Nik Aziz, state chief minister of Kelantan and spiritual leader of the Islamic PAS party, is also a charismatic personality. Mike Millard visits him in his ministerial offices and talks with him about how Islam may be tolerant and yet retain its principles
Mostly, the people we'd encountered in the two states controlled by Parti Islam SeMalaysia seemed pious, serious about their religion and its principles and devoted to their families. The atmosphere was reminiscent of that in the Mormon-dominated territory of the United States, Utah, southern Wyoming and Idaho.
Drinking alcohol was forbidden and almost all the women, with the exception of a few Chinese, wore headscarves and modest robes. It seemed to be a stable and disciplined society, if undeveloped compared with Singapore or even western Malaysia, where the country's business was concentrated.
We arrived at the Kelantan ministerial offices, where Nik Aziz, state chief minister and spiritual leader of PAS, often held court, his translator whispered as he showed me into a large, high-ceilinged room with curtained windows admitting filmy light on handsome brocaded chairs and a couch.
Several men in traditional Malay dress with white turbans quietly left, and Aziz remained behind. He was not what I expected, which may have been someone more along the lines of Bashir, the fire-breathing Indonesian cleric. Aziz was a small man, dressed in white with a sash and turban. He had an almost pixie-like quality, a cheerful twinkle in his eye and a sparse goat beard, graying and nearly white, typical of the type that was popular in this part of the world.
The translator, an earnest fellow named Anual Bakri Bin Haron who'd attended university in England, relayed in Bahasa Malaysia my desire to ask direct questions that meant no disrespect, but which I hoped might help explain Islam and the problems of our age to people such as myself who had little understanding. Aziz accepted that.
"What is the political objective of Parti Islam SeMalaysia, and how does it differ from the ruling coalition, Umno?"
"I want to have world peace"
Aziz crinkled into a grin, then laughed loudly and let loose a torrent of words. "That is very easy. I want to have world peace, and by the look of the world, which is dragged down by drugs, usury, wars and so many ugly things, it seems that there is something needed. I believe that what is needed is Islam."
"Can Muslims and non-Muslims live together, or do Muslims need their own Islamic state?"
"When the Prophet came to the world, he lived beside a mosque, and non-Muslims were there also, and they mixed together. In that spirit, Islam was revealed, so you can see that Islam is there for Muslims and non-Muslims. You do not need an Islamic state."
This was surprising and pleasant. "Certain Muslims, such as the Wahhabis of the Arabian peninsula, insist that they must have an Islamic state. What do you think of that?"
"Look at the Prophet and how He lived"
"Please don't refer to the contemporary Islamic societies that live on the earth today. Look directly at the Prophet and how he lived. We need to stick to the two basic sources, the Koran and the Prophet himself."
"That still doesn't tell me of your opinion of those people in this world who do insist on an Islamic state."
"I disagree with this. If I were to hold to this sort of principle, Kelantan could not exist as it does."
"Is it a good thing to implement Islamic law in Kelantan, where there are people besides Malay-Muslims?"
Choice between Hudud and civil law
"When we first adapted Hudud in Kelantan in 1993, we made it clear that it would be up to the people to choose. If you are a non-Muslim and wish to be tried under civil law, it is your choice."
"What is your impression of extremist groups such as al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah?"
"I only listen to the press. How much is true I don't know. Especially in Malaysia, there are always hidden hands controlling things from other places. When the Taliban were in Afghanistan, they controlled the country and were quite popular, but somehow now they are seen as extremists and their image is tarnished. I really don't know."
"Do you favor strong economic development for Malaysia and for Kelantan?"
"Any raw materials provided by Allah are provided for the good of mankind, so there is no reason for me not to see development happen, either in Malaysia or in Kelantan."
"And the tourist industry along the sea, is this something to be encouraged?"
The blind-eyed profit of the capitalist system
"Why not? Islam urges Muslims to go forth into the world, move around the world and see how beauty is everywhere. You can see this by wandering about. But the problem with the capitalist system is that it looks for profit even at the cost of destruction of various things, and that is why the tourist industry must be controlled. Drinking, sex, sand, sun, all those things they used to talk about, must be kept under control. We see young backpackers from the West who come here for things that they wouldn't do back home."
"What do you think of the United States and its policies? What should it do in these difficult days since the September 11 bombings?"
"It is a tough question. The Soviet Union formerly balanced the United States, but now nobody can balance it. The Arab world has been frustrated with it since America recognized Israel in the late 1940s. America has to settle the Palestinian problem, or you will see bombing after bombing. You can see on all the television networks, Israelis killing Palestinians, killing Muslims, and this is the problem that creates men such as Osama bin Laden."
