Those fearing a creeping Islamisation of Malaysia reacted sharply when the government, led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), allowed Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to table a Bill on hudud - the controversial Islamic criminal code. The debate over its widespread application, if legislated, has divided Malaysia's multi-religious landscape.
That PAS should push for hudud is hardly surprising. The party's insistence on Malaysia becoming an Islamic state governed by syariah law, including hudud, has constituted its core political mission for decades. What is noteworthy about the hudud Bill being on the parliamentary agenda is the signal of a possible convergence of interests between Umno and PAS - two Malay-based parties whose erstwhile electoral rivalry expanded space for multi-religious politics. Nominally, the Bill seeks to only enhance the present powers of syariah courts. The larger purpose behind it is the Islamisation of the country through the induction of hudud into the body politic.
Attempts by PAS to reach out to non-Muslims in recent years appeared to signal a move away from its roots in theocratic orthodoxy towards an inclusive idea of Malaysia as a religiously pluralistic nation. However, that phase now appears to have been a tactical one. The renewed bid for hudud reveals the strategic rationale of PAS - to treat every political opening as an opportunity to install Islamic governance in Malaysia. In that sense, the party's overt return to its hudud agenda serves the useful purpose of reminding voters of the ultimate inability of religion-based parties to embrace social and political heterodoxy.
Ironically, however, PAS continues to work with the secular opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in the Selangor state government. How long that will last is anyone's guess as PKR has lent its support to PAS' opponent, Amanah, for an upcoming parliamentary by-election. That politics makes for strange bedfellows might well hold the door ajar, for now at least, and prevent it from closing in on the country's attempt to find a status quo that does not subvert the multi-religious nature of its polity.
Malaysia is not a secular state, nor is it an Islamic one, as top political leaders have stated. Political parties, civil society organisations and an increasingly vocal intelligentsia navigate their way between these two realities as they envisage the national future. Nations being imagined communities, an acceptance of diversity helped to turn Malaysia into a model Muslim-majority country where religious minorities are comfortable with their place in the national scheme of things. Many would hope that this state of affairs will continue, despite the efforts of PAS to manoeuvre its way to power. The ambitions of a single religious party ought not overturn the long-held multi-religious and multiracial aspirations of an entire nation.