Religion is and will always be a mainstay in politics and the race is on to capture the Muslim vote in the 14th general election. The only question is who will emerge victorious? Previously that answer was PAS with its grassroots machinery and ideology on creating an Islamic state.
However, PAS’s exit from the opposition coalition left a gap. That is now filled by a group of self-styled progressives from PAS who make up the party Amanah. From the get go, Amanah’s image has been a fuzzy one; its performance in two previous by-elections – Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar – were nothing short of disastrous.
But it has been allocated 27 seats and also the task of capturing Kelantan, a PAS stronghold. Early this year, communications chief Khalid Samad claimed the party is confident of winning 20 out of 27 seats. That’s a wild statement but it seems that opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan is banking on Amanah to give them the Muslim swing.
So we caught up with Khalid to discuss the party’s Islamic stance and what’s in store for him (he is Shah Alam MP) and the party in GE14.
Our conversation, edited for brevity, follows.
Let’s kick this off by defining the kind of Islamism espoused by Amanah.
We have always believed that Islam is a lot more inclusive but it is not what it is portrayed to be. When we were involved with PAS, we were attracted to the kind of openness espoused by the late Fadzil Noor and the late Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
It was very inclusive and we tried to portray Islam in its true colours, bringing about good for the society as a whole, irrespective of whether you are Muslim or non-Muslim. To establish justice, create unity and look after the weak and downtrodden. Basically, a welfare kind of approach.
As for the implementation of Islamic law, that was an issue which was slowly being put on the backburner because it was looked upon as not of a priority. The most important thing was to create a society which is just gives importance to the question of justice, welfare, unity, respect and so on.
That was the kind of Islamic message we wanted to bring when we were in PAS and what we now want to bring with Amanah. That’s the challenge.
You mentioned earlier about putting the issue of Islamic law on the backburner. Curious, what’s Amanah’s stand on hudud?
It is part and parcel of Islamic teachings. Hudud is a set of laws and punishments specified in the Quran. But, as most scholars will tell you, the implementation can only be done when it meets certain strict conditions.
For example, society as a whole must be just and caring, and it must help the poor and the weak. So these are some of the values you have to create first before the question of hudud implementation is even to be thought about. These scholars will also say that the moment there is an excuse, a reason or a doubt – hudud should not be implemented.
That is the kind of approach that we agreed to when we were in PAS and that's why when we first got involved with coalition politics in a serious way in 1999, this issue was put to the side.
Hudud and Islamic law were traditionally brought by PAS to differentiate itself from Umno which rejected the role of religion altogether in politics. So for PAS it was a matter of contrasting yourself from the other by taking one extreme. That was the situation or the political situation at that time.
And it worked within the Malay society. There was a very big division between those who supported Umno and its so-called westernised approach and PAS and its so called Islamic and traditional approach.
So when we were involved in the early 80s, we were trying to influence the thinking within PAS because we saw that was what the late Fadzil was trying to do and what Tok Guru (Nik Aziz) was also trying to do.
But at the same time in Kelantan, this issue had be brought to the forefront because Kelantan is Kelantan. So what we tried doing was get PAS in the direction of coalition politics, where we were more mainstream and we talked about more mainstream issues, about corruption, about economic development, and about being helping Malaysians in general.
So as far as Amanah is concerned, we take the stand that hudud is a small portion of Islamic teaching, and it is, in terms of its priority, right at the end – When you have already created a society which espouses a high moral values and justice and brotherhood. Only then does this issue come in.
Consider hudud as a fence that protects what you have created. You create a functional society and you build this fence to protect it.
Has this idea of the fence been conveyed to the public? What’s their reaction so far?
We have tried to explain this and in fact we are being assisted by some other scholars as well, such as the Perlis mufti. He was the one who gave that house-fence analogy.
That said, in this day and age, the question of any form of Islamic message is always smeared or damaged by the likes of terrorism and extremism. So it is not easy to explain because there are already a lot of preconceived ideas – such as those created by the current PAS leadership.
For PAS, it emphasises so much on hudud that, for the party, all there is to the Islamic struggle is hudud, and that’s it. So if you’re not bringing hudud, then you are not Islamic, yeah?
