In view of the introduction of a private member’s Bill that seeks to amend the Syariah Courts ( Criminal Jurisdiction) Act to increase certain penalties under syariah law  in the Dewan Rakyat recently by PAS president, Datuk  Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, it is legitimate to ask  how important is syariah  in garnering votes for his party.

The Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) has since its formation in 1951 committed itself to an Islamic State which upholds the syariah. In the first two decades, PAS did not push for the implementation of syariah as its principal electoral issue. In the 1959, 1964 and 1969 General Elections, the party was concerned primarily about the Malay position. It felt that UMNO, the mainstay of the ruling coalition, the Alliance, had, through its generous conferment of citizenship upon the huge non-Malay population in the late fifties, undermined the interests of the Malays. It was mainly because it was seen as the champion of the Malay cause that PAS captured two preponderantly Malay states, Kelantan and Terengganu, in 1959. Though it was ousted from the seat of power in Terengganu in 1962 as a result of cross-overs, it retained its grip upon Kelantan through the next two elections. At the federal level, in parliament, it won 13, 9 and 12 seats respectively out of 104 seats in the three General Elections during that period.

In the 1974 General Election PAS was a member of the newly forged Barisan Nasional (BN) which was an expansion of the Alliance. It secured 14 parliamentary seats. There was no mention of syariah in its campaign. PAS failed to hold on to Kelantan in the 1978 Election mainly because of the 1977 Kelantan Emergency which led to a split in the party and the birth of a breakaway party, BERJASA, that teamed up with UMNO to capture power in Kota Baru. Political machinations had caused PAS’s downfall.

The 1980s saw a significant shift in PAS’s ideological approach. Because of socio-economic and demographic changes in the country and because of certain international developments, a segment of the Malaysian Muslim population became even more conscious of its Islamic identity. In reflecting this shift, PAS de-emphasised its concern with the Malay position and focused much more upon its quest for an Islamic state ruled by the syariah. However, its new focus did not translate into votes in the 1982 and 1986 General Elections.

It was only in the 1990 Election that it did relatively well, recapturing Kelantan through a landslide victory with the help of an UMNO breakaway group called Semangat 46. A crisis in UMNO which began in 1987 with the emergence of two factions, and its consequences,    rather than PAS’s new commitment to a syariah based Islamic State were the real reasons for its creditable electoral performance. This was proven again in 1999 when PAS won 27 parliamentary seats in the General Election, its best record ever. There is no doubt that the assault on former Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and the impact of his ‘black eye’ on an outraged electorate, buoyed PAS’s fortunes. PAS had also in that election forged a pact with three other parties which allowed the party to penetrate urban and semi-urban constituencies with sizeable Chinese and Indian voters as never before.

It was the willingness to work together with other parties that helped PAS enhance its electoral appeal in the 2008 and 2013 General Elections. In both the Elections, its enthusiasm for syariah, specifically hudud laws, was not put on display especially in ethnically mixed areas. PAS’s ability to cooperate with other actors, and more important, the benefits it has derived from UMNO’s internal problems — its factions and its frictions — have helped the party tremendously in its growth. Its espousal of syariah and hudud has not been a factor of any significance in the mobilisation of mass support.

What this means is that electoral politics cannot explain PAS’s attachment to hudud. The explanation lies in the deep attachment to dogma on the part of the party elite, especially Hadi.  It is an attachment that he shares with the vast majority of ulama worldwide. Through the centuries the ulama have transmitted their obsession with the criminal dimensions of Islamic jurisprudence to the Muslim masses. It has now become an integral part of their collective psychology.

Nonetheless, the Muslim masses have time and again set aside dogma and responded to challenges in politics or economics or education or health guided by other considerations. The fact that the majority of Malay voters in Malaysia, while acknowledging PAS’s Islamic credentials, have invariably endorsed UMNO through the ballot-box shows that the ability to ensure peace, stability, a degree of inter-religious harmony  and economic development  is  perhaps more important  to the ordinary citizen than allegiance to dogma for dogma’s sake.

It is this attitude among Muslims here and elsewhere that gives us hope that when the chips are down, sensible, rational minds among the people will prevail and dogma camouflaged in religious garb will be rejected.


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