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Sunday May 31, 2009

Cool in the face of challenge

PAS’ deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa, who faces two challengers for his post, believes that the party must hold negotiations with Umno to resolve matters. He insists one should not close one’s doors even to one’s enemies.

THE 55th PAS muktamar (general assembly) is days away and Nasharudin Mat Isa, who faces a stiff challenge for the party’s prized deputy presidency, isn’t pacing up and down the hallway thinking about what might be.

Nasharudin: ‘There are those who say I am a conservative ulama and others who say I am a professional ulama. I can only say that I am serving the party with the little knowledge and experience that I have gained.’

There is no razzmatazz about his campaign to secure the post he won in 2005 and retained in 2007, dethroning party heavyweights along the way.

The boy-faced 47-year old politician is keeping cool – helped with cups of tea with fresh mint leaves – and shows no signs that he is fighting for political survival.

“This is really soothing,’’ he says as he serves up a cuppa late in the night at his spacious bungalow in Bandar Bukit Mahkota, near Nilai, which looks deserted at that hour.

The exclusive housing area has about 30 bungalows and the guard at the entry post instantly offers to lead me to Nasharudin’s home without even asking to do so.

“At this hour, they know that any visitor must be for me. And the early ones too,” the PAS No. 2 says with a laugh.

The living hall looks immaculate with fine touches, with Nasharudin attributing it to his wife Munirah Mahmod’s “designer” skills.

There are no signs to show that he is in the midst of any frenzied campaigning, with everything neat and in place.

“I’ve been going about things as usual. The members know who I am and what I stand for. I look forward only to my Friday sermons,” says the Negri Sembilan-born father of four, who delivered his non-fiery khutbah (sermon) at the Masjid Kubang Semang in the Penanti state constituency in mainland Penang on Friday.

There have also been no freewheeling interviews. The media, both local and international, have been hounding Nasharudin for his views on the contest but the Bachok MP has granted none, before agreeing to this one with Sunday Star on Thursday.

“I view the elections in PAS as an internal party matter. There is no need to jazz things up,” he says about his low-profile campaign.

With Datuk Seri Hadi Awang retaining the president’s post uncontested, the second-in-command is the highest post being contested at the three-day muktamar which begins on Friday.

Awaiting Nasharudin in the ring are two of the party’s three vice-presidents – Kelantan senior executive councillor Datuk Husam Musa and former Kuala Kedah MP Mohamad Sabu – non-ulama (Muslim scholar) who are ranked VP 1 and 2 respectively.

The battle, however, is mainly between Nasharudin and Husam in what is shaping up as a proxy fight between Hadi, who is comfortable with the incumbent, and the party’s spiritual leader and Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who is said to be tacitly backing Husam, his homegrown nominee.

Husam, 50, fired the first salvo at the incumbent by labelling Nasharudin “too Umno liberal” – referring to the unity talks led by Hadi with Umno following the March general election last year.

The revelation of the PAS-Umno unity talks disturbed many within PAS, with the grassroots said to be unhappy about it.

The fingers are being pointed that it was Nasharudin, a law lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia until his appointment as PAS secretary-general in 1999, who had been propagating the talks.

In a rare response to the stinging criticisms, Nasharudin explains that he was only abiding by what was endorsed at the party’s muktamar (general assembly) in Ipoh last August.

The leader, who is seen as one of the younger modernist progressives within PAS, and now labelled a conservative ulama, delves deeper into the positive consequences of the party reaching out to Umno.

Nasharudin, who was Yan MP in Kedah (1999-2004) before losing the contest for the Besut parliamentary seat in 2004, also gives his views about the battle for the No. 2 spot, and discusses the various groups in PAS.

Q: Your president says there is tiada perpisahan (no rift) in PAS, but reports suggest that the ulama and professional groups are at loggerheads.

A: There is no such division. Even if you ask those who say so, they wouldn’t be able to define what those two groups are. What we have in PAS is a combination of people with different backgrounds and levels of education. When we popularised the motto “Pas for All” (in 2005), we meant to open up the party to anybody who wanted to join us, whatever their background. To the extent that we are now also inviting the non-Muslims to be a part of the PAS Supporters Club, as the constitution says one has to be a Muslim to be a member. We’ve roped in lawyers, engineers and many religious scholars, who specialise in different areas. So I don’t see too much division, rather it is only an identification (of the groups).

