joceline.gifANALYSIS By JOCELINE TAN
joceline@thestar.com.my
 

The controversial but charismatic ulama Dr Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin has been courted by PAS, Umno and PKR, but is he about to join Umno?

 

JUST a fortnight ago, Dr Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin was at the opening of the PAS muktamar and was given the red carpet treatment by PAS leaders.

 

This week, if reports are to be believed, the controversial former Perlis mufti may be getting the red carpet welcome into Umno.

 

Political circles are abuzz with talk that Dr Asri is about to join Umno with some 100 young ulama by this week. If it really happens, it will be a major coup for Umno which has always trailed PAS as the party of choice among the ulama class.

Dr Asri himself has been rather coy, neither confirming nor denying the reports. But the news has sent shock waves through PAS and the Muslim segment of PKR.

PAS leaders thought that if the boyish-looking ulama ever entered politics, he would surely pick their party. On top of that, Dr Asri and Ahmad Baihaki Atiqullah, the Kelantan PAS information chief and a rising star, are friends. They were house-mates when studying in Jordan.

Dr Asri has been bombarded by calls and SMS’, many from friends in PAS and PKR. One of them begged him not to do it, saying he would become “like a hot dog,” sandwiched between two buns, no longer able to speak freely and that only the tail of his turban would be visible. Anyway, Dr Asri is not into turbans. He is a modern ulama and prefers the kopiah or a songkok.

Another man whose mobile phone has been ringing non-stop is Umno executive secretary Datuk Rauf Yusoh.

Rauf, who is also Bukit Bintang vice-chairman had inadvertently set off the gossip mill when speaking at the Umno Youth AGM for the Bukit Bintang division. The guest of honour was former Perlis Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim but it was Rauf who hinted that a big group of ulama including Dr Asri would join Umno.

“There was loud applause. It was big news, a boost for the party,” said the division’s Youth chief Tengku Azman Zainal Abidin.

But not everyone in Umno is thrilled. There is concern whether the ulama’s controversial style may spill over to the party.

He is currently facing a charge in the Syariah Court for preaching in Selangor without tauliah or accreditation. He is also battling a RM1.5mil libel suit filed by Datuk Nakhaie Ahmad, the former president of Yadim (Islamic Dakwah Foundation).

But it is his rather unorthodox religious views that some in the party are concerned about. His religious column in a Malay daily often causes ripples and wins him admirers as well as critics.

His detractors call him a “modernist with Wahhabi leanings,” which is not exactly a compliment among mainstream Muslims in these parts.

In fact, he is considered too modern by the traditionalist ulama in PAS. Even former Abim president Yusri Mohamad has reservations about the impending move. He wrote in his blog (pena-yusri.blogspot.com) that the latter’s teachings do not always fall within the mainstream.

“He represents an agenda that is controversial,” said Yusri who recently lodged a police report against Dr Asri for an article he wrote in a news portal.

All this has not stopped pragmatic politicians like Nik Aziz from assiduously wooing him. In fact, some in Kelantan say that Dr Asri occasionally comes across as a younger version of Nik Aziz for his unconventional viewpoints about religion and society.

Parallels are being made with another “hot ticket” item from the 1980s, namely, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whose decision to join Umno was a hammer blow to PAS which was then trying to make inroads among mainstream Malays.

This time around, PAS sees Dr Asri as the moderate face of Islam whom non-Malays can relate to.

As a person, Dr Asri’s greatest appeal is his lack of artifice and his quite complete absence of ego, a state of being all pious Muslims aspire to. It is this which makes him so likeable as a person and which draws people of all colour and creed to his point of view.

But what Umno is about to accomplish is not solely about Dr Asri but the fact that the group coming in comprises well-educated ulama, with almost half of them holding PhDs. That these young, religious scholars chose to join Umno and not another party is going to give Umno a huge boost on the religious front.

In the meantime, all that Umno’s Rauf would say was: “Please wait and see.”