Malaysia's Islamists Going for the Mainstream?

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Malaysia's Islamists Going for the Mainstream?


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


ELECTORAL POLITICS in Malaysia has brought changes in the declared policies of its major Islamist party, just as it has to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the AKP in Turkey.

The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) was shaken by the outcome of the 2004 general election, when it lost the state of Terengganu to the government coalition after gaining it in the 1999 elections, and retained control of its traditional stronghold of Kelantan by only a single seat. Its presence in the federal parliament was reduced from 27 seats to six.

While one trend in the party was to call for a reassertion of traditional party values, another-associated chiefly with younger members-called for adaptation to the changes in the social environment in which the party worked. According to that argument, in order to appeal to the public PAS needed to project a more modern image. One sign of change was in the party's attitudes toward music, of which it used to have a negative view. Now it stages concerts in which songs that reflect religious values are performed.

In the March 8, 2008 election, PAS for the first time did not include in its manifesto the establishment of an Islamic state. Instead, it emphasized a commitment to good government and political reform, and cooperated closely with its opposition partners, the largely Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and the reformist Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), headed by Anwar Ibrahim. It restored its strength in Kelantan, became the strongest party in the Kedah state government, and won 23 of the 82 seats taken by opposition parties in the federal parliament.

A crucial challenge for the opposition allies was how to continue working together as a credible force over the coming four years before the next elections without falling out over the divergent elements in their agendas. At the beginning of April, they held a press conference and announced the formation of the People's Alliance coalition, which probably would not have been possible had PAS not maintained the approach it took during the election campaign.

Speaking to the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily on April 6, PAS president Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang said that it would not push for the implementation of syariah (shariah) law, and observed:

"In reality, an Islamic state is not poles apart from DAP's socialism: our stand on some issues such as justice, anti-graft and poverty eradication are the same."

Forty percent of Malaysians are non-Muslims, and they have consistently viewed the issue of implementing syariah law as a threat. Paradoxically, one of the factors that cost the government coalition support among non-Muslims were its attempts to beat PAS in appealing for Muslim support-including upholding a series of judgments that gave religious law a higher status than federal law, and a campaign of demolition of Hindu temples built without authorization.

Mass Escape Alarms Singaporeans

There are moments in Singapore when I am reminded how secure most people feel. At food courts, students often put their bags on seats to reserve them and then go to buy food from hawkers' stands. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a box left unattended on a train. I looked around at the faces of my fellow passengers; none paid it the slightest attention.

Having lived in London during the recent decades of conflict in Ireland, I grew used to its level of security consciousness. Railway stations routinely broadcast the warning that unattended luggage might be destroyed; rubbish bins were removed from many of the city's streets lest they have bombs left in them. …

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