero support and died within hours of it being announced.

They also had to brave criticisms from Prof Dr Abdul Aziz Bari, who was the fourth speaker at the event. Aziz did not mince his words. He was clearly upset by all the politicking surrounding the Selangor MB crisis and he made it clear that he thinks PAS was not helping the situation.

The speeches by the three PAS leaders were even more painful to listen to if we realise why they needed to do this at all. It was not their actions that caused PAS to lose so much goodwill in just a few weeks. These speakers were not the problem.

The problem started with PKR’s failure to manage its own internal affairs. The conservatives in PAS then exploited PKR’s mess for their own benefit, and in the course of doing that they turned PAS into a party whose trustworthiness is now suspect. These poster boys now have to come out with cup in hands asking the public to continue their trust in the party.

In order to properly understand the dynamics in PAS, it is important to know that, by and large, there are two groups competing for influence in the party.

There is a conservative (ulama) group that rejects most efforts to modernise Islamic thinking. They hold to a very rigid interpretation of Islam and they believe in a hierarchical Islam where conservative scholars stand taller than everybody else. They are not interested in an inclusive vision for the country.

The conservatives are very well organised. They dominate various party structures from the branches to the divisions to the states. And at the national level they have the very influential Dewan Ulama PAS Pusat. Through these party machineries, they exert a very strong influence on how party members think and act.

On the other hand, there is also a more progressive group that is trying their best to bring PAS into the contemporary world. This is the group that is commonly referred to as the ‘Erdogans’, referring to the reformist Turkish Prime Minister who also comes from an Islamist party. The speakers at the event on Sunday evening are generally from this faction.

The progressives are gradually increasing in number but organisationally they are very weak. They are mostly concentrated in urban and semi-urban areas. They may hold various posts at national level, but when it comes to commanding mass support from party members, they are still way behind the conservatives.

The progressives are regularly used by the party when engaging with non-Muslims and urbanites. Perhaps saying that they are “used” by the party is a bit strong.

In reality, the progressives know that they are more useful to the party if they spend more time dealing with non-Muslims and urban folks. So they willingly work within that space without the party telling them to do so.

When you put these two groups together, you will see why PAS is able to command support from both rural and urban voters. As a party PAS has hands in both demographic groups.

But we must not forget that in reality the conservatives are still the majority and they are still firmly in control of PAS. That is why conservative agenda like hudud and dress codes keep coming up every now and then.

It would be wrong to assume that PAS’ decision on Sunday to remain with Pakatan Rakyat means the conservatives have been defeated.

I believe they have temporarily yielded this time because they ran out of excuses when PKR sacked Khalid from the party.

If there were to be any hope of seeing a more moderate PAS, party members must strengthen the progressives.

If the conservatives continue to dominate, we will never see the true beauty of Islam – the Islam that celebrates liberal and progressive multiculturalism – flourish in Malaysia.

There are conservatives and progressives in almost all main parties in Malaysia, including in Umno, MCA, DAP and PKR. The same dynamics exist in most political parties.

Those who are involved in partisan politics should take heed from what is happening in PAS today. If you are a party activist and you really want to see a truly moderate Malaysia, you need to strengthen the progressives in your party by making them more organised and helping them win internal debates. Then only our country has a chance to move confidently towards moderation.

> Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs ( The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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