Since its formation, PAS is the most obvious party for anyone with interest in political Islam. In the 1970s and 1980s, more progressive activists joined in. They played important roles to remove PAS’ nationalist fourth president Dato’ Asri Muda, and they also helped cement Kepimpinan Ulama into the party ideologically and structurally.
But throughout their involvement in PAS, the progressives never organised themselves into a distinct group, preferring to work within the established party structure instead. Thus they worked with the conservatives in the party, and that was the period when slogans like “Mengulamakkan profesional, memprofesionalkan ulama” (making the professionals into scholars, and professionalising the scholars) became popular. This is different from the approach taken by the conservatives who organised themselves in formal structures like the Dewan Ulama and Majlis Syura Ulama.
Gradually the progressives found that they were given more and more space to shape PAS’ political strategy and mould PAS’ public persona. The conservatives tolerated them and gave them space.
One early example of how the conservatives were willing to accommodate the new trend took place in 1999, when the party was dealing with the real possibility of a sea change in Malaysian politics following the ousting of Anwar Ibrahim.
Around 20 members of PAS central committee travelled to the Islamic Foundation in Markfield, United Kingdom, to attend a meeting with renowned Islamic scholars Yusof Al-Qardhawi, Rached Ghannouchi, Khurshid Ahmad, and Kamal Alhelbawy. I was one of the junior organisers of that meeting. The top two items on the agenda were the acceptability of working with the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) and is it acceptable for a woman – namely Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife – becoming Leader of the Opposition.
In that meeting, conservative figures like Abdul Hadi, Haron Taib, then central committee member Hashim Jasin, and several others strongly opposed both ideas. But they relented after all the invited scholars explained that these were Islamically justifiable and necessary.
The most fascinating thing to observe in that two-day meeting was the interaction that occurred on the sidelines privately between the PAS leaders. The differences between the late Fadzil Noor on the one side, and Abdul Hadi and Haron Taib on the other, were stark. Fadzil worked hard to make the new partnership happen, but Abdul Hadi persistently challenged Fadzil’s views by saying that the moves are not Islamic.
Nevertheless, and to their credit, once a majority decision was made, everyone including the conservatives publicly supported the new political partnership. Such was their discipline in the party and we must credit the conservatives’ discipline for otherwise there would not be any opposition coalition at that time.
The progressives pushed ahead with their agenda to make important changes in PAS. Throughout that time, firebrands like then Deputy President Abdul Hadi Awang and then Ulama Wing Chief the late Haron Taib gave way to the progressives, even appointing them as poster boys of the party to garner support from non-traditional supporters.
Two substantial changes proposed by the progressives were for PAS to open its membership to non-Muslims, and for PAS to reshape the party’s practise of leadership by ulama. The conservatives rejected the proposal to accept non-Muslims as members but they agreed only to a watered-down version, leading to the formation of the Dewan Himpunan Penyokong PAS for non-Muslims but without giving them full membership rights.
The second idea, however, sparked a civil war in the party as it touched on a raw nerve among the conservatives. It was seen as a direct attack on their grip on power as well as on the party’s core identity.
The progressives continued their campaign but they underestimated the amount of work the conservatives were also doing to counter them. That was their biggest mistake. While the progressives were busy engaging with the wider public to convince them that PAS had changed, the conservatives focused on persuading the grassroot party members to resist the change. The conservatives had an advantage because as religious scholars, they can give talks in village mosques, giving them unrivalled access to PAS members at all layers. At the end, when it comes to shaping a party’s identity, it is the members that count the most, less so the public.
The conservatives’ impact started to show in PAS’ annual conferences in 2011 and 2013. The final draw was at the party conference on 4-6 June 2015 in Kuala Selangor. The internal battle that has been going on for many years snowballed into a complete wipe out of the progressives from PAS’ central leadership in 2015.
The progressives were clearly ill-prepared. They neglected the need to spread their ideas to the lower layers of the party, and they did not have a coherent internal campaign strategy. For years they did not even institutionalise their presence more than in the central committee.
In other words, despite being in PAS for several decades, the progressives were utterly unorganised. They mistakenly thought their ability to change PAS superficially were substantive successes, whereas in reality they were just temporarily tolerated by the dominant conservatives. The conservatives neither lied nor did they change their views. They remained true to their beliefs. It is the progressives who misread the situation. It is not at all a surprise that the progressives were completely wiped out from PAS in 2015 and had to form Parti Amanah Negara as their new vehicle.
First published for Thinking Liberally, The Star, 23 May 2017