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Islam and Politics ( 14 May 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Lessons from Arab Spring Go Unheeded By Political Islam



By William Leong Jee Keen

May 08, 2014

While Anwar Ibrahim said that conditions were not conducive for Hudud implementation with Pakatan Rakyat partners and non-Muslims objecting to PAS’s proposal for a private member’s bill in Parliament to allow Hudud in Kelantan, Umno gleefully embraced it.

The two former foes are joining hands to form a technical committee to ensure the bill’s passage. With this collaboration, the Malaysian political landscape will change.

The fight for the Malay hearts and minds will no longer be Umno versus PAS/PKR but Umno/PAS versus PKR.

Umno definitely benefits from this arrangement. Whether PAS will benefit depends on whether Malaysians see political Islam in Malaysia as the Egyptians did when Arab Spring turned into an Arab winter of discontent.

Political Islam in Malaysia

PAS proudly acknowledges it is one of the first Islamist parties formed to incorporate religious goals into a political agenda. Its beginning can be traced to the first Pan-Islamic Malaysian conference at Madrasa Ma’ahad al-Ehya as-Sharif at Gunung Semanggul Perak in March 1947.

PAS positioned itself as a political party that aims to establish Malaysia as a country based on Islamic legal theory derived from primary sources of Islam, the Quran, Sunnah as well as the Hadiths.

The PAS Ijtihad and Tajdid

PAS joined PKR and DAP to form Pakatan Rakyat in 2008. The Islamic state agenda was not part of the Pakatan Rakyat Common Policy Framework.

Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad in an article dated December 28, 2012 referred to this as a transformation of political Islam post-Arab Spring. He said that PAS in a rare exercise of intellectual renewal or ijtihad and Tajdid (Revivalism) committed the party to and shifted itself prior to the 12th general election in 2008 – to a political trajectory and a manifesto of “Negara Berkebajikan” (the Benevolent State) from the overworked concept of the Islamic state.

While playing down the historical demand for the specific implementation of the legal aspects of the Shariah and the Islam penal code, namely Hudud, PAS changed its priorities to “justice for all” and distanced itself from Malay supremacy and racial-religious bigotry.

Dr Dzulkefly said that for Islam to be at the centre of national cohesion and solidarity, political Islam must be inclusive, voluntary and just. He pointedly asked whether PAS has what it takes to balance between attracting the trust and respect of the nascent non-Muslim support and discerning Malay-Muslim middle ground citizenry while treading cautiously to maintain traditional supporters wary of PAS’s changing trends.   

Dr Dzukefly Ahmad believed that if PAS truly understood and internalised its strength of being capable of strategically positioning itself in “middle-Malaysia”, due essentially to its embodiment of the Quranic imperatives of “Al Wasatiyyah” (Moderation) and “Rahmat al Lil-Alamin (A Mercy to All Mankind), PAS would be able to proceed on this longer term trajectory to maintain and enhance its support-base and acquire the trust and respect for a mutually rewarding social-politico-religious relationship with all of the nation’s peoples for a “New Malaysia”.

However, the PAS Muktamar in November 2013 became a turning point with hard-line young Turks taking on the progressives with the conservative Ulema sandwiched between.

With spiritual adviser Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat’s retirement from active politics, a younger generation of leaders emerged who had been uncomfortable with the party’s “liberalism” leanings following an infusion of professionally qualified persons as members and leaders.

These younger leaders see the loss of Kedah and PAS’s unimpressive performance in the 13th general elections winning only 21 out of 73 parliamentary seats contested as reasons to question the path the Islamist party had taken since 2008.

They read it as an indication that PAS is losing the support of Malays because they do not want PAS to soften its stand on the implementation of Islamic laws and values. The failure of personalities in the progressive group during GE13 such as deputy president Mohamad Sabu or Mat Sabu, vice-presidents; Datuk Husam Musa and Sallahudin Ayob and Dr Dzuklify Ahmad created momentum for the conservative ulamas to push PAS back to what they see as its proper function as an Islamic movement.

The conservatives view the bold measures taken to bolster the party’s appeal to non-Muslims, particularly softening its stance on its Islamic state agenda, as having caused PAS to compromise too much. Some PAS members ask why the Islamic state agenda had to be put on the back burner when it is the fundamental purpose for the inception of the party.

The group wants the party to review its cooperation with Pakatan Rakyat partners which to them mark a departure from the PAS original goal.

