The Evolution of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS): How it Became so Powerful
Why PAS is here to stay
The true winner of Malaysia’s general election in November was the Malaysian Islamic Party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS. PAS won 49 out of the 62 seats it contested in the 222 seats in national parliament. PAS support extended far beyond the east coast and northern regions of the Malaysian peninsula that were considered their traditional support base. Middle class Malays and civil servants also showed strong support in outer urban areas and the federal administrative capital — areas which PAS has never been able to penetrate previously.
PAS even made inroads into the state of Penang, which is considered one of the most liberal areas of the country. The party won two seats in Penang, Kepala Batas, which was traditionally a United Malay National Organization (UMNO) stronghold, and Pematang Puah, a seat long held by a member of now prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s family, and this time defended by his daughter, the popular Nurul Izzah Anwar.
PAS also took over state governments in the northern states of Perlis and Kedah, adding to the Kelantan and Terengganu states that they already held. This was the best ever electoral performance by PAS ever. Only this time the party didn’t have to sacrifice any of its ideology to satisfy any multi-racial coalition. PAS ran on the narrative of protecting the dignity of Islam.
Origins and Evolution
PAS was founded in 1951 as the Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya, or the Malayan Islamic Association, by a group of UMNO ulamas (jurists, clerics). Many were members of both UMNO and PAS at the same time, sharing anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments at the time.
In 1956, the ulamas left UMNO en masse to form the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP) in protest over being given minor positions in the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman, regarded as Malaysia’s founding father. (“Tunku” is a Malay royal title.) The Tunku saw the need for technocrats rather than ulamas to guide the nation’s economic development.
The core objective of the PMIP became the creation of an Islamic state, based upon shariah law. This was in contrast to the then Alliance government that wanted to develop the country in a secular, Westminster-style manner. Subsequently, the PMIP changed its name to the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia in 1971.
An Insulated Community
Although the PMIP and later PAS had performed spasmodically electorally, the ulama had a long-term view of building upon the extensive network of traditional pondoks (religious schools), and madrasas (Quranic schools) across the region. These pondoks and madrasas had been owned and operated by families who were uztaz and uztazas (male and female Islamic teachers) going back for generations.
This was expanded upon with the establishment of community mosques and tadika (kindergartens) across the country. PAS developed a sense of community, where members would pray together, send their children to PAS-run Islamic schools, and lived their lives as close to an Islamic perspective as possible. A core objective of these rural communities would be to vote for a party that nurtured their Islamic life and promoted Islam.
Today, Islam has been taught as a religion of exclusion to the point where those who don’t share the same beliefs are labeled as infidels. Even meat slaughtered by Muslims who don’t embrace the PAS ideology is considered haram.
This separated PAS members from other Malays in nearby rural communities. This can be very clearly seen during elections where various kampongs or villages would display different political flags. Green for PAS, dark blue for the Barisan Nasional, and light blue (red last election) for Pakatan Harapan.
Young urban professionals were attracted to PAS. They were co-opted into the leadership and, more importantly, they set up businesses that eventually grew into manufacturing, trading, and retail networks. These young professionals also set up urban Islamic schools, building influence in cities. PAS is also extending influence into the southern states of Negri Sembilan, Melaka, and Johor.
The focus is on setting up close knit communities and focusing upon Islamic education among the youth, rather than directly harboring short-term political ambitions in these areas.
Leadership and Ideology
PAS has been under the stewardship of conservative ulama, grounded in Islamic studies in Egypt and Jordan. The politically aware ulama were greatly influenced by the writings of Muslim Brotherhood ideologues Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and Abul A’la Maududi, the major figure of the Indian version of the Brotherhood, Jamiyat Islami. Like the Brotherhood and its offshoots, they believe society should be based on a comprehensive system of life governed by the Quran and Sunnah, as interpreted by the ulama.
PAS is governed by a Central Ulama Council (DUPP) that develops ideology and shapes the overall narrative. The Ulama Council is headed by the Indonesian-trained Ahmad Yahya. The supreme ideological body is the PAS Ulama Council, headed by Egyptian- and Jordanian-trained Nik Muhammad Zawawi Salleh, who is also an MP.
The PAS Ulama utilize usrah (Islamic study circles), under ulama council-appointed facilitators to promote the PAS ideological line among communities. Current political issues are also reviewed, where circle members are given the relevant knowledge and narratives to respond to the perceived enemies of Islam.
PAS ideology has evolved and been reinterpreted over the decades. With the rise of Nik Aziz Nik Mat and Fadzil Muhammad Noor during the 1970s and 80s, Islam was interpreted to be inclusive. Fadzil Noor modeled the party’s rhetoric to attract young urban professionals to diversify the leadership. PAS appealed to moderates with the slogan of “PAS for all”, when it joined the multi-racial coalition Pakatan Rakyat to fight the Barisan Nasional government during the 1999 general election. This moderate stance gained PAS 27 federal parliamentary seats. However, the electoral fortunes of PAS went up and down over the next decade. In fact, in 2004, PAS was almost decimated, and current leader Abdul Hadi Awang lost his federal seat. In addition, the PAS state government in Terengganu was soundly defeated after one term in office.
