by Abdar Rahman Koya (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 5, Jumada' al-Ula', 1426)
ARK: Does PAS see itself as part of the global Islamic movement, as opposed to an Islamic partywithin Malaysia?
Dr Nasharuddin Mat Isa: This idea of an Islamic movement has been an idea accepted and inculcated in the members of the party. We consider ourselves to be an Islamic movement that is actively involved in politics as one of its mediums to achieve its goal. We have huge networking with many Islamic movements throughout the world – and yes, we consider PAS to be one of the chain of Islamic movements that is functioning in this part of the world.
When you say PAS is ‘actively involved' in politics, can we assume that you mean PAS is involved inMalaysia's ‘democratic' political system?
We participate in the process of democracy in Malaysia, for instance in every general election. We consider the process of democracy that is practised in Malaysia to be one of the means that enables us to function as an Islamic movement and a political organisation.
Is PAS's vision of an ‘Islamic State' in Malaysia still there?
And has that changed in any way, as we hear in the media that there are attempts at changing or ‘repackaging' your vision?
We don't deny the ‘repackaging', but it does not mean that we are jeopardising our basic principle of struggle: Islam, reference to the Qur'an and the Sunnah [Prophetic model], ijma' [scholars' consensus] andqiyas [analogical reasoning] – these are the basis of PAS. The establishment of the [Islamic] State as such is part of our struggle. This process of ‘repackaging' is part of an effort to offer those principles in accordance with the changing of time, situation and the condition of the country. What is being read in the media, especially the Malaysian media, does not really represent the position of PAS on many issues. Except for the last few days, we have been portrayed as very orthodox, backward, unfunctional, and so on.
Having participated in elections and the democratic process as it is practised in Malaysia, do you think that can deliver an Islamic State?
That is the only choice that we have here in Malaysia with the capability that we have now within the party. We are not able to do more than that, and with such participation in this process of democracy – or, if you like, the ‘pseudo-democracy' that we have here – we have managed one way or another to bring many issues which are related to Islam to the public, issues which have never been discussed before. Through our participation in this democracy, people, even non-Muslims, are beginning to hear, discuss and debate issues like Islamic law, the hudud, the Shari'ah system, et cetera.
We can see such discussions ever since PAS took over the Kelantan state government. What kind of lessons has PAS learnt from there?
First of all, this is the third consecutive term that the people have given their trust to the Islamic party. We have learnt that when we hold to the basic principles of Islam, and try to bring them into the governance of the state, respect is given by the people in Kelantan. And people give us the opportunity because of the trust in spite of the many limitations that we have.
But what are the lessons you have learnt from there for governing the country as a whole?
To govern the country as a whole – at the Federal level – that is something to which we have applied the political ijtihad [innovative thinking based on Islamic principles] in 1999, when the late president Fadzil Noor suggested that there was a crucial need for us to join hands with other political parties. We know that to get the support of the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities is no easy task for us. So joining hands and forming a coalition with other political parties was a strategy that we took in 1999, which was repeated in 2004. It was successful in 1999 but not in 2004.
Touching on strategy, what kind of relationship does PAS have with Anwar Ibrahim?
It's a friendship in the sense that we supported him during his imprisonment, in spite of his being in the government for 17 years, when he was a big enemy to PAS. But when it comes to ill-treatment of a person without fair trial, we put aside those 17 years, and in upholding justice we helped him, and supported him during his six years in prison. That's the nature of the relationship.
But isn't it true that PAS has gone beyond sympathy with the personal ordeal that Anwar went through, to something more, for example making him a prime-ministerial candidate during the last two general elections?
We don't see any problem in it because we formed a coalition and an understanding with different political parties in order to come to a situation that should we win at the Federal level, somebody had to lead the coalition and we thought that Anwar was in the best position to do so.
Does PAS regard him as an Islamic leader?
He has been active in Islamic works, for example in ABIM [Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia], and known to be someone who is learned in one way or another in Islamic issues both locally and internationally. Yes, I think he has some credentials of being an Islamic leader.
In spite of that, there are those who say that PAS should be wary of him and not to be too close to Anwar Ibrahim and those around him. What do you think?
