It was proposed that the Malaysian government needs to be cautious in responding to this latest development out of Afghanistan’s storied history to avoid further schism between supporters and detractors of the Taliban in Malaysia. Among supporters, the most vocal is the Islamist PAS party, which is currently part of the loose Perikatan Nasional coalition that makes up the federal government in Malaysia. Two months after PAS President’s reflections on the Taliban in August 2021, this development was again broached during the 62nd PAS Youth Muktamar (general assembly). This time, Khairil Nizam Khirudin in his former capacity as Youth Chief, proposed that if China, a Communist country, could establish relationship with the Taliban, Malaysia should do the same as a nation with a majority Muslim population. This was ostensibly intended to humiliate Malaysia into action. However, logical counters included how Malaysia, unlike China, has no immediate geopolitical concern that necessitates a diplomatic relation with the Taliban since Malaysia and Afghanistan are situated in different regions.
Working Within the System
Beyond party leadership, it is seemingly quiet at the grassroot level for three potential reasons. First, PAS and its allies in the Perikatan Nasional were more focused on domestic issues such as the recently concluded Melaka state election in which Perikatan Nasional faced off against UMNO, a former ally of PAS in the short-lived Muafakat Nasional. Second, and more importantly, PAS members at the moment are split, especially in Kedah and Terengganu, between those who are in support of the realization of hudud law and those against it. Notably, most, if not all members of PAS are supportive of the idea of implementing hudud law as part of the end goal for the party, especially after the split in 2015 with progressive Malays who then formed the Amanah party. However, the crack today is between those who agree and disagree that Malaysia is ready for hudud implementation as part of Syariah penal and criminal code. In other words, PAS members would not want to diverge from the expected norm of a Muslim in support of ‘Syariah-ization’, but reservation continues regarding the actual implementation of hudud in multiracial Malaysia. Those who are in support of the implementation of hudud law would be assumed to also be more supportive of the Taliban because of its vocal proposal to implement a specific form of Islamic rule in Afghanistan. The Taliban would become the standard-bearer for these PAS supporters. However, it must be noted that not all members within the party are supportive of such a move to imitate the Taliban and hastily implement hudud law. Thus, it would be very unwise for PAS to bring up the Taliban issue at the grassroot level for fear of losing support by its ‘moderate’ members. Lastly, even among PAS leaders, several were unimpressed when the party is likened to the Taliban. Despite support by the party’s president for a supposedly reformed Taliban, other party leaders from Selangor and Kelantan have voiced their discontent whenever the party is linked with the Taliban. They accuse the opposition of doing so to portray PAS as backward and intolerant. This shows that the party is unwilling to play up the Taliban issue nor tolerate PAS being equated with the Taliban at the risk of upsetting party members and the general Malaysian population.
As a political party that has participated in electoral politics since before independence, PAS is more pragmatic than idealistic, and since 2020, it has been argued that the party pivoted to becoming opportunistic. Unlike the Taliban, PAS has always sought power via the ballot box, even when they claimed that the Taliban takeover was a people-led initiative. The party appears to understand that the foundation of a stable and legitimate government lies within the people’s support. Therefore, PAS is far from a radical party but instead has always been willing to work within the parameters of the constitution. The democratic nature of PAS is deduced in three ways: the lack of anti-systemic strategies such as revolts and violence, the acceptance of losses in election, and the democratic practices in party elections.
Undoubtedly, PAS has always been an ideological party with the establishment of an Islamic state as its end goal. Without such narrative, there would be little distinction between PAS and UMNO. But creating an Islamic State similar to the Taliban’s rule from 1996 until 2001 is more of an idealistic goal than a possible experiment for the party. Being practical, PAS will maintain its character as an electorally active party in Malaysia that seeks power through legitimate channels with a specific Islamist ideology as a means to gain support and win elections. They would not want to wrest power beyond the ballot box because it would not work in Malaysia, and they lack the capacity for it. PAS may rhetorically support the Taliban’s implementation of ‘Islamic law’, but it knows that the Muslim Brotherhood model of working within the system is more realistic to be applied in multicultural Malaysia.
The truly ideologue among PAS would perhaps be inspired by the Taliban and may want to see more concrete actions within Malaysia, but not to the point of going beyond the ballot box. They already had their ‘mini-victories’ now that they are in the federal government since March 2020. Among those victories are the state of Kelantan’s Criminal Syariah code which came into effect on 1 November 2021. Among the provisions are distortion of Islamic teachings, disrespecting the month of Ramadan, destroying houses of worship, and 21 other offences. Besides that, the northern state of Kedah, which is also under PAS’ rule, has decided not to renew the business licenses of 4D lottery shops in November 2021, with a similar policy already in place in Kelantan and Terengganu. However, it can be argued that the latter two states have about 94 percent Malay population as opposed to 76 percent in Kedah; therefore the ban would affect a larger number of non-Muslims in Kedah. Nonetheless, PAS has made progress now that they are part of the larger coalition in government. Although these ‘wins’ are in states ruled by PAS, there is no denying that the strengthening of its political position at the federal level allows for these changes to take place. It must be noted that these changes were done through legal channels, such as the passing of the Criminal Syariah code in the state legislature in 2019. Thus, the possibility of PAS taking over Malaysia in a fashion similar to the Taliban seems very unlikely.
PAS has always been supportive of other countries or territories that have succeeded in implementing hudud law such as in Aceh and Brunei. However, the pragmatism of PAS cannot be denied even at the international stage such as PAS supporting Iran on the Palestinian issue at the same time it continues to warn of the danger of Shiism. By looking at recent events or even at its own history, PAS’ sensible approach to politics becomes clear. The oft-cited example is the fact that PAS has yet to table the controversial RUU 355 bill on enhancing the Syariah courts (although the government has said it is working on it). Since PAS became part of the federal government in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, they have argued that it is not the right time to proceed with the tabling of the bill. In an interview with the author, an MP from PAS even argued that this proves the party’s commitment towards one of the objectives of shariah, which is to protect the lives of the people. On another note, the party was on board with the Perikatan Nasional’s female candidate for the Chief Minister of Melaka despite previously being against the nomination of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the Menteri Besar for Selangor. Historically, we saw PAS working closely with the left-wing Democratic Action Party until 2015. That alliance was abandoned for strategic reasons because the party was losing support in the Malay heartland. Instead of imitating the Taliban, we see that PAS’ trajectory is very much dependent on the semi-democratic context of Malaysia than mere ideological zeal.