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Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)

Farish A. Noor
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Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)

Roots in Malay Muslim Nationalism

Throughout its history the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS) has represented the concerns of the Malay Muslim community of Malaysia. Before PAS was launched, Malay Muslim nationalism in British Malaya was already a visible force in pre-independence politics. By the end of the nineteenth century across the Straits Settlements (of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang) and the Federated and Unfederated Malay States (FMS, UFMS), there emerged new Malay Muslim intellectuals like Syed Sheikh al-Hady, Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, Ibrahim Yaakob, Ahmad Boestaman, and Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, who began to call upon their fellow Malay Muslims in British Malaya to organize themselves into political parties and movements. Their influence grew during the period of the Japanese occupation during World War II, for they were favored by the Japanese military administration and some of them were invited to serve in the militias that were set up during the occupation.

With the return of the British in 1945, many of the Malay Muslim nationalists began to organize themselves into political parties. On 11 May 1946 the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) was formed following a meeting of more than forty Malay Muslim organizations. But the Islamists were disappointed with UMNO’s relatively nonaggressive stance toward the British, and in 1948 they formed their own Islamist party, the Hizbul Muslimin. This was banned by the colonial authorities within two months, and as a result some of the Islamists rejoined UMNO instead. Others fled to Indonesia, where they took up arms against the Dutch in the Indonesian war of independence.

In 1951 the UMNO party was in crisis as a result of the “Nadrah Affair,” which involved the legal status of a Dutch girl who had converted to Islam and married a Malay Muslim. The Islamists wanted the leaders of UMNO to take a more assertive stand on the matter, but UMNO was then engaged in a protracted negotiation with the British in the lead-up to Malaya’s independence.

PAS Emerges in 1951

The nucleus of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party lay in the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the conservative-nationalist Malay party, UMNO. By 1951 deeply rooted differences of opinion between the ʿulamāʾ and political elite of UMNO had contributed to the split between the two factions and the emergence of PAS on 24 November 1951, shortly after the third Pan-Malayan ʿUlamāʾ Congress.

The organization was then called the Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya (Pan-Malayan Islamic Organization), and it came under the leadership of Haji Ahmad Fuad Hassan, who was the head of the UMNO bureau of religious affairs. From the outset PAS was led by an executive council and had three separate bureaus: the Ulama Bureau (Dewan Ulama), Youth Bureau (Dewan Pemuda), and Women’s Bureau (Dewan Muslimat). In 1953 Fuad Hassan was replaced by Dr. Abbas Elias, who was also a member of the colonial medical services in British Malaya. During this period PAS was a weak party with little funding and a small pool of members and supporters. The fact that it was led by men like Dr. Abbad Elias who were members of the colonial civil service also meant that the party was unable to speak against British colonial rule.

PAS under Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy: 1956–1969

PAS’s fortunes changed when the party came under the leadership of the left-leaning Islamist-nationalist Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, who had been educated abroad in universities like the Aligarh Muslim University of India. Between 1956 and 1969, the combined leadership of al-Helmy and Dr. Zulkiflee Muhammad turned PAS into a modern political organization. They were largely responsible for transforming the movement into a political party with a centralized organizational structure, a chain of command, and links with other Islamic parties and movements abroad. It was during this time that PAS established two party newspapers, Suara Islam (The Voice of Islam, est. 1956) and Bulan Bintang (The Moon and Star, est. c.1960).

Under the leadership of al-Helmy, PAS developed into an Islamist party that was both nationalist and anti-imperialist in its outlook. Burhanuddin and the new leadership of PAS condemned the Malay nationalist leaders of UMNO as “collaborators” who did not oppose the British the way the Indonesian nationalists had done. Their heroes were men like President Sukarno of Indonesia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Rather than the Muslim community of Medina during the time of the Prophet, they looked to the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Pan-Arab alliance as models of collective political action. PAS’s leadership was then sympathetic to the outlawed Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which they regarded as an ally in the anticolonial struggle. In the elections of 1959 PAS scored its first victory by gaining control of the state assemblies of Kelantan and Trengganu.

From Anticolonialism to Ethno-Nationalism: PAS under Asri Muda 1970–1982

In 1969 Burhanuddin al-Helmy passed away while under detention without trial by the Malaysian government. In 1970 PAS came under the leadership of Mohamad Asri Muda, who was a staunch defender of Malay rights and privileges. During Asri Muda’s time PAS developed its grassroots network in the northern states of Kelantan and Trengganu, and in 1971 the party adopted its present name of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS).

Between 1970 and 1982 Asri Muda turned PAS into an ethnocentric Malay Muslim party concerned with advancing the status of Malay Muslims. His internal purge rid PAS of many of the left-leaning Islamist leaders who had been close to Burhanuddin. In 1974, despite protests from leaders and members of his own party, Asri brought PAS into a coalition with UMNO under the banner of the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN). For a brief period PAS leaders tasted power at the federal level. But PAS’s membership in the BN coalition ended on 17 December 1977, when UMNO leaders were accused of meddling in PAS affairs in Kelantan.

