By Joceline Tan

Insight, The Star

PAS leader Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat won brownie points among the non-Malays for his defence of Teo Nie Ching’s faux pax in a Selangor surau. But compromising on such issues may have lost his party ground among the Malays.

SERDANG MP Teo Nie Ching rushed to the High Court on Monday morning in the hope of meeting Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat who was there for the Kelantan government’s suit against Petronas.

But when she got there, she was told the Kelantan Mentri Besar was about to leave for the mosque to perform sembahyang hajat or special prayers.

Teo was advised to go and wait at Kelantan House where Nik Aziz puts up when he is in Kuala Lumpur. Her persistence paid off and she met Nik Aziz for about 15 minutes over what some have called her political baptism of fire.

There had been an uproar when a photograph of the petite and pretty DAP politician making a speech in the Surau Al-Huda in Kajang appeared on the front page of a leading Malay newspaper.

The photograph showed her speaking into a microphone in the dewan solat or prayer court of the surau (No-no Number 1); her head was uncovered (No-no Number 2); and she was wearing a form fitting baju kebaya or what some have labelled an “SIA stewardess uniform” (No-no Number 3).

DAP leaders slammed the news report as “Umno-instigated” and accused the paper of blowing the issue out of proportion.

But behind the scenes, they knew the reaction among Muslims out there was not entirely about politics and they were concerned about how to handle the fallout.

Teo had crossed the line and this became all too clear when word came from the state government that the Sultan of Selangor, the Islamic head in the state, was upset about the matter.

From that point, the DAP defence that Teo had not done anything wrong ground to a stop and she was advised to apologise to the Sultan. Her letter of apology was handed to the Sultan by the Selangor Mentri Besar a few days later.

DAP leaders also approached their PAS colleagues for advice and that was when it was suggested that Teo should try to meet Nik Aziz.

The tvpas.com video of the meeting showed Nik Aziz doing most of the talking while Teo did all the nodding.

Teo is a practising lawyer, a vivacious speaker and fluent in Bahasa Malaysia. The novice politician made a huge impact in the last elections because she was such a natural and confident speaker.

But she has been under a lot of pressure in the last couple of weeks and seemed overwhelmed by Nik Aziz and was virtually sitting on the edge of the white sofa, her hands clasped on her lap.

Officially, the purpose of meeting Nik Aziz was for Teo to seek advice but the real aim was to signal to the Malay ground that Teo had been “absolved” of the faux pax by the Tok Guru.

“This is too much and in the holiest month for the Muslims. She ran to Nik Aziz because she wanted a political solution. If she really wanted religious advice, she should have gone to the mufti,” said pro-Umno blogger Zakhir Mohamed.

Teo has since resumed her Ramadan duties in more demure fashion, opting for the modest baju kurung and a variety of shawls for events at the surau or mosque.

PKR’s William Leong, the Selayang MP, also came under fire following reports in the same Malay daily that he had given a tazkirah or religious talk at the Masjid at-Fakwa.

Leong has been rather level-headed about the whole incident.

“I wouldn’t know how to give a tazkirah even if I wanted to. Besides, it is not as though I barged in and grabbed the mike. I was invited by the mosque committee,” he said.

But Leong probably came under less pressure because he is a man and a lot of activities revolving around the mosque are run by men.

A corporate lawyer, Leong’s experience of Ramadan before going into politics was breaking fast with his corporate clients in hotels. It has been a sharp learning curve and he now finds himself making donations to orphans, single mothers and the poor.

Actually, the relationship between politicians and mosques is an old story. Over the years religion has given politics and politicians a legitimacy that they would otherwise not enjoy among a large segment of Muslims and Malays and no other parties play it as intensely as Umno and PAS.

But non-Muslims making speeches in the prayer court is something else, hence the unequivocal response from the Selangor Sultan whose opinion about keeping the mosque and surau free of partisan politics is well known.

On Wednesday, the Selangor palace issued an order stating that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the prayer court of mosques or surauwithout permission from the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais).

Selangor is also touchy about politicians speaking in the mosque, no matter how well-versed they may be in their religious knowledge.

Earlier last month, when opening a religious primary school in the state, the Sultan had urged Muslims to step up efforts to overcome problems that posed a challenge to the institution of Islam. Among these challenges were the use of the word ‘’Allah’’ by non-Muslims, deviant teaching, misuse of mosques and social issues affecting young Muslims.

Clear signals on transgressions

The Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, in a speech in Ipoh a few days after the incident, cautioned that “major transgressions in Islam begin from small acts” and that it could start from a suraumadrasah ormasjid, or from a speech, khutbahtazkirah or doa. There was no mistaking what he was referring to.

The two royals are sending clear signals on where they stand on religious matters.

There is no denying that reports on the Teo and Leong incidents were somewhat exaggerated especially the allegations that they had delivered tazkirah. If Teo was not even aware of how women ought to dress in religious settings, she could hardly be capable of a tazkirah.

At the same time, politicians like them are challenging stereotypical perceptions of the role of elected representatives. The new breed wants to be YBs for all races and that is something for everyone to think about in the new political landscape.

Several leading ulama such as Perak mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria and Johor religious advisor Datuk Nooh Gadot jumped into the fray but most Malay politicians steered clear of it.

No Malay politician worth his salt wants to mess around with the palace and most have been in the game long enough to know the specifics of mosque etiquette.

PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, for one, was mum throughout. His silence was read as disapproval of what had happened. Party insiders said opinion on the matter had been divided at the PAS central working committee meeting last Sunday night.

But PAS intellectual and Kuala Selangor MP Dr Dzulkifly Ahmad said: “There is a great divide given the emerging two-party system taking place. The one willing to be in touch with the changing political landscape will be the one who will survive the new political contestation. It does not pay to take a jaundiced view of religion.”

Nevertheless, not everyone in PAS is happy with Nik Aziz’s stand. They say his political side seems to be dominating the ulama in him these days.

He had gone out of his way to defend DAP on the cancellation of the Malidur Rasul procession in Penang and the incident where Perak DAP leader Nga Kor Ming mispronounced Koranic verses.

More recently, there was the furore over the khutbah in Penang during which the imam neglected to pray for the Agong who is the head of Islam in the country but mentioned the Chief Minister’s name instead.

The debate among ordinary Muslims has generally not been sympathetic to Teo’s blunder. There are those who are clearly angry and feel she had not shown respect to their religious norms.

The more reasonable excuse her attire to ignorance but say she had transgressed certain boundaries by entering the prayer court.

“Mosques should be opened to non-Muslims but not the dewan solatand not in that kind of outfit. I’m not comfortable with that,” said one young Malay lawyer.

It is quite clear that DAP leaders work well with the consummate politician that Nik Aziz is.

He has become some sort of Band-Aid to the DAP when they stumble, fall and scrape their knee. To put it more bluntly, some think he has become an apologist for the DAP.

Those in Pakatan Rakyat call it coalition politics – that parties should help each other.

Nik Aziz won brownie points among the non-Malays but it is doubtful if he has won any ground among the Muslims on this issue.

The fasting month is a time for prayer, reflection and good deeds and Malay politicians often try to downplay politics during this special time.

But, said the well-known and controversial blogger Syed Azidi Syed Abdul Aziz also known as Kickdefella: “One political incident after another, this is a highly political Ramadan.”

(Original Online Version, here)