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INTERVIEW: Ustaz Nasharudin Mat Isa
‘Democracy, press freedom and human rights are fundamental issues’

Ustaz Nasharudin Mat Isa is part of the young generation within the Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the largest opposition party in Malaysia. As secretary general of the party, he is part of the decision-making process within the party.
The PAS, as much as Islam itself around the world, is coping with a crisis it did not want on its hands. The September 11 attacks on the U.S. have helped re-invent Islam in the West. It has also fuelled controversies in Southeast Asia where regimes from Singapore to Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei are on the alert, fearing terror attacks on their territories.
Mat Isa says that every dose of curbs against Islamic activism in the region, particularly in Malaysia, would result in a negation of Islam. He believes that Malaysia will not benefit economically from brandishing Islamic extremism to the face of the world.
At times on the defensive, the PAS Secretary General turns the table on the Malaysian government on confusion reigning in Malaysia over fundamentalist Islam and attempts by the ruling coalition in the country to link the PAS to Islamic extremism. He says democracy, freedom of the press and human rights are fundamental issues that remain the battle horse of the PAS and its opposition coalition members in the Alternative Front (AF). Mat Isa also says the recent arrests of activists in the region under the Internal Security Act (ISA) will not deter terrorism. Kazi Mahmood (IslamOnline) spoke to him recently in Kuala Lumpur. Excerpts:

 

The recent arrests of KMM members and the arrests in Singapore signal a new offensive against so called terrorists in the region. Do you see any negative impacts on the region due to these arrests?
The impact will be on the Muslims, first of all. It is again Islam that will be distorted again with these arrests, giving it a bad image. Muslims in Malaysia and in this region will be viewed as nothing but terrorists, violent and so on. I am very much concerned about a negative image of Islam that is going to be portrayed with these incidents in Southeast Asia.
We also have the economic impact that this could have on the country for example, but I can say that since the economy has been struck by a slump for some time now, the arrests of militants will not make much of an impact on it, even though it will not help it out too. The real concern is with the effects it will have on the Islamic movement in Malaysia. That is my real concern.
In Malaysia we are concerned with the continuous effort to ‘demonize’ the image of the PAS. For example the government has recently asked the PAS to apologize for its mistakes. I responded to that by saying that we would not apologize for something we did not do. What we are going to do is to continue what we have been doing this day long and continue our agenda so that the people will get the right information about Islam and politics.

Last year Malaysia cracked down on PAS members, accusing them of being linked to the KMM, yet many people here seem to dismiss the very existence of the KMM. What does the PAS have to say about the KMM and the arrest of its members?
We have already made our stand very clear on this issue. Yes, we want a change in government, yes, we want to come to power, but we are doing this in the process of democracy. That is the reason why we have participated in all the general elections here in Malaysia.
And as far as the Mujahideen are concerned, the issue is back in the limelight after the recent arrest of the so-called Mujahideen members. The arrest of these militants (Al-Ma’unah) in 2000 and their condemnation, those who participated in the arms heist and branded as Mujahideen’s by the government, is quite fishy I would say, even doubtful and questionable.
The government wants us to apologize for saying that the entire Al-Ma’unah episode is state-managed. We are not going to do that since we believe and the country also believes that this entire episode, despite the ruling by the court (condemning the leaders of the arms heist to death penalty), is a staged coup.

Are you saying that the KMM is linked to the Al Ma’unah?
No, I am not saying that. But the entire episode was that fishy and that is the reason why we do not want to apologize to the government for something that is not related to us. The Al Ma’unah and the arms heist incident of July 2000 have triggered the episodes of extremism in Malaysia, according to the government.

The Malaysian government says the Mujahideen arrested were planning to initiate a war that would lead to the establishment of a pan-Islamic nation in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. How do you view these statements by the government?
It was the government who said that and I know nothing about it and I think the best people to answer that are the government itself.

The political future of Islam is now linked to the events surrounding the attacks against the U.S. on September 11. Muslims of all ages and of all the schools of thoughts (Mazhab) are being targeted in the war against terrorism. How is your party coping with this sudden situation?
The September 11 attacks have an undeniable effect on the Muslims. A very negative image has been portrayed on the Muslims around the world. Part of the negative effect touched Islam and parts of it the PAS here in Malaysia. How we cope with that is that we continue our dialogue with the masses and we continue our teaching of Islam. We continue with our program and nothing has changed there.

Malaysia now claims that the U.S. and other nations must adopt laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), which it says has proven to be a deterrent against terrorism. Do you believe the ISA and other laws as those applied in the U.S. and U.K. for example can really stop terror?
Well, as far as the ISA is concerned, there are no principles of law that can accept detention without trial. This is the basic fundamental issue of freedom and justice. Even though this law has been made decades ago, I have been made to understand that it is not being used anywhere else on earth, not even in the U.K. from where it originates. It is being widely practiced in Malaysia and Singapore, though. I feel this kind of draconian law will not help solve the problems linked to terror. I believe that the people will feel more uneasy with the arrests without trial and no solution will be found against terror by using such laws.

Has Malaysia gone to the roots of problems that have caused the KMM to exist? Why do such groups exist? Have you made any analysis on this?
We do not want to make any analysis on this. We have nothing to do with that so called group and we do not know anything on the existence of this so-called Mujahideen group. As far as PAS is concerned, we abide by democracy and it is only through democracy that we are going to make changes.

