Rifts Appearing in Malaysia's Islamic Party

Strains are building in Malaysia’s Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the formerly conservative Islamic wing of Pakatan Rakyat, the three-party opposition coalition headed by the embattled Anwar Ibrahim, over the party’s fundamentalist roots.

The growing split could have ominous implications for the coalition’s ability to take on the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, in elections thought to be scheduled as early as March.

Anwar himself has been distracted by a year-long court drama in which he has been accused by a former aide of sexual perversion. The prosecution and defense staged their final arguments last week and the case is now scheduled to be decided by High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohamad Diah sometime in the next weeks. The trial has remained a major preoccupation for Anwar, taking time and focus away from his efforts to keep a fractious coalition together.

An UMNO source – with obvious relish – told Asia Sentinel that PAS is “imploding.” However, other sources say that while the squabble is troublesome, party commitment to the more moderate line remains intact.

“It's a bit premature to say PAS is imploding,” said a source with connections to both UMNO and PKR. “The mainstream media of course are highlighting the differences in PAS but within PAS itself, they seem to be okay.”

The controversy began in June when rank and file members staged a dramatic revolution at the party’s annual congress, electing secular leaders and abandoning the rural-based party’s traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state.

The largest party in Anwar’s coalition, PAS had long turned off urban Malays and other ethnic minorities, particularly the Chinese, with its demands for observance of strict conservative Islamic laws. Given the size of its membership and its potential to take votes away from the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party, PAS unity and support are crucial to the opposition coalition.

At the party congress, newer, urban followers of PAS, having fled both the racial stridency and endemic corruption of UMNO and the disorganization of Anwar’s PKR, in June elected a slate of officers headed by Mohamad Sabu, a galvanic public speaker from Penang and former member of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan who was twice detained under the country's Internal Security Act.

Sabu led the moderates' charge, winning the party deputy presidency and crucially defeating a minority of conservatives seeking to lead a splinter group to link up with UMNO. Salahuddin Ayub, Husam Musa and Mahfuz Omar, elected as moderate vice presidents, completed a leadership team reflecting the party's changing membership and leaving the Islamists out in the cold.

The strains have been there ever since. However, the controversy broke into the open earlier this month, with Kuala Lumpur’s pro-government mainstream media playing up comments by Hasan Ali, a member of the Selangor PAS executive committee saying he and his allies would seek to “bring the party back to the Islamic path," and claiming support particularly from Nasharudin Mat Isa, a former PAS deputy president who was supplanted by the new moderate team.

Later this week, Harun Taib, the head of the PAS Dewan Ulama, or council of religious leaders, announced it would support the two dissidents, who were called “fake members” by the party’s new mainstream leaders. Harun in turn, without naming names, called the Sabu faction “new immigrants who appeared to have no qualms deviating from the party's core principles.”

Both Hasan Ali and Nasharudin have been causing tension in the party virtually since the coalition took over the leadership of the state of Selangor in 2008 elections that shocked the Barisan Nasional. From his spot on the executive committee, Hasan sought to ban beer in the urban, relatively liberal state. He has also taken adamant positions against Christians. Both he and Nasharuddin paid for their conservatism during the June elections that brought Mat Sabu and his allies to power.

“Hasan Ali and Nasharuddin, who are at the centre of controversy and attacking their own party, lost badly in party elections last year, which means they have no support in their own party,” a Malay businessman told Asia Sentinel. “In fact, Hassan's actions against Christians and his banning of sale of beer in 7-11s in Selangor have been more damaging to the opposition than anything Umno has done. If I were the opposition, I would be happy to see their backs. “

Although Hasan has claimed support from Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the party’s spiritual leader, other sources say he remains strongly allied with the modernizers.

“The factions within PAS have always been there, and they have come close to the surface several times in the past,” said a source with PKR. “They are appearing again now and much depends how it is handled. Nik Aziz’s official stand is important. It will of course affect the outcome of coming election if not properly handled and if the election is close.”

“PAS is doing some spring cleaning before the general election,” said another source, who described Hasan and his allies as “pro-UMNO elements” who needed to be cleared out and that “Once they’re gone, the coalition will be more consistent and stronger.”

Another neutral source called Hasan “essentially a lone ranger, and as such he has little grassroots support. But he does have some support within the leadership who are unhappy that the party is going soft on an Islamic state.” But, he continued, “When push comes to shove, they will stick with the party.”

Hasan himself stopped short of calling for PAS to pull out of the opposition coalition and told reporters that leaving the party and joining UMNO had never crossed his mind. But while that may true, it remains to be seen how the split will play itself out in the rural kampongs, or villages, particularly in the conservative eastern states, that traditionally formed PAS’s support base.