We build our friendship on trust, understanding his struggle when he was in ABIM and being affiliated in one way or another with Islam even when he was the deputy prime minister. The trust we have in him is still there and we hope he can continue with that image.
It is an open fact also that he has very close relations with some of the shady characters in the Bush administration, the ‘hawks' if you like, such as John Bolton, president Bush's candidate for ambassador to the UN, and Paul Wolfowitz, his choice for the World Bank presidency. How does PAS reconcile its position with this?
We are not sure how it will affect Anwar's political struggle back home. But to us, having relations with those people you mentioned should be seen as being within his personal capacity. In spite of what he is doing now, like going around the world for lectures, it is here in Malaysia where he is going to function. He has to be realistic when he comes back to Malaysia.
But surely as a politician, his choice of personal friends will also be a sign of his political leaning?
Having relations with individuals might influence his thinking. But if you see the reality of the political scene in Malaysia, working with PAS and the Malaysian population, I believe he is clever enough to position himself as to what to take and what not to.
Recently Anwar was interviewed by the BBC in Hardtalk, and was asked about his relations with some of these ‘hawks' in the US, his partnership with PAS, and his views of the Islamic State concept. About the Islamic State, he said there should be a ‘constitutional guarantee' that there will be freedom of religion, as if there is none within an Islamic state. How does PAS approach such concerns?
As far as PAS is concerned, there is always the fear that if we were to come to power, freedom of religion will be trampled on. My answer is simple: take the example of Kelantan, where we have respected freedom of religion during the last 15 years in power, whereas only last week the UMNO-ruled Terengganu [state] government demolished a mosque. Does that show freedom of religion? The issue of freedom of religion to me is quite relative in a way.
You agreed that there is some kind of repackaging of PAS's image. Since September 11, 2001, the question of image has become a sort of obsession with some Muslim organisations. Do you think Anwar's role is to correct this image of PAS as a ‘fundamentalist' party?
We will correct it ourselves and we are doing it now. Anwar is a friend of ours, but people would like to hear it from us, whether by travelling overseas or through many of our projects here. Our new approach has this oft-repeated terminology of ‘engagement' – we will be active in this process of engagement, whether through dialogue sessions, outreach or through mutual understanding with others.
How about the view that PAS is tying its destiny to Anwar and his supporters?
That is not destiny; that is our strategy. Our destiny is mentioned in our constitution, i.e. the establishment of Muslim unity, the application of the Qur'an and Sunnah as our reference – this is our destiny.
Do you believe that there are no permanent enemies and permanent friends in politics?
We stick to principles. Friends and enemies in the current political terminology are based on needs. But for Muslims, the fundamentals and the principles are the main issue. We cannot jeopardise our principles just because of friends.
Let's imagine a situation which is not impossible, based on recent experience. What if Anwar goes back to UMNO and the government?
We are futuristic in our thinking. Well, if that happens, it is normal in politics. Manoeuvring will occur but I don't see any sign of PAS being willing to sell its principles just because of that.
Let us talk within the framework of the global Islamic movement. Hasan Turabi of Sudan and Anwar Ibrahim are two classic examples of the failure of the ‘political infiltration' strategy by Islamic activists; in other words they joined the system to reform it, but the strategy backfired. How do you justify this process of trying to work within the government and attempt changes?
We should then go and find one example of Islamic movement with different methodologies used and which has succeeded in reaching its goal. What Anwar did was a trial, and it did not succeed, as is also the case with Turabi. As for PAS, we participate in the process of democracy. Whether or not we succeed, that is for God to decide.
But, like other systems, there are basic flaws in democracy that you will have to bear with. So if you participate in it, you will have to make compromises with the inherent flaws it has. There is always the perception that PAS is too obsessed with electoral politics, that it is shying away from a lot of groundwork, for example da'wah [propagation] in a multi-religious society like Malaysia. Will it be better for PAS to expand its activities to generate popular support at the grassroots level, propagating your ideas and convincing people of your struggle? This way, if you fail in the process of democracy, it is not the end of PAS as you will still enjoy grassroots support. Your comment?