While for them that must be at the forefront, for us at Amanah it is completely different. We feel that hudud is at the far end of the whole process, not the very beginning.
I want to bring up two things that made headlines recently involving Amanah MPs, that I believe might cast doubt about your progressive image. First, the question by Kota Raja MP Siti Mariah Mahmud on what the government is doing about atheism.
I believe Kota Raja didn’t ask the government to ban atheism but of what has been done. For us, we’ve clarified the issue – that in terms of beliefs, you have to engage. So, it’s not a question of taking legal action and imprisoning them or banning them, but you have to engage.
Like in the old days, in time of scholars such as Al-Ghazali, when he met people who were bringing in western philosophy or Greek philosophy into the Middle East, he argued against this. How? He wrote books and theses about it to explain to the Muslims where the belief system or the values do not match.
Similarly, the question of atheism isn’t something new. It existed even in the time of the Prophet. It’s a question of how you handle it, and the approach should not be to isolate them or to cause them to go into hiding. It is to engage, to them tell us why they believe in what they believe and to explain to them why that is not right.
So, we have to challenge the beliefs through dialogue and debate, not through highhanded means.
And the banning of the song Despacito?
On Despacito, I am not really in the know? I didn’t follow that but, personally, it is a question of people being informed but there is no reason to ban it. You have to be aware.
The best protection for Muslims against the unIslamic beliefs or behaviour is for them to have a clearer understanding of their own Islamic principles, and that's what we have to do. We can’t protect them and isolate them from the world. But we have to give them enough so that they will be able to face the world and not shy away from the question of what is right and wrong.
Now help us make sense of Amanah’s role in Pakatan Harapan. With Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) coming into the fold, doesn’t that make you redundant?
We are trying to bring not so much the Malay cause, but the Islamic cause. Our role is to explain to Muslims and non-Muslims that Islam has a place in the modern world, where we differentiate between the principles that it teaches and the specific forms of embodiment at a particular time.
For instance, if you try to implement Islamic principles in a way that the Prophet and his implemented it in their time, it may not be suitable in today’s context. Today the discussion is about how Islam can fit into a democratic system and that the leadership and direction of the nation, by right, should be decided by the wishes of the majority or the people.
And this can’t be a forced or top-down approach. No. This is where many of the Islamists, I believe, have failed to understand and this failure in turn leads to them adopting terrorism and extremism, simply because they are not able to fit into the social structure and the political structure of the day.
The Islamists feel that if they try to approach problems in a democratic manner, it will be see as compromising in their beliefs. Because they feel that Islam is right, so we must bring society closer towards Islamic practices.
But they forget that even during the time of the Prophet and his companions, this was not done top-down but it was done by convincing Muslims and their non-Muslim counterparts in the direction that they should go. In that context it is very democratic but the way it was implemented then cannot be the same now.
So they don’t understand that and opt for extremism, leading to a “the world is dangerous place” approach, which is absolutely incorrect.
This is Amanah’s challenge: of explaining to the Muslims and non-Muslims that the Islamic struggle can have a place in the modern world and through the democratic processes. That the two are not contradictory. Otherwise, Muslims will either give up their faith or compromise. Or go to the other extreme of trying to force their values onto society through use of force.
Still, don’t you think there’s an overlap? It seems that Amanah is playing second fiddle to PPBM.
No. PPBM’s approach is strictly on Malay rights, on the position of the Malays. I believe Amanah has a bigger challenge. So, PPBM is basically like Umno, but just a cleaner version…
A cleaner version?
Hopefully. But we are giving them a chance to prove themselves. Probably when they were in Umno, at that time, it’s like what Dr Mahathir Mohamad said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And maybe that was what happened at that time.
Now, after joining Pakatan Harapan, hopefully they understand unlike in BN – where Umno dictates everything and the rest follow – everyone in Pakatan Harapan are equal partners. Every party's agreement is necessary in order to implement any policy and power-sharing will be more meaningful and more real, as compared to BN.
So, their approach and message is more different. Theirs is more Malay; ours is more trying to give to the Muslims an understanding that Islam can fit in the modern world and there's nothing wrong to participate in the democratic process in trying to shape the country.
