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KUALA TRENGGANU, Malaysia — The Malaysian government’s move to separate religion from politics has touched a raw nerve in the leading opposition party in Malaysia. It has incensed the theocratic Islamic Party (PAS), whose cardinal principle is Islam, to the last man.

At a mammoth rally before 50,000 angry and chanting members and supporters in a stadium in the state of Trengganu on June 3, PAS leaders warned the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government of Malaysia, not to “play with fire,” otherwise it would get burned.

PAS was referring to UMNO’s recent bid to have the word “Islam” deleted from its name as a first step toward separating religion from politics in Malaysia. Should this pass, PAS, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, would merely be called Parti se-Malaysia.

In one stroke PAS would lose its identity overnight and virtually collapse. So far, UMNO has not spelled out in detail how the move would be carried out. Greatly alarmed, the PAS has indicated it would resist the change at all cost.

Support for PAS, which was formed in 1951 by a group of religious leaders who broke away from UMNO, comes from conservative Malay/Muslims, who form an overwhelming majority in the rural states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah and Perlis.

In its strident campaigns during the last general election, PAS hammered on its charge that UMNO’s tolerance of Western values had not only bred a system of injustice in Malaysia, but also caused serious social problems like drug addiction and prostitution among the Malays. The strategy paid off: the theocratic Islamic party’s support increased by leaps and bounds.

In 41 constituencies nationwide where Malays comprise at least 80 percent of the voters, PAS polled more votes than UMNO. PAS came to control two state governments in Kelantan and Trengganu where Malays form at least 95 percent of the population. (The NF captured the other 11). PAS also made heavy inroads into UMNO’s traditional strongholds like Kedah, Perlis, Pahang and Perak, with significant Malay majorities.

Leading opposition group

Indeed, by winning 27 parliamentary and 98 state assembly seats as a whole, PAS has emerged as the leading opposition party, eclipsing the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP).

PAS now heads an Alternative Front (AF), comprising of four parties whose three other members are the DAP, the National Justice Party (Keadilan) and the People’s Party of Malaysia (PRM).

The prospect of an expanding PAS heading a front with the potential to wrest power from the NF at federal level has alarmed UMNO, which sees Islam as the main strength of its archrival.

UMNO has justified its plan to change PAS’s name on the grounds that a sensitive matter like religion should be separated from politics, the more so when Malaysia is a multiracial and multireligious secular nation.

But PAS reads it differently. It suspects that UMNO is more concerned with crippling the upstart party to win back lost Malay support. The Malaysian Constitution in its definition of what makes a person “Malay” places Islam as a more important condition ahead of habitually speaking the Malay language and conforming to Malay customs and traditions. The implication is, once a Malay gives up Islam, he ceases to be a member of his community.

PAS believes that should UMNO succeed in changing it name, the party could be crippled, even finished. “The air we breathe, the water we drink in this world is Islam,” said PAS spiritual adviser Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

Many PAS leaders liken the intention of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to what former Indonesian President Suharto did to cripple political Islam in the 1980s. Although 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, Suharto’s succeeded in enshrining the national ideology of Pancasila, which accords equal treatment to all religions in a secular state.

Suharto had feared the growing threat of the popular mass-based Islamic Party, PPP, whose struggle, just like PAS’s, was based on Islam. In regrouping Indonesia’s numerous parties into three mainstream ones, Suharto changed the name of the PPP to the Economic Development Party and banned it from using the potent Islamic symbol of the Kaaba, the holy black stone in Mecca.

Minus its Islamic credentials and rhetoric, the reformed PPP soon lost its appeal and ceased to be a threat to Suharto.

Wiping out identity

Dr. Hatta Ramli, central committee member of PAS said in an interview in Kuala Trengganu on June 4, “Islam is our cause, our policy. It is fundamental to our identity. The move would kill the Islamic struggle in us.”

PAS Secretary General Nasharuddin Mat Isa accused UMNO of wanting to make Malaysia go the way of Turkey, which became a secular nation in the 1920s after military strongman Kemal Ataturk abolished the last Islamic caliphate.

A secular nation would not lessen UMNO’s commitment to uphold Islam, anymore than a theocratic Islamic state, going by the injection of Islamic values in the country’s administration, as well as the building of more mosques, Muslim educational institutions and banks.

All these measures would ensure that Malaysia meet the challenges of globalization to become an industrialized nation by the year 2020, Mahathir has asserted on many previous occasions.

Concerned PAS leaders have said that so far, UMNO has not made any concrete move to alter the party’s name. Perhaps UMNO has realized the gravity of the situation and is waiting for more feedback.

Nasharuddin has warned that PAS members could even go to the extent of rioting to resist a name change. He however hoped it will not come to that situation.

Non-Muslims who comprise slightly less than half of Malaysia’s population of 20 million are watching nervously. The political reality in Malaysia is that any Muslim-based party wanting to rule must get the support of the non-Muslims.

Many non-Muslims are confused and see very little difference between PAS advocacy of an Islamic state along the lines of Iran and UMNO’s idea of secular state with Islamic values where Malays are given special treatment by virtue of their status as the indigenous peoples.

DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang, who called on Chinese Malaysians not to vote for the ruling coalition, had voiced his fear that the future trend of politics would be a bipolar situation where UMNO and PAS would slug it out to see which party can serve Muslims better, as marginalized non-Muslims helplessly look on from the sidelines. His fear has in fact come true.

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