That is what we are doing now, but we have not achieved the expected results. We do go to the grassroots through our activities. We have about 7,000 kindergartens operating, to educate pupils as young as four and five years old. We also organise public rallies to enable the masses to get a second opinion, and this has prompted the government to curb such rallies. We also go to the masses with our media, such asHarakah, but they also curbed it. The late PAS president Fadzil Noor kept emphasising PAS's role as a mass-oriented movement, a ‘harakah ummah', that reaches all levels of society. But when you are talking about working in the Malaysian political scenario, it is quite different from many parts of the Muslim world. Firstly we only have 54 percent Muslims. Secondly, the socio-political structure is such that our people are very complacent with life. They are constantly faced with economic threats by the regime if they don't vote for the right party. All these influence the thought of the people. If you look at the popular votes we gained in 1999, it remained, in fact increased, in the elections in 2004. So we still have popular support. Mass movement is quite relative in its meaning.
But do you feel your work is just converting the converted? How do you deliver your ideas to those not exposed to Islam, let alone to PAS, and who are fed only with what the government media feed them?
This is my new theme. I have divided Malaysian society into four sections for this purpose. Firstly, the PAS circle. I believe that if we are going around only within the PAS circle, our da'wah will not expand, and the political aspect of it will not be gained. Then comes the huge number of Malay-Muslims who fear PAS and have very negative and pre-conceived perceptions about PAS. We are going to penetrate this section. Next comes the non-Muslim community. This is where engagement takes place. And then comes the international community, with whom we try to have regular meetings so they understand our struggle. This is where the process of re-imaging is needed. We don't want to be perceived as an organisation which represents only the Malays or only those Muslims in the East Coast. We want to come out of this and break into a more global role.
Can you imagine PAS being able to gauge itself not through the ballot box or the democratic process?
We are unable to do so because we don't have the means to do so. Nevertheless, we will recommend to the government a revamp of the whole electoral process, such as introducing the concept of proportional representation. Of course it is far beyond reach, but at least we want to make an effort.
There are many who feel that PAS has made too many political compromises, instead of standing on principles, for example its relationship with Anwar, with non-Muslim-based parties such as the DAP, with some of the NGOs who are now talking about ‘personal freedom', etc.
We have to differentiate between destiny and strategy. The destiny is what I said earlier. As for strategy, if we go back to the time of the Prophet, we find that he used different strategies when addressing theMakkan and Madinan communities. Our relationship with Anwar and the others, as I have mentioned, is because we know it is quite impossible for PAS as an 800,000-member organisation to govern at the Federal level. It needs the participation of others.
How does PAS handle the issues brought up by several NGOs and individuals regarding personal liberties, something which have almost always accompanied the subject of Islamic State?
We respect liberty and the fundamental freedom of human beings, but Islam teaches us that for Muslims such freedoms must be within the fundamental teachings of Islam. When it comes to non-Muslims it is a different story. Now there are people who want ‘moral policing' to be halted even to Muslims. We disagree, and say that Muslims must abide by the Shari'ah and not be taken out of that boundary in the name of freedom, human rights and many other terminologies.
Do you not think this may lead to some kind of legal dualism: one set of rules for Muslims and another for non-Muslims? Isn't that dividing people based on their religions?
This is already happening in Malaysia. We have two systems, for example the Islamic family laws are only for Muslims and civil laws for non-Muslims.
So do you think it is good for Malaysia in the process of nation-building?
It is quite a delicate issue, this process of making people understand the basic norm of applying the law. The process of education is something which will take a very long time. But the law must be implemented, and has a kind of deterrent as well, to show the sovereignty of the system.
Does PAS provide an alternative vision for Malaysia's role in the world – its relations with the UN, theUS, etc.?
I was asked not long ago how PAS views the issue of Malay-Muslims in Singapore. My answer to that is: when we talk about international law, we respect the basic principle of self-determination. No to interference, but yes to concern. That is what Islam teaches us, that whoever do not show concern to fellow Muslims, they are not from them. Based on that, we believe that we must show concern to the developments in the Muslim world, and we want to do that with different strategies and methodologies of handling it. We have been very active in the issues of Palestine, Kashmir, issues of Muslim minorities such as in Thailand, and so on. As for relations with others, the Qur'an teaches us not to have the intention of meeting enemies. But when they act against us, we have to be steadfast. We do not have intentions of expanding enemies, but if they are a threat to Islam and our struggle, then we will be steadfast in our principles.