Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is pushing further towards the middle ground in a bid to broaden its appeal

Coming out as a compromiser

SINGERS who begin their march to fame on reality-TV programmes tend not to suit everyone’s taste. But few face concerted political campaigns to have their shows cancelled. A former “American Idol” contestant, Adam Lambert, found himself in just this predicament as he prepared for his first concert in Malaysia on October 14th. He is the most recent in a series of performers to be targeted by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), an Islamist party and member of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. A PAS youth leader, Nasrudin Hasan, explains:

“Adam Lambert's shows...are outrageous, with lewd dancing and a gay performance…This is not good for people in our country”.

The outrage was predictable from a party that has frequently positioned itself as a moral arbiter for all Malaysians. Since 2007 the youth wing of the PAS has campaigned against a string of concerts—claiming the singers were, variously: too sexy, guilty of corrupting youth, wearing “immoral attire”, and promoting promiscuity through their onstage behaviour. Offensible on an equal-opportunity basis, the PAS youth have criticised domestic acts too—the “Akademi Fantasia” Malaysian reality show is, apparently, equally dangerous to Malaysian morals.

The party proper claims 1m members and dominates elections in the conservative, rural northern conservative strongholds of Kedah and Kelantan. Their populist cultural complaints might sound typical of the bluster that seems to happen naturally wherever Islamist parties collide with a secularist state. But to pigeonhole the PAS as a lunatic fringe would be a mistake. It sits in a coalition with the relatively secular Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP). And although it won fewer seats than its partners in the 2008 parliamentary polls, the PAS wields substantial power in state politics, controlling Kedah and Kelantan’s governments and governing with the PKR and DAP in two other states. It has proved surprisingly flexible in operating within the national-level alliance—no less so for the fact that the coalition’s leader is standing trial on (highly spurious) sodomy charges. In this instance, at least, it has refrained from any kneejerk reactions.

The PAS also condemned a spate of arson attacks on Malaysian churches in early 2010, which had followed a High Court’s decision to allow non-Muslim speakers of Malay to use the word "Allah" in reference to (a non-Islamic) God. Members of the party judged the verbal dispute to be “petty”. This is a far cry from the style of Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which is conspicuous for failing to speak out against religious violence. The PKS prefers to throw counter-accusations at religious minorities.

The PAS is pushing further towards the middle ground in a bid to broaden its appeal. At its annual conference in June it announced plans to put forward non-Muslim candidates for election. In Indonesia the PKS has tried the same, but in the more polarised context of Malaysia it takes more than lip service to persuade Islamist voters to pull the lever for a non-Muslim. The most hopeful observers think it might be a sign that the country’s ethnic obsessions are easing. It is anyway a sensible strategy. Almost 40% of Malaysia’s population is non-Muslim and the future of the three-party coalition is under a cloud this year.

Before the night of his show Mr Lambert agreed to tone down his act for the Putra Bukit Jalil stadium, tailoring it to suit local sensibilities and perhaps even widening his appeal. Were the PAS to watch more closely, they might recognise something familiar in his approach (if not in his pronunciation). The Economist

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