Academic journal article International Journal of Islamic Thought

Muslim Politics in Malaysia and the Democratization Process

Academic journal article International Journal of Islamic Thought

Muslim Politics in Malaysia and the Democratization Process

Article excerpt

With the declining influence of leftist ideas and the so-called 'crisis of authoritarianism' in Muslim Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, democracy seems poised to offer itself as a viable alternative. By the early 1990s, terms such as pluralism (al-ta'addudiyah), civil society (mujtama' madani), human rights (huquq al-Insan), freedom (hurriyah) and transparency (shafafiyyah) have become buzzwords in the discourse among scholars and activists alike (Haddad 1995: 76). Islamic activism too had shown signs of moving away from the radical 'fundamentalist' phase of 1970s and 1980s to a 'participatory phase' characterized by a preference to work within the system and by a neo-reformism that questioned the traditional role of faith, its leadership, organization, priorities and interpretation (Wright 1992: 33).

A parallel development was seen in the experiments with political liberalization made by the ruling elites, which led to the emergence of 'Salvation Party' in Algeria, al-Nahdhah party in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Salafiyyah al-Nour party in Egypt and the AKP party in Turkey. These democratic experiments can be regarded as the shiftin the orientation of Islamic activism. The general scenario then has been a series of shifts by both the dissident Islamists and the regimes they were challenging: the former in direction of championing democracy and participation, the latter in the direction of Islamization. This section of this article explores contemporary Muslim politics in Malaysia in the light of these developments. It focuses on the relationship between the two major competitors in Malay- Muslim politics, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and the dominant component in the National Front (NF) coalition government, and the opposition Islamic Party (PAS), both operating in the socio-political reality of multi-ethnic Malaysia as well as in the 'unique Islamic experience, of its history (Esposito 1996: 124-149). It analyses these shifting trends and their implications for the future of Muslim politics and democracy in Malaysia.

Malay-Muslim Politics: PAS from Radical Islam to Islamic Democracy

The Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a breakaway UMNO faction, was formed in 1951 and is the main opposition party with the capacity to undermine the National Front's (NF) influence among rural Malays (Farish 2004: 17-45). Although PAS emphasized on Islamic roots and Islamic terminologies, but Islam as a system of governance was not placed at the forefront of the party's agenda in the first three decades of its existence (Ahmad Hussein 2002: 75-107). In fact, the party congress in 1954 rejected a motion seeking the immediate establishment of an Islamic state. The party's objective of Islamic governance was to be achieved incrementally through educating the public and nurturing an Islamic society, and through democratic means. However, PAS still neither portrayed UMNO and the government as Islamic and democratic, nor did it represent the interest of the Malay masses. It accused UMNO leaders and these non-Muslim coalition partners of promoting un-Islamic policies and encouraging decadent Western cultural influences.

Among the opposition parties, PAS today has the most strongly defined objective. As a party motivated by Islam, PAS is principally devoted to the formation of an Islamic state in Malaysia. Accordingly, it espouses policies and ideas that are rooted in Islam. Adopting this preponderant Islamic posture, PAS has been offering Malaysians, Muslim Bumiputeras in particular, a vision of a society reformed through legislation based on religious tenets (Edmund 2007: 1-23). The establishment of an Islamic state, according to the party, will bring about spiritual regeneration and lead to the development of a more just, democratic, moral, principled and socially conscious society, devoid of repressive legislation and unhealthy economic activities such as gambling.

Although in the Malay heartland, especially in Kelantan and Terengganu, PAS has consistently enjoyed staunch support, estimated at 35-40 per cent of the electorate (Edmund 2007: 8), and enabled it to mobilize sufficient support to secure control of Kelantan state legislature in 1990 and retain control of it in the general election in 1995, 1999 and 2004. …

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