By Razak Ahmad

Should non-Muslims be allowed to join an Islamist party? Would the Islamists want them to join? This is the issue facing the Pan Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS) at its annual assembly this week. Photo: Women’s wing of PAS prays at its national convention on 3 June, 2009/Bazuki Mujammad

For decades, PAS dreamed of a rigid theocratic state, even to the extent of issuing an edict in 1987 declaring the ruling Malay-Muslim nationalist ruling party as infidel. The ethnic minority Chinese and Indians who make up a combined 35% of the Southeast Asian country’s 27 million population were rarely in the Islamist party’s political equation.

But now PAS is part of Malaysia’s three-party opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim. It claims that 20,000 non-Muslims have joined the party’s supporters club, which will be recognised as an official party wing if a proposal on the matter is endorsed. This would in turn pave the way for non-Muslim members of the supporters club to become card carrying PAS members.

The party enjoyed a surge in support among non-Muslim voters in general elections last year after a group of party reformers took control of PAS and moderated the party’s hardline image. The supporters club is an extension of the party’s attempt to broaden its voter appeal but it is more than just an outreach.

PAS’ non-Muslim engagement parallels the evolution of other Islamist parties like Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) or Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK) to expand their appeal to moderate and progressive Muslims and even non-Muslims. The old paradigm of replicating Iran’s Islamic revolution in their home countries seems to have faded away.