By Adib Zalkapli
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 14 — PAS will always back any cause or issue seen as being Islamic in nature, Malaysian political wisdom dictates.
But the party’s decision to back the High Court’s recent ruling allowing the Catholic newspaper to use the word "Allah" in the Bahasa Malaysia edition of its Herald newspaper has turned such thinking on its head.
"In some ways this Allah issue is God-send. If the party leadership was divided before now they are united on this," a senior PAS strategist told The Malaysian Insider.
It is understood that PAS leaders expect to lose some support among the Malay on the ground, in the short term.
But in the long term, they feel that by showing a principled stand on such issues they will be able to win over the larger middle-ground of moderates of not just Malays but among all Malaysians.
Instead of PAS, it is becoming clear that Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) are finding themselves in a spot.
When some Umno politicians stoked the fire and attempted to seize the initiative to portray the party as the real defenders of Islam by criticising the court ruling, the thinking was that this would be an opportunity to burnish BN’s Islamic credentials to rival PAS.
But following the spate of attacks against churches, Umno is now seen as being less moderate, while PAS is looking like a more progressive party.
PAS had already made some gains among moderate Malaysians in the 2008 general elections, but party leaders feel that by showing they are willing to risk their political base then more moderate Malaysians will be convinced to back them.
“I do not know why the focus is on Umno, but after March 8, people tend to link all the wrongdoings to Umno,” said political analyst Sivamurugan Pandian.
He said that while Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been doing the right things, “there is a lack of collective effort” within Umno to properly address the "Allah" issue.
Sivamurugan added that PAS was also seen to be handling the issue better because of the emergence of younger leaders.
“PAS was seen as extreme party back then, but the emergence of younger leaders has helped in garnering the support that Umno had previously,” he said, commenting on the different image portrayed by PAS compared to ten years ago.
While PAS continues to play the moderate role, Umno leaders are now being forced to defend themselves against accusation that their strident stand against the "Allah" ruling had helped fan the flames that led to the church attacks.
Selangor Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo, who opposes the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims, pointed out this week that his Umno party did not benefit from the attacks on the houses of worship.
“I do not want to point fingers at anyone, but it is very unusual for a party that used to be very extreme in its approach in Islam but has now become very liberal,” said Khir on his blog.
“The same party is now linking Umno to the church burning incidents,” he added.
Dr Khir also said that the groups behind last Friday’s protests against the "Allah" ruling, the Islamic youth movement, ABIM and the Muslim students group, PKPIM, had never been supporters of Umno.
“This is strange because these NGOs are known to be sympathetic to an Islamic party, not Umno,” he said.
But PAS’s Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad dismisses the notion that PAS and Umno have swapped political hues.
“I don’t like the term role-swapping. It is just that we have become more mature in understanding plural politics,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
“Not only has Umno been promoting racial politics for five decades, but they are now turning Islam into something parochial,” said Dzulkefly who is also the party strategist.
He said Umno should indeed be held responsible for the current situation as their party leaders had consented to the demonstration against the High Court ruling last Friday.
“They are doing a great disservice to Allah. They are doing a great disservice to Islam,” said Dzulkefly.