"Do you think that if the Palestinian problem were solved, Osama would simply go away?"
"If the problem were solved amicably by the Americans, then why should Osama remain? He is a millionaire, he could be living comfortably instead of launching attacks against Americans and hiding out somewhere in the mountains, but he chooses to stay in a cave, and this shows there must be some struggle that Osama is involved in."
"But Osama, like fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers, is a Wahhabi who believes in an Islamist state."
"I don't know anything about that."
"What is the future of Islam in Southeast Asia?"
Democracy killing democracy
"Let me concentrate on Malaysia, because what happens here is representative of what happens in Singapore or Indonesia or the Philippines. In Malaysia, you can see the ruling party, Umno, using its powers to stop the Islamic movement through media, TV, halting political rallies and acts passed by parliament that oppose Islamic development. Democracy has been used to kill democracy in Malaysia. You can see how it worked in the case of jailing former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim."
Anwar had once been Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir's deputy and anointed successor, but when he bucked the chief on policy during the Asian Crisis, Anwar was charged with sodomy and with abusing his office, tried and imprisoned, where he remains today.
"Will Umno be able to stop the Islamic movement in Malaysia?"
"PAS is strong here in Kelantan and Terengganu, but the political forces of Umno always manage to curb our growth. I often think about retiring to live in a kampung and take care of my gardening. Then I look at my political responsibility, and at Umno's policies, and I must be responsible, so I drag my feet along and keep working for our cause."
"Is it more important for the rest of the world to learn to live with Islam, or for Islam to learn to live with the world?"
"Islam has principles, and they are embedded strongly and cannot be challenged. In implementing Islam, there are various techniques, and Islam does not say no to any of them. Take for example, elections. This is a technique of democracy that coincides with Islamic techniques of Shariah, of consultation and the like, so we can accommodate this. Or take for example, tourism. Islam urges the community to travel, to move about, to see places. And you can operate a chalet or a guest house for tourists, but make sure there are no negative things involved, such as drinking, illicit sex and the like."
The principles of Islam
"Can Islam operate with democracy?"
"Islam can definitely operate with democracy, but there are certain things that we cannot tolerate. Take for instance, in some European countries a male can marry with a male, which is legalized by a democratic process. Issues such as this, we cannot accommodate. Islam is based on principles. In times where we can run together with democracy, well, good and fine, but at times when it comes to problems with our principles, then Islam should stay on."
"Perhaps it is a reflection of European culture, to drink wine, for example?"
"Do not tell me that the Europeans don't know that drinking wine is bad for their health."
"What is your opinion of Sufi Islam, which is not so concerned with rules as it is with direct religious experience?" The legalistic Wahhabis despised Sufism, with its mystical leanings, and had long struggled to extinguish it in their strongholds on the Arabian Peninsula.
"Sufism is not so much for rules. The spiritual path is under the guidance of Sufism. If you are stingy or are not thankful for what you have received, then Sufism is the guidance that you may receive under the gurus for this spiritual experience. When you reach a certain level of purity, then we might participate in direct revelation. Through the purification process, through upholding Islamic teachings, we can reach Sufism. I am chief minister now, and I could enjoy great privilege, but I still enjoy living in my small house behind the mosque."
Aziz was clearly a complicated and decent man whose charisma could sweep people along like boats on a friendly tide.
More a tribal leader than a political person
There was something troubling about him too, however. He was a good local chieftain, even a wise leader. It was when Aziz raised his gaze above his people and their land to other, larger realities that he seemed to lose his focus. If Parti Islam SeMalaysia should ever gain power where populations were not heavily Muslim, many of his principles would be called into question. In such an environment, the sound and benign leadership he offered would likely be perceived as something less, and that would be a shame, because he was the real thing, a good man, and that was not a quality to be shunted aside.
He was actually more a tribal leader than a political person, and in that situation religion could be seen as a practical component of social organization.
By projecting his religious rulings into a political environment, however, a man such as Aziz could begin to seem arbitrary and even cruel. The pronouncements of religious authorities are not an appropriate substitute for the laws of a multicultural state, and Islam, even as interpreted by a sufi such as Nik Aziz, offered no exception to this.
A few weeks later, the acting president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, said that if the party came to power throughout Malaysia, it would impose Islamic law and a theocratic state.
A year later, PAS was soundly defeated in national elections by the Umno coalition of new Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, losing control of Terrenganu state and barely keeping Kelantan, where Nik Aziz retained his position through a recount.
© Mike Millard 2004
Mike Millard is an American journalist and author who has lived in Asia for 15 years, currently residing with his family in Singapore after a decade in Japan. His most recent book, "Jihad in Paradise: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia", from which this article was excerpted and adapted, was published this year by M.E. Sharpe Inc.