It is clear from the private member’s bill proposal that the conservatives have regained their ascendency in the party. It is also clear that in making the proposal the PAS leadership has decided to forgo the support of non-Muslims, reject inclusiveness, cut short the Ijtihad trajectory and revert to its traditional ideological base. The question is whether it will attract the Malay support it hopes for. The answer lies in whether PAS is able to take heed of the lessons from the aftermath of the Arab Spring.    

Political Islam in the Middle East

Like PAS, many Islamist political parties in the Middle East emerged as movements calling for the application of Shariah and to restore the caliphate state.

By successfully incorporating religious claims within their agenda, these movements were able to launch powerful critiques against those regimes that were undergoing a growing legitimacy crisis. They were also able to derive support from large segments of society that were frustrated with the corruption, authoritarianism and patronage of those existing regimes.

As protest movements, these Islamist parties never felt the need to develop habits of negotiation and compromise. As a consequence, their ideological rigidity became a source of anxiety for many who did not share their vision.

Egyptian writer and activist Woel Nawara and Dr Feyzi Baban, associate professor in political studies and international development at Trent University, said the question was and continues to be whether such Islamist parties will replace secular authoritarian regimes with religious authoritarian ones or whether they will be willing to become a part of the democratic transformation so desperately needed.

There had always been within the Muslim world and even within these Islamist parties a tension between Muslim conservatives and liberal intellectuals. Islamic traditionalists and Islamists have on the whole gained the dominant voice within Islam, especially since the Islamic resurgence in the 1970s, and had swept all before it.

These conservatives saw Shariah as divinely inspired and unchangeable, valid for all times and places, and attacked the few liberal voices seeking to reinterpret the Muslim sources in line with modern context and human rights.

The War within Islam: New Ijtihad and the Conservatives

Islamist commentator, Patrick Sookhdeo, observed in 2009 that a small minority of marginalised Muslim progressives had been bravely defying traditional and mainstream Islam. Important leaders started to come out against long-held traditional views, doctrines and practices, openly supporting ideas compatible with modernity. Some experts on Islam said: “The really decisive battle is taking place within Muslim civilization, where ultraconservatives compete against moderates and democrats for the soul of the Muslim public.”

It was noted that a powerful struggle is ongoing for the soul of Islam. New voices were emerging within mainstream Islamic leaders embracing a new “Ijtihad” compatible with modernity and human rights.

They would seem to accept the liberal reformist view of prioritising the core values of Islam, distilled from Islamic source texts, as spiritual and moral norms that override literalist, coercive, political and social interpretations. They seem to be willing to reconcile traditional Islamic concepts with modern humanistic values of pluralism, freedom and equality.

The progressives in the Middle East appeared to be winning this battle when major political Islamic movements evolved their narrative by discarding the exclusive loyalty to the Islamic Ummah and adopted progressive positions. These caused the middle classes and lower middle classes in these countries to shift their support from the traditional secular elites to the Islamic movements.

The leaders of Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait and others published manifestos that accept the principles of political pluralism and the notion of the “modern state” that does not correspond directly to Islamic jurisprudence.

However, in all the key political Islamic groups there were and continues to be conspicuous divisions between them – on the one hand, savvy leadership that are keen to widen their constituents and not alarm the huge middle classes of these societies and on the other hand, the conservatives ideologically-driven and bent on Islamisation of their societies.

The overarching objective of almost all political Islamic groups is not to attain parliamentary majorities but to gradually Islamise their states-and their societies. It was relatively easy to consign this objective to the long term when these groups were – in most cases – the opposition focusing on maximising their social and political presence in systems dominated by secular authoritarian regimes. However, when Islamic groups with conservatives holding sway commanded the legislative and executive powers in a country, Islamisation of society takes centre stage.

Arab Spring

Arab Spring which saw multiple uprisings that started in Tunisia and made its way to Egypt and other parts of the Arab world in 2011 was breathtaking. The promise of the Arab revolution was – and remains – a break with repressive authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to pave the way towards an era of freedom, dignity and prosperity.

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara said never in the history of the region have people been so hopeful, so ready and so adamant to change their lives for the better as they were in 2011.

Never has the spread, speed and similarity of uprisings across continents been so breathtaking, and the contagion so instantaneous. Never have the young and the old, men and women, middle-class and working class worked so closely and so satisfyingly. Never have the religious and the secular, the liberal and the conservative marched so trustingly in the streets and public squares of the Arab world as they did at the outset of the Arab Spring.