You are an ulama yourself, someone said to be representing the conservatives against the progressives in the party. Is that fair profiling of you?

I am not sure about the terminologies used to describe me. There are those who say I am a conservative ulama and others who say I am a professional ulama and even a combination of both. I can only say that I am serving the party with the little knowledge and experience that I have gained. Even my experience as a student overseas, mingling with people of various backgrounds.

But what do you say, specifically, to your being labelled a conservative ulama, pitted against other groups called the liberal ulama and the Erdogans?

It has never really happened in the party (before), this naming of groups. This is my fourth year as deputy president. If I were to be conservative, then how is it that over the last four years, we have brought in a lot of new approaches to the party. For example, the “PAS for All” concept was mooted in the past four years, and also the discussion of opening the membership to non-Muslims. And I headed two by-elections in Kuala Terengganu (Jan 2009) and Bukit Gantang (April 2009) when many approaches were taken, which I don’t think fits the terminology of me as a conservative.

Now they (the other group) are being liberal? What I understand in PAS is the principle stays but it is how you do things, how you promote the party and its struggles. One has to take into account the current situation and political scenario. The principles stay but as far as the methodology and approaches are concerned, one has to look at current needs.

Still, politicking in PAS seems to have taken on unprecedented levels, such as the perceived duel between the kepimpinan ulama (ulama-led leadership) and the pro-Pakatan Rakyat liberal professionals. Isn’t the power play evident?

Yes, I could say in Malay, it’s more meriah (merrier) now (smiles). One of the reasons I think is due to the influx of those with different backgrounds into the party. So we cover a wider spectrum now. To me, it makes things livelier compared to previous party elections. But my hope is, lively as it can be, things must be kept within the framework of Islamic ethics and objectives of the party.

Can you define who is an ulama in PAS? That one is from Al-Alzhar University and speaks Arabic?

Ulama is the plural for alim. Alim means a person with knowledge. Traditionally, and it has been the practice that when you talk about the ulama, it is about people who have knowledge about the religion based on its original sources, the Quran and tradition. So when you look at the definition of ulama from that point, it applies here (to me) also. Mainly those who studied or graduated in Islamic studies are called ulama.

There is this lingering question as to who reigns supreme in PAS. Is it the president Datuk Abdul Hadi or Mursyidul Am (spiritual leader) Tok Guru Nik Aziz?

The party constitution states that the CEO of the party is the president, of course. The Syura Council (Consultative Council of Religious Scholars headed by Nik Aziz) is the referential body of the party, guiding the party according to Islamic teachings. It has a big role in interpreting the party constitution, and also gives guidance on the “do’s and don’ts” of the party’s activities. But the highest authority of the party is the muktamar (general assembly) itself. On the day-to-day running of the party, it is the president who leads.

But Nik Aziz has said that he is the captain of the ship. That all important matters, such as any form of co-operation with Umno, must be referred to him.

It should be referred to the Syura Council as it is the highest authority. Because how we do things in the party is that it should be a consensus of the organisation. For example, when we decided to be a part of the BA (Barisan Alternatif or Alternative Front) in 1999, this was decided and endorsed by the Syura Council. There was a lot of talk about opening up the membership to non-Muslims but the Syura Council says that for now, it has to be looked at from various angles. So it has not been practised yet.

When we talk about the muktamar being the highest decision-making body in the party, last year (at the muktamar) in Ipoh, one of the resolutions was to strengthen Pakatan Rakyat, for us to extend our hand and not shut our doors in talking to others, be it NGOs or political organisations.

The contest for the deputy presidency is mainly between you and Datuk Husam Musa, who says he is challenging you on a matter of principle. How do you feel with your one-time ally ganging up against you?

Well, as I mentioned just now, it is a lively one (contest). That is the process of democracy in the party. The members know me. And this is not like competing against Umno or any other organisation. It is not competing against an enemy. This is something within. We (Husam and I) are friends and are in the top leadership of the party.

You got the lion’s share of nominations, 68 in total. Both your opponents are said to have obtained in the region of about 20 plus each. Do you see this as a clear indication of support for you?

Well, one is eligible to contest with just two nominations so it is not that significant how many more you get. But having many divisions’ support, it shows that there is already secure support. In the previous two elections, I got fewer nominations. This is the highest I’ve received. But it will be a challenge because these two guys (Husam and Mohamad Sabu) are not small names in the party.

