The state of the Islamic movement in Malaysia today is by and large a product of the 1998 saga. Anwar’s ordeal resulted in odd partnerships in the Malaysian opposition, with both Islamic and anti-Islamic elements joining forces to form a coalition to win elections. PAS felt it had no choice but to join the bandwagon, lest it be accused of not seizing the moment when many non-Muslims had turned to it for some form of leadership in their opposition to Mahathir. Similarly, outside Malaysia, human-rights organizations, religious figures, European leaders and the most hawkish of American personalities came to Anwar Ibrahim’s defence, partly because of his years of establishing a wide network of supporters.
Now as his judicial ordeal in Malaysia fades into the past, so does western criticism of Malaysia, a country whose economy offers great prospects of profit for western investment. This is partly because of the Malaysian government’s engaging public-relations experts not only for foreign-investment purposes, but also to present itself as a moderate Muslim country. Its support for the ‘war on terror’, offering logistical and moral support to Washington despite its loud anti-American noise, has also brought the Malaysian leadership back into the good books of American lobbyists, who in turn influence policies in Capital Hill.
Anwar Ibrahim, the man whom Washington now apparently favours to lead this southeast Asian Muslim country, is now in the opposition even if he refuses to hold any party post. But the US and its western thinktanks are in no hurry: the present leadership is able to deliver, but for the ‘war on terror’ to generate tangible results it needs a man with the necessary combination of qualities: Islamist yet pro-western, and therefore easy to deal with – to succeed gradually in the top echelons of government.
The implications of all this on Muslims in Malaysia are already visible: western thinktanks and local NGOs funded by western interests are already engaging the opposition, particularly PAS, in various issues which do not concern ordinary Muslims directly. These include such things as “personal freedom”; some sections of an emerging class of secular elites have called for the powers of Islamic enforcement-officers (mild compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts) to be abolished. This non-issue came up when children and relatives of some politicians were arrested recently for consumption of liquor and other unIslamic behaviour at a discotheque in Kuala Lumpur. These groups have also tried to persuade the government to establish a so-called “inter-faith commission” so that all religions will be consulted on national policies.
The sudden rise of these ‘liberal’ demands has to do with the steady emergence of secular elites among the Malay Muslims, most of whom have ties with ‘royal families’ and powerful politicians in other countries, in much the same way as Pakistan’s disco-generation and Turkey’s secular elites have tried to justify their unIslamic lifestyles, while at the same time curtailing the Muslims’ freedom to choose their own destiny.
One thinktank, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, based in Germany, which has been sponsoring political programmes for the opposition, has even prepared a platform for PAS, on one side of the fence, and several NGO representatives, on the other, to debate issues raised by these groups. Such marketing-style seminars and forums to ‘engage’, ‘tame’ and infiltrate the Islamic movement are common in many other Muslim countries, and are a clever distraction for the Islamic movement, to prevent activists’ attention from focusing on more urgent issues. One can argue that in Malaysia’s case, PAS needs to be ‘tamed’ because it is an integral part of the opposition and cannot be isolated, in preparation for Anwar’s return to government.
Anwar’s visits to several institutions in the West, such as to Oxford University and John Hopkins University, can also be read in the same way: a public-relations exercise to impress upon Washington that the Malaysian opposition is “friendly”. Speaking at John Hopkins in Washington early last month, Anwar hinted that some form of Western pressure should be applied in order to ease the opposition’s burden (remember that such pressure is already seen in places like Lebanon and Venezuela). Anwar expressed regret for Washington’s recent praise of the Malaysian government: “It is mockery even when Washington, for example, approves this sort of exercise [‘undemocratic’ practices] because it just portrays your utter ignorance or inconsistency in dealing with such countries,” he told the audience (italics added).
Anwar was also at pains to convince his American audience that PAS, his main ally in the opposition, would review its Islamic-state aspiration, adding that its agenda is not tenable in a multi-religious society such as Malaysia. “They have agreed to review this and I have told others that I can be convinced. But many non-Muslims, many liberal Muslims may not be convinced because they are thinking that while you say that now, you may hijack the agenda after the election... You cannot equate the Islamic party or judge them purely on the propaganda of the ruling party. They are not the Taliban. They take a more liberal view.”
Although it is not entirely true that PAS is reviewing its position on the Islamic state, it is a fact that it has failed to propagate it with wisdom. Since Mahathir rebuilt his image after 1998, PAS’s influence has steadily declined. This was made worse by the death of Fadzil Noor, whose leadership of PAS had ensured that the party kept its ideal intact yet worked with others to bring about reform and change. Many disgruntled leaders and others hitherto aligned with the ruling elite had joined PAS. A few of them have risen in the party to occupy key posts. These are businessmen and professionals who are well known among government circles. Yet their contribution to disseminating Islam – to lay the foundation of an Islamic state or do da’wah in a multireligious society like Malaysia – has been minimal. Much of the party’s resources have been geared towards winning elections, which it could not have managed anyway because of the strict campaigning and election rules.
The absence of a capable leadership in PAS is probably one reason why it has in effect left its direction to Anwar. PAS is now increasingly being sidelined in debates that affect Muslims in the country, and its leaders’ responses to the challenges being brought by the so-called ‘liberal’ camp have been dismal. Its arguments are almost all within a national political framework, such as the replies it gave when these ‘liberals’ questioned the enforcement of morality among Muslims. PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang merely warned them against transgressing the federal constitution and the powers of the sultans.
PAS’s survival as an Islamic movement to voice the ethos of Islam in Malaysia may be at stake, as it increasingly finds itself trapped in the system it chose to be in, and seeks to ‘re-brand’ itself. It seems that it now wants to survive as a ‘market-friendly’ political party, and do so by aligning itself with Anwar, who many expect will be the prime minister. This may well result in long-term (if not irreparable) damage to the Islamic movement, and risks turning the only Islamic movement in the country into a Turkish-type ‘Islamist’ political party that exists mostly in the ballot-box and for little else.