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Islam Embedded—The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS (1951-003) Jun 9, 2005

Posted by ummahonline in Telaah Buku.

By: Yoginder Sikand

Author: Farish A. Noor
Publisher: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, Kuala Lumpur
Year: 2004
ISBN: 983-99866-8-6

Regarded by many Muslims elsewhere as the nearest to a ‘model’ Muslim state, Malaysia is a multi-racial country where Muslims form about sixty per cent of the population. Almost all ethnic Malays are Muslims, because of which Islam and Malay ethnicity are generally seen as inseparable. Politics in Malaysia has long been dominated by discourses centred on religion and race, and one of the principal actors on the stormy Malaysian political stage has been the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the subject of this engaging and absorbing study by Malaysian political scientist and social activist Farish Noor.

The book provides an in-depth account of the emergence and development of the PAS in Malaysia from the early 1950s to the present day. Critiquing Western scholarly accounts as well as Islamist representations of Islamist movements as static and unchanging, Noor highlights the significant shifts in the PAS’s ideology and politics over time. He is at pains to stress that Islamism is not a fossilized monolith, wholly impervious to change. Rather, he says, Islamist discourse and politics are invariably influenced by a range of external and internal factors, existing in a dialectical relation with each other. As these change Islamist theory and practice, too, are forced to respond, Noor argues. Highlighting subaltern or marginalized voices within the PAS, Noor also interrogates the notion of Islamist movements as monolithic and as being wholly intolerant of internal dissent.

Noor’s account of the origins and development of the PAS is situated in the broader context of the emergence of new ways of understanding Islam and Muslim identity in late colonial Malaya. These new voices of Islam sought to critique the conservative ‘ulama for the apparent lack of concern for the plight of the Muslims labouring under colonial tutelage. They also berated them for their perceived hostility to ‘modernity’ or at least their indifference to the challenges that ‘modernity’ posed to the Malay Muslims. They sought to articulate an alternate response to ‘modernity’ that was at the same time in conformity with Islam. These ‘modernist’ thinkers also appealed for Muslims to take a more active role in changing their society, resisting colonial rule while at the same time not hesitating to absorb the best that the West had to offer in the field of knowledge and technology.

The founders of the PAS were drawn from the ranks of these modernist Islamic thinkers, Noor tells us. Many of them were ardent champions of Malay ethnic interests, which they saw as threatened by the colonial regime as well as by a wave of Chinese and Indian immigrants. They were also critical of the Malay Sultans for their collaboration with the British and for their lack of concern for the plight of poor Malays. Several of them were passionately anti-colonial, and played a leading role in Malaysia’s struggle against British rule. Some went so far as to advocate a broad alliance between PAS, other Islamic groups and the Malay Communist Party against the British, and, after Malaysia had won its independence in 1957, against the new government which was seen as a compradore ally of Western imperialism.

PAS sought to champion the interests of poor, especially rural Malays, mobilizing them in the name of Islam. It bitterly critiqued the ruling United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO) party for having betrayed Muslim and Malay interests and as functioning as simply the watchdog of Western imperialist masters. It also denounced the crass capitalist form of ‘development’ that the UMNO had initiated that led to massive social inequalities in the country and only further aggrandized entrenched elites. Over time, however, Noor tells us, the progressive Islamism represented by PAS pioneers underwent a significant change under the pressure of electoral politics. This took place along with the sidelining of intellectuals within the party leadership and the rise of the conservative ‘ulama, from the late 1970s onwards.

Noor sees this development as part of a global trend, exacerbated by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. PAS leaders, who had once talked about social justice and national interests and had even advocated collaboration with communists, now began demanding the setting up of an Islamic state in Malaysia that would be ruled by pious ‘ulama in accordance with the shariah. PAS’ demands led to a fierce competition for the Muslim vote with UMNO as both parties tried to out-Islamise each other. This fierce war over Muslim votes and over the right to speak for Islam has now gone to extreme lengths, Noor tells us, as PAS and UMNO leaders regularly hurl charges of infidelity and apostasy against each other, branding each other as ‘agents’ of the ‘enemies’ of Islam. Noor sees UMNO’s declared commitment to Islam as half-hearted, if not hypocritical, its various ‘Islamic’ measures being carefully crafted in such a way that they either further promote capitalist imperatives and the UMNO’s own authority or at least do not challenge them. As for PAS, Noor says, it, like many other Islamist movements, effectively reduced its programme to a mechanical, even ritualistic, implementation of shariah laws. As PAS ulama today see it (and, as Noor notes, this is in stark contrast to the vision of many nationalist and left-of-centre PAS pioneers), most of Malaysia’s woes can be put an end to simply by imposing shariah laws. Shariah has, therefore, been reduced to a mere symbol, narrowed down to the PAS’s demand for the institution of hudud or Qur’anic punishments for a range of crimes. This demand, which has only further alienated middle-class Malays as well as non-Muslims from PAS, reflects, Noor suggests, the inability of the party’s ‘ulama leadership to imagine Islamic jurisprudence and social ethics in a manner more relevant to contemporary times. Noor also critiques PAS’s shrill rhetoric against non-Muslims, which he sees as a fairly new development. While PAS’s pioneers clearly spoke for Muslims and Islam, they did not actively promote hatred for non-Muslims, unlike what PAS ‘ulama are today engaged in, Noor alleges.

The book concludes with a detailed analysis of PAS’s response to the events of 11 September, 2001, and the launching of America’s so-called ‘war on terror’. Like many other Islamist groups elsewhere, PAS fiercely denounced America’s invasion of Muslim lands and called for Malaysian Muslims to join an anti-American jihad to defend Muslim interests. Not many Malaysian Muslims have, however, responded to that appeal. As Noor also notes, the UMNO-ruled government of Malaysia has been quick to use the opportunity provided by America’s strikes against Islamist groups to tighten its grip on Malaysian opposition groups, including PAS, while also collaborating with America in tracking down Islamist radicals. This is sure to further exacerbate the tension between UMNO and Islamist groups in Malaysia.

Noor concludes his book with an appeal for a progressive politics in his home country which alone, he says, can challenge the authoritarianism of the UMNO, the fanaticism of the PAS, as well as the structures of capitalism and imperialism. In this regard he sees Islam, interpreted as a philosophy of liberation and radical equality, as playing a key role. This sort of Islam, he argues, would necessarily entail questioning the claims of UMNO and PAS bosses of representing Islam and the Muslim community. Committed to comprehensive social justice for all, adherents of this new Islamic vision would, he says, need to work along with people of other faiths for building a new Malaysia.

As the most detailed study of the PAS this book is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the politics and history of South-East Asia. As a sensitive and provocative analysis of one of the key Islamist movements in the world today, it is also an invaluable reference for those interested in Islam and politics. The unwieldy size of the book, however, clearly limits its appeal. The two volumes could have easily been condensed into one, shearing off repetitions, unnecessary detail and annoyingly long footnotes that sometimes take up almost an entire page.



1. florence nagaratnam - April 9, 2008

This is an interesting book. Where can I buy it and what is the cost?
thank you

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