PARTI Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who died on Thursday, played a pivotal role in the development of PAS as a modern Islamist party with international connections. His death may have a profound impact on both the party and Malaysia as a whole.
He was one of the senior members of the so-called “ulama faction” that ousted party president Asri Muda in 1982, and began internal reforms that turned PAS into Malaysia’s biggest and perhaps best organised opposition party.
Throughout the 1990s, he was seen as the bedrock of PAS’ power among the Malay-Muslim electorate and the key factor that ensured its victory in the state of Kelantan, where he was menteri besar for 23 years. Despite attempts by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) to woo the people, they voted for PAS through the 1990s, and in the 2004, 2008 and 2013 general elections.
Datuk Nik Aziz was also one of the engineers of the Islamisation programme in the state, and played a key role in the development of the network of madrasahs (religious schools) there, linking them to a wider network of madrasahs across the Muslim world.
Since 1999, PAS has sought to represent itself to the Malaysian electorate as an Islamist party that was colour-blind and transcended ethnic differences.
This was partly the result of the collaboration between PAS leader Yusof Rawa and Mr Nik Aziz, who wished to represent the party in strictly defined ideological terms as a party of Muslims first, one that would promote a vision of an Islamic state where ethnic distinctions were secondary.
The shift towards a more ideological approach was partly due to the pragmatic understanding that no party could govern Malaysia alone, and that for PAS to become a truly national party, it would have to tie up with parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
Over the past two decades, Mr Nik Aziz was seen as the main pillar of support behind the pragmatic faction within PAS’ leadership, sometimes dubbed the “reformers” or “Erdogan” faction, in reference to moderate Islamist Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Since the 2008 election, this wing has opted for closer cooperation with the DAP and PKR in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, despite growing concern and disapproval among some PAS factions which argued that, by virtue of being in such a coalition, the party had diluted its Islamist ideology and character.
Mr Nik Aziz’s stand was both religious and ideological in nature: Since the 1980s, some of PAS’ senior ulama had denounced the ruling parties in BN as being un-Islamic, and vowed to replace them through the ballot box.
Ideologically, PAS saw itself as part of a global Islamist movement, which was why it preferred to align itself with other parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jama’at-e Islami of Pakistan, rather than be seen as being close to Umno.
Mr Nik Aziz’s death raises questions about the future of PAS and its standing in the PR: First, it is unclear to what extent the “Erdogan” faction can hold back the growing demands for PAS to leave the PR, and to join other Malay- Muslim parties to uphold the goal of Malay-Muslim pre-eminence in the country.
Second, the pivotal post of spiritual leader will need to be filled by another PAS leader of equal standing and prominence, one who will determine the outlook and orientation of the party.
The implications of Mr Nik Aziz’s death are also of concern to observers of Malaysian politics. There has been much speculation about whether the PR can remain together up to the next election.
Mr Nik Aziz’s death may spell the end of that alliance as well.