The party president promoted leadership by the ulama and removed checks and balances.
THE recent PAS muktamar saw the conservative ulama group solidify their powers. After the 2015 purge of the progressives from the party, there is no longer anyone to challenge them.
The ulama’s grip on PAS was institutionalised only recently, in the 1980s.
It started off as an internal movement to depose Datuk Mohammad Asri Muda, PAS’ fourth president, who was seen as too Malay-centric.
The protest gradually paved the way for the rise of the ulama group in the party. Influential figures include Haji Yusof Abdullah Ar-Rawi or better known as Yusof Rawa (pic), Abdul Hadi Awang, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, and many more. Their main argument was that ethnic nationalism, including the version championed by Asri as well as that of Umno, was un-Islamic.
Eventually, their time came when they successfully removed Asri on October 23, 1982. Yusof took over, marking the beginning of a significantly new era in the party’s ideological evolution.
Under Yusof, the party radically changed from one that had a narrow Malay agenda into one that promotes radical Islamism. Over time, the influx of activists from the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) and the Islamic Representative Council assisted Yusof’s agenda to turn PAS into a staunchly Islamist party.
These newcomers brought with them a more structured system to turn members into cadres, using an internal education (tarbiyah) mechanism inspired by the global movement Muslim Brotherhood, such as the usrah (discussion groups) and the tamrin (training courses). When I was active in the party, these activities were my weekly routine.
Yusof’s PAS also used stronghanded tactics to attack Umno and others whom he deemed as being on the “other side”, openly and repeatedly claiming those who are not with them were unIslamic.
Yusof’s strategy of creating a black-and-white distinction was strengthened by a rising firebrand from Terengganu, Abdul Hadi Awang (now Datuk Seri).
Abdul Hadi caused a storm when he issued his edict – the Amanat Haji Hadi – which implied that those supporting the Umno-led Barisan Nasional are supporting a kafir (infidel) agenda.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Hadi was the first to introduce a slightly softened version of the takfiri approach, that was widespread in the Middle East at that time, into the forefront of Malaysian national politics. Under this approach, whatever they labelled as not Islam was automatically on the “infidel” side and therefore must be opposed.
Hadi’s radicalism helped spread the thinking that PAS is Islam and Islam is PAS. As a result, PAS’ political enemies were labelled enemies of Islam too. In Hadi’s home state of Terengganu, some PAS supporters wouldn’t even go to mosques whose imams were known to be siding with Umno.
Yusof’s presidency saw some important structural changes too. Influenced by the 1979 Iranian revolution, supporters of the ulama group in PAS started to propagate the claim that leadership belongs only to the ulama. In other words, only they can be leaders.
This concept eventually evolved into Kepimpinan Ulama. The crux of this idea is that the ulama are chosen by God to inherit leadership positions left by Prophet Muhammad, and therefore only they should lead the party, if not society.
In 1983, PAS passed a constitutional amendment to set up an unelected Majlis Syura Ulama (Ulama Consultative Council) as their highest authority. This was implemented in 1987. They also created the post of Mursyidul Am to chair the Council. Both came with no mechanism for checks and balances or accountability to members.
The ulama group within PAS benefited directly from Yusof’s changes. Their grip on the party was not only ingrained as an ideology but also guaranteed through the institutional changes.
Yusof’s presidency, and the era of leadership by ulama that he started, was the watershed that enabled the ulama group to exert an iron grip on PAS. Before Yusof, PAS behaved like a normal political party, whose leaders were mere mortals who could make mistakes and more importantly could be challenged and deposed. Holding high positions did not turn people into holy men. In fact, prior to Yusof, PAS had two presidents – Haji Ahmad Fuad and Asri Muda – who were forced to leave their posts in the party by the members.
But Yusof started a new normal where top party leaders begin to be regarded as chosen by God to inherit the leadership positions left by the Prophet. The creation of the Majlis Syura Ulama and the post of Mursyidul Am was a major step in that direction, as it created positions where democratic accountability becomes irrelevant.
No mechanism was available to provide a check and balance against the occupants of these offices. Yusof and his supporters paved the way for PAS’ top leaders to become almost infallible.
Yusof’s mark on PAS was remarkable. He and his supporters used Islam not just to rise to power but also to institutionalise their grip on power, at least in the party. The top leaders can now demand obedience (wala’) from party members and they can also determine what is the correct party ideology (fikrah).
By removing effective check-and-balance mechanisms on the ulama’s powers, Yusof institutionalised and “Islamised” a version of soft authoritarianism in PAS.
And that continues until today.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.