The fortunes of PAS improved once again in what became known as the electoral tsunami against UMNO in 2008. Pas won the Kedah state government, Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS became the chief minister of Perak, and PAS participated in the Selangor state government.
PAS underwent a major split in 2015, where the moderate Erdogans and professionals within the party left to form the Parti Amanah Negara. This left PAS without any moderate elements within the leadership councils. Once again, the ulama now led by Abdul Hadi Awang were firmly in control.
A Hardened Ideology
Abdul Hadi’s ideology took PAS towards a view that secularism is an act of removing Islam from society, and thus must be opposed. He saw that Islam cannot influence society without shariah. PAS would not have influence at the federal level, but could influence society through the state governments that they controlled. This has become very evident in Kelantan where cinemas and other live entertainment is banned. Supermarkets and department stores have separate checkouts for men and women, and many traditional Malay customs were banned for being un-Islamic.
Abdul Hadi’s view was that the traditional Muftis of the nation were politically servile types, who were ignorant, providing fatwas that served their establishment masters. Consequently, UMNO was seen to perpetuate un-Islamic rule and neo-colonialization and, thus, the struggle against UMNO was jihad.
This, however, was paradoxical as PAS served in a Perikatan Nasional and Barisan Nasional coalition where UMNO dominated. Abdul Hadi took the long view, refusing any key ministries, except for religious affairs. Abdul Hadi’s position as special Middle East envoy was designed to enhance his position as a Muslim Brotherhood statesman on the international Islamic stage, where he has been active for many years. The Muslim Brotherhood see PAS as a political role model, where Abdul Hadi is regularly invited to speak internationally.
The vast number of students sent overseas to Egypt and Jordan to study Islamic studies, together with those who have studied Islam locally has swelled the ranks of PAS. Education has been the primary tool, with the network of schools and popular social media channels that reach out to the young. The PAS education network reaches all the way to Sabah and Sarawak. The dakwah movement across universities where Malays are studying overseas took advantage of loneliness to nurture and develop supporters. The general Islamization of the education system in Malaysia has developed more conservative values in the youth then those of previous generations. The youth have also influenced their parents to adopt a more conservative view of Islam.
This influence can be seen in a recent Merdeka Center survey. Around 1,200 Malay youths, aged 15-25 were interviewed, where 82 percent agreed that the Quran should replace the constitution. This is up from 72 percent in 2010. In addition, 60 percent believed that Islamic leaders should be followed without question. This is up from 48 percent in 2010.
PAS now controls the traditional FELDA and FELCRA areas within the Malay heartlands, but has also been able to win seats outside its traditional areas. For PAS, politics is an extension of Islam. With Muslims now making up 69 percent of Malaysia’s 30.2 million people, the influence of PAS is rising. PAS has more than one million party members today.
PAS has also successfully changed the dominating narrative of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy in the rural heartlands. This was the ideology UMNO had successfully utilized for decades to maintain an electoral stranglehold over the heartlands. Malays voted for PAS because they wanted to vote for an Islamic society. Consequently, matters concerning the economy and cost of living became secondary issues.
There is no chance PAS will moderate its ideology under Abdul Hadi, and his heir apparent, Idris Ahmad, is expected to tow the current PAS line. Most of the Erdogan moderates left the party, leaving the conservative ulama unrestrained.
The Sheraton Putsch back in February 2020, where the Pakatan Harapan government was brought down and replaced by a Malay-centric government, showed Abdul Hadi that PAS could lead the federal government. PAS is now the largest political party within the Perikatan Nasional coalition in parliament, but the King didn’t invite the coalition to form a government.
PAS believes this is now the best time to Islamize Malaysia. This is why PAS is destabilizing the new government with racist and inciteful comments and throwing takfiri labels at opponents. In Terengganu, PAS is pushing through new legislation criminalizing out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
There is the chance that such an intolerant approach, may backfire on PAS. Part of the reason PAS did well outside its traditional areas was because of anger towards UMNO over issues of corruption, where PAS was a convenient Malay-Muslim alternative. Under such circumstances, PAS support may recede in future elections.
Malaysia is now at a crossroads. Fifty years of Islamization of government and education has created a well resourced and supported Islamic party. The battle over the future Islamization of Malaysia will be fought in the Pondoks, madrasas, and Islamic schools across the country. These schools have become the powerbase of PAS and are nurturing and promoting their extremist ideology. Just as it took PAS generations to build this, it will also take a generation to change attitudes. This is only if the new Anwar Ibrahim government has the will and ability to do so.
Originally published in European Eye on Radicalization 12th January 2023