Speaking about shaping the country, let’s look at what’s in store for Amanah in GE14. The party did not do well in two by-elections, Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar. So with hindsight, how do you interpret that loss and what are the lessons learned moving forward.
Well, the political situation then and now are different. When the by-elections were held, we were hardly a year old. And nobody knew us and in most cases they didn’t understand why we left PAS and why was there a need for us to be in contention with PAS. Also back then, many still looked to PAS as part of the opposition.
Now, the situation is a lot clearer. PAS is no longer with Pakatan and is a third bloc. At the same time, Bersatu has been formed, so whatever loses we will incur by PAS leaving us, hopefully will be recovered by the votes brought in by Amanah as well as Bersatu.
Let’s talk about your seat. How has the landscape changed and would this change bode well for your or Amanah?
There will definitely be a three-cornered fight. PAS is no longer with us but most of the suraus and mosques are controlled, to a certain extent, by PAS people. So naturally they won’t give us the same access that we experienced in 2013.
There’s some confusion about the current political scenario that we didn’t face in 2013 but at the same time now we have more people who are unhappy with the BN administration. Issues such as the GST, 1MDB and the latest case with Equanimity the ship – everyone is upset. That works in our favour.
So these people may go to PAS or PH, but I believe most will come to Pakatan because PAS is not seen as a serious contender for a government or alternative government. They are not interested in forming a new government; they are just interested in being the kingmaker.
But in PH, we are presenting ourselves as the government in waiting. So that will help us. At the same time, given that Shah Alam is also in the state of Selangor, I believe Selangorians are generally a lot happier under the PH government compared to Barisan Nasional.
It has been more than ten years since Pakatan capture the state, and the people see much of what we've been doing all these years – free water, Tawas, etc. At the same time, there are also new packages and programmes to assist those who have been left behind in the development process.
So it should be better, compared to 2014 when the problem with PAS was just at a budding stage but it didn’t affect the elections, except in certain seats. Now, it’s clear that PAS it out but there’s Amanah and Bersatu.
What will you be campaigning on this time round?
We need to take Putrajaya and we need to maintain Selangor and Penang under the PH government. Why? Because taking over Putrajaya will help make sure the changes in policies can take full effect and benefit everyone.
Currently we are unable to do everything we want because there are many issues which are not under the state list but federal list. That needs to be resolved. For example, schools, roads and hospitals. If we don’t manage these, then they will continue to be a problem.
So where does Amanah fit into the grander scheme of things, should PH take over Putrajaya?
Some will be holding ministerial posts but the most important thing is, we will be in a position to influence policies. The check and balance is required and it will play a very important role there to make sure nobody is going to be sidelined and nobody is going to be left out.
We give great emphasis to the question of a fairer distribution of wealth. We do not agree to this approach of rentier economics, where people just make tons of money just because they have the key that Najib (Razak) talked about – that Robert Kouk got the key. This key we don’t agree with it.
Even if there are times when certain keys have to be given away to make sure that things move faster, we will ensure that there will be a proper, a more fairer distribution of income.
How about Muslim-only cabinet ala PAS?
Again, this is a question of implementation. For us, that interpretation doesn’t apply because what's important is that the policies must be aimed at achieving a situation where you narrow inequality, where everyone gets a better income.
How can people become multibillionaires so easily while thousands are in poverty? That’s not something which we should be proud of. And this is where these data and statistics become very confusing.
They say our income per capita is very good compared to this country and that but at the same time, at a lower level, there’s this problem of poverty where we are worse than some of the countries in Africa, even though they have a lower income per capita.
Right. Let’s wrap this up with why should the people of Shah Alam vote you or your party?
They have had me for two terms, so they should be able to provide a judgment call as to whether I could or would able to provide them with a better service and to represent them, which is more important. Because in parliament, you cannot simply be a yes-man, and just follow and agree with what people are doing.
If they want someone to represent them and voice their opinions, then I should be in a better position compared to whoever else that may be nominated. But of course, it’s going to be a three-cornered fight as well, so we’ll see how it goes.
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