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MALAYSIA: Minorities Wary of Islamist Party’s Overtures

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 12 2006 (IPS) - Malaysia’s opposition Pan Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) has been making serious overtures to the country’s non-Muslims, promising them ‘justice and equality’.

But non-Muslims, who make up a significant 40 percent of the country’s 26 million people, though deeply desirous of political change, are refusing to bite the bait put out by the fundamentalist PAS.

While all Malays are deemed Muslim by the constitution, ethnic Chinese who form 24 percent of the population are mostly Buddhists or Christians while Indians, who make up another eight percent, largely follow Hinduism.

The PAS experiment seeks to persuade non-Muslims that they need not fear Islam and that the religion offers a more wholesome alternative to western secular laws, besides protection and preservation of their own culture, traditions and religions.

Both moderate Muslim and non-Muslim voters had punished PAS in the 2004 general election for building its campaign entirely on a promise to set up an Islamic theocracy, if it comes to power.

Since then, however, the PAS appears to have undergone a major makeover that is more in tune with the secular principles on which the country’s constitution is based, recognising the rights and interests of Chinese, Indians and other minorities. But PAS’ problem is that a moderate, western-educated cabal of liberal leaders has been voted to high office and change is also sweeping through the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led National Front coalition government.

Prompted by the sound drubbing at the polls, PAS strategists are beginning to see wisdom in accommodating non-Muslim views and fears.

Changes on the anvil include the party’s willingness to accept minority Chinese and Indians as associate members, readiness to field non-Muslims as candidates in elections under the Islamic banner and opening membership in the all-male Supreme Council to women.

“PAS members are now more mature and educated to accept such ideas,” said PAS deputy president Nasaruddin Isa. “Islam guarantees equality and justice for all members, irrespective of their religion and race.”

Critics, however, say the changes are insincere and opportunistic and designed to discard the party’s extremist image in order to woo non-Muslims ahead of a general election, widely expected late next year.

It is still unclear how non-Muslims, who fear the PAS and oppose its ambition to turn Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society into an Islamic theocracy, would react to the changes. But PAS is not waiting to find out and is readying a road show to convince non-Muslims of its new moderate outlook and openness.

PAS, which rules Kelantan state, is also offering non-Muslims something they have desired since independence in 1957 – equality with native Malays and an end to affirmative action policies that favour ‘sons-of-the-soil’ over non-Malays of immigrant stock..

PAS is also promising a transparent, accountable and corruption-free government in which the sole criteria for participation would be merit rather than race or religion, as is practiced now.

All the promises are attractive for non-Muslims but the fear of Islam is also deep-rooted. That fear has traditionally driven them to support the ruling 14-party coalition government that has been in power since independence, no matter how shoddy a deal they might get.

Led by the UMNO, the National Front has dominated politics because non-Muslims have supported it in exchange for a guarantee of adherence to secularism.

“It is a very interesting experiment PAS has embarked upon. Previously, there was considerable non-Muslim sympathy for PAS because it had dedicated and incorruptible leaders who preached justice and equality,” said Raja Petra Kamaruddin, editor of the ‘Malaysia Today’ news website. “But after 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ the very word Islam terrifies non-Muslims,” he told IPS.

“PAS is out to clean up this image in time for an early general election….if they succeed here other Islamic parties can do the same elsewhere in the world,” Kamaruddin told IPS.

Kamaruddin admits that the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims has widened considerably. “Even opposition political parties refuse to join an opposition coalition if PAS is a member,” he said. “There is simply no market for Islam among non-Muslims here and everywhere in the world.”

In the 1999 general election non-Muslim voters punished the opposition Democratic Action Party or DAP for forming a coalition with PAS. After the DAP walked out of the coalition the same voters rewarded it in the 2004 general election.

Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim is however racing against time to convince non-Muslims to understand the true dimensions of Islam and not fall prey to the anti-Islam phobia.

Anwar, who has formed an alliance with PAS, is wooing the secular DAP, an opposition party that largely represents the interests of ethnic Chinese. But, many of its leaders are opposed to the idea and refuse to have anything to do with a coalition where PAS is a member, unless the party publicly renounces its Islamic agenda.

Over one million Malay Muslims had voted for PAS in the 2004 general election and by that they had implicitly endorsed the party’s Islamic state platform. For PAS to renounce it would be a major disaster and would possibly cause serious internal dissension and turmoil, political analysts said.

Many non-Muslims are caught in a dilemma – they like the PAS leadership for its clean image, incorruptibility and transparent management but they oppose a political programme based entirely on Islam. “I will join PAS if it gives up Islam,” said trade unionist A. V. Kathiah.

“Like me, many Malaysians will consider joining PAS because it has clean and credible leaders,” he told IPS. “The problem is that these leaders see everything through the prism of Islam.”

However, Mahfuz Omar, a senior PAS leader said non-Muslim fears of Islam are irrational and unjustified. “PAS is making a big sacrifice by opening its doors to non-Muslims,” he said. “Over time non-Muslims will realise that Islam is perfect for this life and the hereafterà what more would anybody want,” he said.

Non-Muslims want equality, repeal of unequal laws and an end to policies that favour one particular race.

Critics say that the image of PAS as an extremist organisation is too deeply ingrained to be erased merely by throwing open party membership to non-Muslims.

The party’s strategy thus far has been to explain to non-Muslims that the justice and fairness in Islam will protect and promote their interest and that they have nothing to fear. But such assurances are not enough.

This strategy is acceptable on matters of cultural autonomy, ethnic equality and integrity but suspicion returns with the party’s often controversial policies on religious freedom, morality and gender equality, and even dress codes.

Experts say PAS has to do two things if it wants to appeal to non-Islamist votes. First, it must widen its appeal and articulate it in Malaysian rather than Islamist language such as by campaigning against issues such as hikes in the prices of petroleum products, which affects all Malaysians irrespective of race and religion.

Secondly, PAS must change its lukewarm attitude to democracy and commit itself to push for established civil society objectives.

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