A worrying fact with the “war against terror” is that human rights seem to have taken the back seat worldwide. What is the situation in Malaysia? The SUHAKAM itself has said that human rights must take the back seat. Do you agree with that?
I am not sure what they mean by back seat, you know. If they mean by back seat, that they should shut their mouth from saying the truth, I think that would not be very unprofessional of a respected body. We expect an organization like that, which is not supposed to be related in anyway to the government, an independent organization like SUHAKAM should be in the forefront to say what is right what is true, especially in defending the rights of the oppressed in this country. 

Your party declared the jihad (struggle) in Afghanistan as valid for Malaysians. Observers say this has negative political implications on the party? Does this not alienate non-Muslims from the PAS?
First of all, our statement on jihad in Afghanistan has been taken out of context. It was wrongly reported by the media. When we said it was valid, we were looking at the oppressed and attacked by the U.S. without any prior proof of their guilt by the latter country and its allies. Our concern was with the Muslims in Afghanistan, being oppressed, and our Islamic duty was to assist them. We consider the assistance, the help given to the Afghans as part of the jihad. We have sent our groups there, our medics and other personnel who assisted the Afghans in many ways.

That is what we really meant by the jihad declaration, but it has been taken out of context by the mainstream media and linked to the jihad with weapons. We know nothing about what context they gave it and we are not responsible about that.

Has it alienated the non-Muslims from the PAS? I do not think so. Yes, I would say it has had an effect one way or another, but there is no spinning effect and we have rebounded from it. Once we went back to our explanation campaigns to the people, it was clear to the non-Muslims what the PAS actually meant. I explained this to the CNN and to the English mainstream papers here in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, the government recently said that it is only the Fatwa Council that has the rights to issue fatwa’s (Islamic legal rulings). What does Islam really says about fatwa and who really has the right to issue fatwa’s?
To my understanding, fatwa is a religious opinion from scholars who are qualified to give fatwa. Here in Malaysia Islam has been administered in such a way that the role of Islam and intellectualism in Islam has been sidelined and Islam made to look rigid on fatwa’s. Here only Mufti’s (religious scholars) are allowed to give fatwa’s, it has to go to certain process and no one else is really allowed to give a fatwa. If you look at it closely, you will see that it goes against the huge basic openness of Islam.

Is the PAS losing ground to Mahathir in this war against terror? The PM seems to dominate the debate on this issue and gaining popularity. He is at the forefront criticizing the U.S. We have not heard much from the PAS?
The reason you have not heard much from the PAS on these issues is that our views are not published in the mainstream media in Malaysia. We bring our statements and condemnations to the media but they would not publish it. Mahathir’s statement, especially outside Malaysia, is to win the heart of the American regime and also truly to get the favors of the public here.

But what really stands in his heart is, I think, against what he says thoroughly. It is unfair to say that the PAS does not have a stand on this issue and has not made statements. We sent letters to U.S. President George W Bush; we had a massive demonstration at the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur. We organized several rallies and speeches, and we were present in those organized around the country. However, the media here in Malaysia is being curbed so much by the system that our message is not made public.

What does the future hold for the PAS? Can this party win the Malay heartland in 2004; can it sustain the recent successes in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah? Is there any hope of gaining more grounds now that the DAP has left the opposition coalition?
The future of the PAS is something that is going to develop positively, inshaa Allah. We are gearing towards that and towards the next election. The DAP left the front and they did it on their own accord, they have their own right to do that but we in the PAS we are with the Alternative Front (AF), and we will continue with the other components of the opposition front. We have had a long experience in local politics. We use to fight with friends who joined us. If friends come and go, we will still carry on.

The U.S. is helping Pakistan and India financially to regulate the Madrasah’s in these countries. The PAS itself runs several nationwide Islamic religious schools. Is there a possibility that the Malaysian authorities target these schools on the basis of religious fanaticism?
We are educating people, Muslim students who frequent our schools to be fundamentalists. Not fanatics. What we mean by fundamentalism is that students who leave our schools and institutions of learning are going to hold to the fundamentals of Islam. This is the role of the schools. There is no issue of extremism or fanaticism here.

True, the government is looking into the development of our schools and especially with the state government of Selangor, which is trying to close down our kindergartens. Our answer to that is the government is not only afraid of the PAS leadership alone, they are also afraid of the boys and girls of the kindergartens.

I heard you studied at the Deobandi Madrassah in India. This Madrassah is said to be the very place where the Taliban originates. It is also has its own history behind it. Can you tell me anything about that?
Do I look like a Taliban? (Laughter) Yes, I had some education in Lucknow in India where the Deobandi Madrassah is located. But I did not stay long there. To relate to those who have studied in such centers to the Taliban or to terrorism, etc, is a wild accusation.

What are the other issues that the PAS has in its bag to present to the Malaysians in its bid to win power in Malaysia? There seem to be a lack of issues since the war against terror has started. What about Anwar Ibrahim, democracy, freedom of the press, etc?
We have continued our efforts fighting for freedom of the press, the Anwar issue and for more democracy. We are not letting go and we do have lots of issues that we are concentrating on despite September 11th. Rest assured the PAS is there and is fighting on all fronts.


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