After Morsi won the presidential election, despite reminders by the moderates to tread carefully, many of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood invoked a “historical imperative” to start an “Islamic Enlightenment” project. Egyptian author, Tarek Osman, in an article written on 23 October 2012 had the prescience to ask whether the Islamic parties would genuinely reach out to their countries’ wider social constituencies or return to their ideological roots.

The Muslim Brotherhood could not deny the ideologically-bent conservatives sacrificing the secular on the altar of the sacred. The seeds for the coup d’etat on July 3, 2013 against Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent ban of the Muslim Brotherhood were sown by their attempt to implement the Islamisation policy without dealing effectively with the socio-economic problems.

This allowed the intelligence and military under the old Mubarak regime to take advantage of the ensuing anti-Morsi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments to regain power in one fell swoop under the pretext of saving the revolution from the Islamists.

Many who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 and 2012 saw the well-organised party as an indication of high moral standards and quiet competence that would translate into an effective government.

These hopes were dashed. In the words of an international consultant who advises regional governments, the Brotherhood turned out to be “high on will, low on skill”. Morsi put far more effort into trying to consolidate his own control than in dealing with Egypt’s dire economic and social problems. His appointments plainly showed a preference for piety over competence.

Political analysts and researchers report that the majority of the voters supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (Hizb Al-Hurriya Wa Al-Adala) because they believed this well-known and well-organised party when it promised to redistribute wealth and shore up Egypt’s crumbling welfare state.

When it failed to do so, the voters’ retribution was swift, as evidenced in the rapid constriction of the Islamist vote share from two-thirds of voters in the initial legislative victory to barely a quarter of the voters in the 2012 presidential elections – and the eventual mass movement to expel Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013.

Political Islam’s place in the hearts and minds was always contingent not on religious fervour but on Islamist parties’ real world performance.

It became increasingly clear that the appeal of the Islamists stems not so much from their religious standing or their promises to impose shariah law as from their superior ability to harness the resentments of Egypt’s poor.

With problems proliferating from surging unemployment to crippling power and fuel shortages, it was perhaps not surprising that a large section of this vast underclass took to the streets for a second time.


PAS in proposing the Hudud private bill has in one stroke negated its gains from non-Muslims won over the past 6 years. Is there room for an inclusive political Islam in Malaysia?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows that there is. When the Turkish secular establishment deposed Necmetttin Erbakan, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) struck back in 2002 and have ruled the country ever since.

The return of Turkish Islamists happened only after they made fundamental changes in their ideology and political platform. They moved from Erbakah’s “idealism” to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “realism” and built their model of governance based on meritocracy, transparency and accountability.

The AKP's initial success after its first election victory in 2002 was due to its ability to distance itself from the title “Islamist” and define itself as “Muslim Democratic” in addition to its ability to initiate a broader political and economic agenda with democratic reforms at the centre and its promise to become a government free from corruption.

Such initiatives allowed the AKP government to build an alliance with groups and movements that might otherwise have been sceptical of allying with a political party with Islamic credentials. Indeed, the success of political Islam in Turkey underscores that inclusion is a crucial factor in altering Islamists’ ideology and mind-set to become more moderate and progressive.       

Lessons from the Arab Spring

Political scholars and observers note that Middle Eastern societies are not a single monolithic mass of people.

They are, instead, complex societies consisting of different ideologies, lifestyles and identities – including different ethnic, religious and cultural identities – with competing interest and objectives.

The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood illustrates that Islamist parties have not completed their evolution from being rigid ideological parties, whose sole aim is to remake their societies in their own image, to pragmatic organisations willing to represent and give voice to their followers in a pluralistic political environment.

If the Muslim Brotherhood experience points to the need for political Islam to accommodate a pluralistic society, this applies all the more in our multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural Malaysian society.

Political Islam has indeed come to the crossroads. Islamist parties can either hold on to their rigid ideological base, trying to mould their societies to fit within their singular vision, or they can accept their role as an influential force in a democratic pluralistic regime, within which the rule of law must guarantee protection of rights for everyone, including Islamists.

Only the second alternative provides a road to stability. The first will only bring more conflict and disharmony.

PAS needs to do some re-thinking on political Islam. – May 8, 2014.

William Leong Jee Keen is Selayang Member of Parliament.