The main grouse against you seems to be your devotion to the president’s zest to promote co-operation with Umno. Are you still holding firm on this sensitive issue?

I’ll stand by it. Because (holding talks with Umno) following the general election last year was a decision made by the Syura Council. Right after the general election that issue was a heated one in the party but it was endorsed again in the muktamar last August. What people fail to see is that the decision by the muktamar was to strengthen Pakatan Rakyat and yes, I am doing just that. Look at what happened in the Kuala Terengganu and Bukit Gantang (by-elections which PAS won), we (Pakatan Rakyat) were together. But at the same time, we did not shut ourselves out to dialogue with others, be they NGOs or political organisations.

So what I did was something that was approved by the party, it was not a decision by the president alone. I did nothing wrong. I believe very much that parties must sit down and resolve matters in the national interest. We shouldn’t close our doors even to enemies. Negotiations are the way to resolve the crisis that we are faced with. If that was going to be the main issue (against me), I don’t think I would have got the number of nominations that I did. I got even more nominations this time compared to the last election (in 2007).

How is it that so many senior people in PAS claimed they did not know about the talks with Umno?

That is not right because papers have been presented, and it was even mentioned during a party retreat. I heard talk that the main intention of the president (Hadi) in holding talks with Umno was not only about unity but also to bring PAS into the Barisan Nasional. This (bringing PAS into the BN) is not at all true and never was in the president’s agenda.

What is the ultimate objective of unity talks with Umno?

The latest idea of the president is to look at the current situation of the country economically and socially. We think it is high time we put politics aside and for us to talk. Not to decide on anything yet, but to discuss how best to contribute to the betterment of the country. It was just a matter of dialogue. He (Hadi) says let us talk and see what we can do. We had a few rounds of talks but none with the current leadership (of Umno).

Unity government means PAS and Umno coming together in a coalition to govern the country?

Not just PAS and Umno. The (PAS) president’s idea was to bring together all political organisations in the country, to sit and talk. It might sound somewhat philosophical and a little ambitious, but we say why not?

Now that you know the level of resistance in PAS on the issue of connecting with Umno, do you expect an about-turn by the party president?

It has to be a decision made by the muktamar. This decision was fully endorsed at the last muktamar and no one spoke out against it then. But we know that it is not easy for members to accept, because the scars inflicted by Umno on PAS are still there.

So it needs some time. This is not going to be something that is going to be understood in a day or two.

PAS wants to distance itself from its hardline past by becoming more moderate?

Well, this is part of the reforms under the president. People always have this negative notion of him being a hardliner, judging by the way he dresses and thinking that they can’t get close to him. But when he came up with the idea (of holding talks with Umno), it came as quite a shock to even many Umno leaders. They said “we thought that your president is a hardliner whom we can’t talk to.”

He threw the idea up for discussion. And I repeat it was just about talking, not to masuk (go into) Barisan Nasional as many feared. We know how serious (the problems) faced by Umno and Barisan Nasional are. But they are still the (Federal) Government.

What should the contest for the No. 2 post be decided on then?

We are going to face new political challenges which might change the landscape after the next general election. PAS is seen now to be championing the Malays and also the public at large. And I am not boasting when I say that the party has a very good image among the public. So we should strengthen ourselves. Fundamentalists, yes we are. We hold on to the fundamentals of Islam. But we are also realistic in looking at the politics (in the country).

Do you feel hurt with your present predicament, leaders questioning your objectives?

This is not the first time that I am being challenged, so I am not hurt. My efforts for the party have not been for one or two persons, not for the president or Tok Guru. We have been trained in the party that whatever we do, it is in the name of Allah. It is not about individuals. We work for Islam through the party as a whole within the jemaah (congregation) spirit in accordance with Islamic teachings. That’s what makes PAS different from others.

You did not get the most number of nominations from your home-base Kelantan where you are the Bachok MP. Rantau Panjang nominated Husam on the basis that you failed to spearhead changes you were tasked to.

I headed two by-elections and we won. I came to Bachok as a total outsider (in the 2008 general election) and defeated a deputy minister (Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin). I have done whatever asked by the president, nationally and internationally. I managed to bring PAS’ voice even to the United Nations General Assembly. I represented the party at the international level. I leave it to Allah to reward me, not individuals.

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