PAS’s ideological U-turn and Asri’s leadership disillusioned many Islamists in Malaysia. This created a vacuum where new Islamist organizations like the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) emerged, under the leadership of young Islamists like Anwar Ibrahim. These leaders were increasingly influenced by the currents of Islamist thinking from Egypt and Pakistan. PAS fared badly in the elections of 1978, weakening Asri Muda’s hold on his party even further.

The Rise of PAS’s ʿUlamāʾ Faction: 1982–1998

In 1982 an internal coup led to the overthrow of Asri Muda and the rise of the “ʿulamāʾ faction,” led by senior PAS ʿulamāʾ like Tuan Guru Yusof Rawa and Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, as well as a number of Islamist student activists like Ustaz Fadzil Noor, Ustaz Abdul Hadi Awang, and Muhammad Sabu. Many of them had come from the newly established Islamist movements like ABIM during the time when PAS’s credibility had been damaged by its association with UMNO and the National Front coalition.

Under the leadership of the ʿulamāʾ faction, supporters of Asri Muda were removed from positions of power in the party. Asri himself was forced out of PAS; afterward he attempted to form a splinter party of his own but failed. He eventually joined UMNO in the final years of his life, but never regained his popularity. PAS’s new leadership, however, was more vocal in its criticism of the UMNO-led government, which it condemned as secular, “Westernized,” and corrupt. Inspired by the Iranian Revolution and the ideas of Islamist ideologues of the Egyptian Ikhwānal-Muslimūn (Muslim Brotherhood) and the Pakistani Jamaat-e Islami, PAS’s opposition to the Malaysian government grew stronger. The 1980s witnessed the first violent clashes between PAS and the Malaysian government as the Islamist party became more uncompromising in its demands. In 1984 and 1985 there were clashes between some of the more outspoken leaders of PAS and the state security forces, notably the 1985 killing of the controversial PAS leader Ustaz Ibrahim “Libya” at the village of Memali in the state of Kedah.

In 1986 PAS created its fourth party paper, Harakah—which was later published in both hard copy and online format, making PAS the first party in Malaysia to embrace the Internet as a tool for the dissemination of its ideas. While PAS was willing to use the latest technology to spread its message—internet chat rooms, live online forums, DVDs, Web TV—it also introduced new, stricter rites and rituals of membership from the 1980s onward, including the oath of allegiance (baʿyah) and the office of the spiritual leader (murshid al-ʿāmm) of the party.

PAS’s fortunes were mixed in the mid-1990s. In the 1995 general elections, it managed to retain control of the northern state of Kelantan but failed to make inroads anywhere else. During the East Asian economic crisis of 1997–1998, PAS championed the cause of reform (reformasi) and benefited enormously from the unpopularity of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. At the November 1999 elections PAS made bigger gains, winning two states—Kelantan and Trengganu.

Since 1999 PAS has been trying to reposition itself as the party of social and economic reform. However external events such as the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States of America and the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan compelled PAS to revert to its strong anti-Western stance, which in turn alienated it from ordinary Malaysian voters, who seem less inclined to support such radical politics. In 2004 the Islamist party suffered a severe setback at the elections as a result of the negative image it had cultivated for itself, thanks to its public support for the Afghan Taliban and other radical-conservative Islamist groups abroad. In the elections of 8 March 2008, PAS regained some of its losses as it joined the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) coalition and won control of the state assemblies in Kelantan, Perak, and Kedah.

PAS Today and Its Future

The PAS of 2011 is led by a combination of activist-inclined ʿulamāʾ like Abdul Hadi Awang, Nik Aziz, and Haron Din, as well as professionals like Dr. Hatta Ramly, Dr. Kamaruddin Jaafar, Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Khalid Samad, and (until her death in 2011) Dr. Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali. The party has become the second biggest Malay Muslim party in Malaysia, with an estimated one million members and supporters throughout the country, though it remains committed to its goal of creating an Islamic state in Malaysia. The Islamist party is allied with the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP), but remains steadfast in its opposition to American influence in Asia and the Muslim world. On 16 November 2001, the Muslim Secretariat (AMSEC) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established under the auspices of PAS and based in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. It was meant to serve as a coordinating body for all Islamist parties and movements across Southeast Asia opposed to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan (and later Iraq).

PAS sees itself as an Islamist party with national political aspirations, presenting itself to the Malaysian electorate with the slogan “PAS Untuk Semua (PAS for All). Since 2004 its leadership has been contested by three factions: the conservative ʿulamāʾ, the conservative Malay ethno-nationalists, and the “progressive” camp that has sometimes been called the “Erdogan” faction of PAS – a reference to the Turkish prime minister and leader of the Islamic party there. The latter seek to transform PAS into a national party that would come to power by working with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition and abiding by the rules of democracy. What both the conservative ʿulamāʾ and the progressives agree upon, however, is that PAS will no longer cooperate with the nationalist UMNO party, and will remain as an opposition party until the day comes when it might win power through the election process.

Critics and skeptics of PAS claim that the Islamist party has made only superficial changes to its political rhetoric and methods while retaining much of its Islamist agenda. PAS has also been criticized for its opposition to Muslim liberals, gendered minorities, and Muslim minority sects such as the Shīʿa and Ahmadis. Although the party’s leaders now seem firmly committed to democracy as a means to come to power, they have also not relented in their calls for the Islamization of Malaysian society.


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