Ulama vs Erdogans frame does not capture all of it

Terence Netto
Nov 21, 2013

COMMENT Predictions as to which side – the ulama or the professionals – will triumph in tomorrow’s party elections in PAS do sometimes miss the point that lasting victory for either side is dependent on how that side fares in managing the political realities that occur on their watch.

The PAS elector has over the years been known to be a pretty empirical sort who is not afraid to relegate or promote within the party hierarchy candidates who respectively are seen to flounder or flourish amid the challenges they face.

The PAS elector is a meritocrat and so is apt to vote up or down candidates who from their standpoint have done well or not done so well for the party.

This rule does not translate easily in application such that using it one can predict that the twice-defeated parliamentary candidate Mohamad Sabu (left), the incumbent deputy president, won’t fare well against challenger, Nik Amar Nik Abdullah, the newly elevated deputy menteri besar of Kelantan, in the contest for the No 2 position in PAS.

The contest is said to be the prime one in determining whether the ulama or the professionals are in control of the Islamic party but even that would be too sweeping a conclusion.

If one has to hazard a guess as to the preferences of the general PAS elector, it would be that he would want as people to lead the party candidates who can make the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, succeed enough to convince the Malaysian electorate that they should given the keys to Putrajaya.

Witness the lack of enthusiasm whenever, in the past few years, the notion of making common cause with Umno is bandied about by the unity government proponents within the party.

The speed with which the public profile of the chief exponent of that idea, Hasan Ali (right), once a rising star in the party and its Selangor commissioner, has declined since he was expelled some three years back, is testimony to the fragility of the support within PAS for the move to unite with Umno.

The latest ructions within Penang Pakatan stemming from public criticism by the PAS chapter there that they are being marginalised by the DAP-dominated state government is not likely to gain traction within the party which would be further evidence of the dearth of enthusiasm for severance of ties to Pakatan with consequent cozying up to Umno.

Thus even if the ulama do better than the professionals in tomorrow’s poll the victors must abide by the general party consensus that unity with Umno and severance from Pakatan are options that are not on the cards.

It would be safe to say that whichever side wins, PAS will continue to stay in Pakatan so long as the coalition’s state governments in Selangor and Penang continue to be examples of good governance.

Like any contestant in the electoral arena, PAS wants to succeed and desires the goods there from: the right to govern and wield power, not just at the state but also at the federal level.

Erdogan’s autocratic deportment

Sure, non-Muslim supporters of Pakatan would like to see the professionals in PAS elected into positions of control in the party.

But it is delusive to think that Islamic professionals lean towards the tenets of liberal democracy over the autocratic promptings of a literalist interpretation of their religion.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan storms out of DavosThe autocratic deportment of the professionals – Prime Minister Tayyip Recip Erdogan (left in photo) of Turkey in the last two years, and that of President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt from November last year until he was removed by the military earlier this one – are examples that suggest the professional/ulama dichotomy of differentiation between Islamist politicians.

A more accurate gauge of telling them apart would be to see if they are ashaarites (God is power and will) or mutazilites (God is also reason).

The debate between these two schools of Islamic scriptural interpretation is a longstanding one, with the mutazilities (rationalists) seen as having lost the interpretive battle as long ago as the 12th century.

But that defeat, like the ones that occur to either the ulama or the professional camps in PAS’ biennial election cycles, is not permanent.

The schools of thought wax and wane as state-ruling embodiments of them flourish or flounder as may be the case in the flux of historical time.

As an increasingly agnostic/atheistic liberal democratic west is seen as not successful in managing their societies without debt and moral decay, the attraction of a religion-influenced polity will remain potent in Muslim-majority countries.

In the latter, that attraction will constantly spawn a competition to dominate the levers of power between ashaarites and mutazilities.

The problem with this distinction is that it is not easy to say who is an asharite or who is a mutazilite. Erdogan started out inclined to the latter school, but in the past two years at least, he has become willful and autocratic. When last November President Morsi placed himself above the judiciary in the Egyptian power structure, he revealed himself as an ashaarite.

The question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy is a world-historical issue. Some say it can only be compatible if the mutazilites win the interpretive argument within the religion.

Tomorrow’s party poll in PAS will determine small but crucial steps within the context of that millennial argument.


TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for four decades now. He likes the profession because it keeps him in touch with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them.

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