Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (centre), pictured at the Pakatan Harapan convention held in Ipoh on 20 October 2022. (Photo: Parti Amanah Negara / Facebook)

The Progressive Islamists: Can Amanah Triumph Against PAS?

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Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), which was formed from the more progressive elements of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), is turning out to be a formidable rival to its PAS for the Muslim vote.

Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), which was formed from the progressive Islamist faction within Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), may become a formidable competitor in the coming general elections. However, it is worth asking what about Amanah is more progressive, and whether its approach is attractive enough to Muslims across the Peninsula, especially those living in PAS-controlled states in the north.

On 16 September 2015, Amanah emerged after progressive elements within PAS were defeated in the latter’s party elections. Later that year, Amanah, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) joined forces to form the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) joined them in 2017, and Warisan allied themselves with the alliance in 2018. PH, with these four component parties, secured 113 out of 222 parliamentary seats and won the 14th General Election (GE). Their pact with Warisan and its eight MPs, known as PH-Plus, buffered the government’s majority. Amanah occupied 11 of the seats.

Although Amanah describes itself as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious party, it is seen as the face of Islamic and Malay identity within PH, and boosts the alliance’s Islamic credentials. Any analysis of religion and politics in Malaysia has to take into account a few factors. Firstly, Malay and Muslim identities are strongly intertwined, and Islam is embedded in the Malay social and political fabric. The Constitution states that one must be Muslim in order to be considered Malay.

Secondly, Islam in Malaysia has historically been categorised as a blend of “jurisprudential Islam” and “institutionalised Islam”. The former emphasises the enforcement of moral codes and the implementation of Islamic law while the latter emphasises the role of religious authorities in crafting fatwa. They are conferred this authority by the Malay Rulers. The foremost institution responsible for this is the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), a federal government agency under the Prime Minister’s office that has administered Islamic affairs since 1997.

Thirdly, just like the rest of the Muslim world, Malaysia has been influenced by the forces of Islamic revivalism since the 1980s and this has been translated into political Islam, which has been characterised by fierce competition between PAS and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to be the champion of Islam.

However, the nature of this competition has changed with the entry of Amanah. Amanah, which positions itself as a progressive, democratic, and inclusive alternative to PAS, claims to champion a different version of Islam. Guided by the approach of the Maqasid Shari’ah (Higher Objectives of the Shariah), they espouse the values of social justice, good governance, and multicultural co-existence. This is encapsulated in their slogan, Rahmatan lil ‘Alamin (Blessings to All), which is inspired by a verse from the Qur’an.

PAS’ efforts to counter Amanah, both online and offline, lack substance and veer toward fearmongering. They label Amanah as communist, pro-LGBT, and corrupt (allegations which Amanah has denied strenuously). Amanah members are also accused of being liberal Muslims. Furthermore, they are portrayed as Malays who are enslaved by the DAP, who is in turn framed as a Chinese-dominated party.

Amanah’s efforts to promote the value of co-existence may … be in vain. Their success may only be limited to the more cosmopolitan states on the Peninsula’s west coast, where the constituencies tend to be urban and of mixed ethnicities.

During the 22 months of PH’s administration from 2018 to 2020, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a member of Amanah, served as the Minister of Religious Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department. He was not spared by PAS, which resorted to calumny in an attempt to counter Amanah’s rising popularity.

For example, Mujahid’s meeting with trans activist Nisha Ayub in November 2018, and the controversy surrounding trans entrepreneur, Sajat, led PAS’ main media organ, Harakah, to fabricate the narrative that PH is welcoming towards the LGBT lifestyle in Malaysia. They took advantage of the situation, knowing that conservative Malays would not approve of such openness. Mujahid filed a defamation suit against Harakah. In the end, Harakah issued a public apology. Its claim that Mujahid supported the LGBT lifestyle was deemed to be without ground.

Despite the legal rebuke, PAS has continued to perpetuate this narrative of Amanah’s “liberal” leanings in the lead up to GE15. Mujahid responded with a warning that he will not tolerate such accusations again.

Amanah has plans to contest in about 50 parliamentary seats come GE15. However, their success might be limited by the weakness of their slogan. Unlike PAS’ emphasis on a more concrete issue like hudud law, Amanah’s Rahmatan lil ‘Alamin is merely an abstract concept with no tangible policies.

Amanah’s efforts to promote the value of co-existence may therefore be in vain. Their success may only be limited to the more cosmopolitan states on the Peninsula’s west coast, where the constituencies tend to be urban and of mixed ethnicities.

Furthermore, Mujahid did not have many opportunities to demonstrate Rahmatan lil ‘Alamin when he was minister. Instead, he was preoccupied with countering slanderous allegations by UMNO and PAS leaders concerning his mishandling of Tabung Haji, the agency which manages Malaysians’ pilgrimage to Mecca. He won all the libel cases in court.

Nevertheless, Mujahid, as Amanah’s and PH’s face of Islam, was viewed as more open-minded and inclusive. In contrast, the one who now occupies the position as minister, Idris Ahmad of PAS, is viewed as more rigid and conservative. He has even been at the receiving end of two royal rebuttals.

Given the criticisms that PAS and Idris Ahmad have faced in the past year, it will be interesting to see whether Muslims will be more drawn to Amanah’s Rahmatan lil ‘Alamin. State government elections will not be held concurrently in ten states, including PAS-governed Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah. This means that national issues will weigh heavier in this election, possibly to the advantage of Amanah. GE15 will present an opportunity to see what kind of Islam Muslims will choose to embrace moving forward.

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Mohd Faizal Musa is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.