The appointment of PAS ideologue Idris Ahmad as Malaysia’s new religious affairs minister provides the Islamist party significant latitude to advance its ideological agenda.
The appointment of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) ideologue Idris Ahmad as Malaysia’s new Minister for Religious Affairs is significant. His appointment, together with that of another PAS MP Ahmad Marzuk Shaary as his deputy, means that the management of religious affairs in Malaysia is now entirely under the purview of PAS ideologues. This will have potentially far reaching implications for how Islam is likely to be administered under the new Ismail Sabri-led government.
Idris is unknown to many, outside of PAS. Born into a religious family which has long been supporters of PAS, Idris is ideologically conservative and, like many in PAS, heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. He received his education from several higher learning Islamic institutions in Malaysia and also taught Islamic Studies at Teknologi Mara University (UiTM) for almost a decade. Within PAS, he started out as an executive committee member of its youth wing, and in 2011, he was elected as the party’s information chief. He is regarded within PAS as Tok Naqib (loosely translated as head of PAS’ usrah facilitators), a role he has held since the early 1990s. (Usrah refers to an Islamic study circle whose role is to enhance and sharpen the promotion of the organisation’s ideology. First conceptualised by the Muslim Brotherhood, usrah circles play a central role in propagating and mobilising the organisation’s network.)
Now that Idris is religious affairs minister, it would be worth examining more closely PAS’ usrah syllabus for some hints of how Malaysia’s Islamic environment will be shaped under PAS’ ideological influence.
In essence, Idris Ahmad’s Panduan Usrah (Usrah Guide) calls upon party members to protect and promote Muslim interests. For example, by organising outdoor activities which include visits to Muslim-owned factories, it is hoped that the members will be inspired to set up their own factories to cater to Muslims, so as to prevent any dependency on others.
The guide also suggests that the 90-minute usrah gatherings should be used to discuss current issues and that party members should be equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills required to respond to the perceived “enemies of Islam”. This points to the very core of the purpose of the usrah, and by extension, PAS’ main objective, which is to establish an Islamic state. According to Idris, this is the “most significant objective” as the acquisition of political power will allow PAS to introduce Hudud, or Islamic penal laws. To him, establishing an Islamic state and the implementation of Islamic law remain PAS’ most important goals.
The biggest elephant in the room is whether Idris’ ascension to the cabinet would see the revival of the proposed amendment to the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act.
With Idris now helming the religious portfolio, he is expected to introduce a form of human rights that will be more consistent with the Islamic worldview. This emphasis on ‘Islamic Human Rights’ could possibly lead to greater tension between conservative and progressive Muslim factions.
Idris is also expected to boost efforts to promote Islamic values in all aspects of governance and society, consistent with the requests made by right-wing Muslim organisations, such as Gerakan Pembela Ummah (Ummah). In implementing the concept of Manhaj Rabbani (loosely translated as ‘Divinely Guided Approach’), Idris has said that he will ensure that a more Islamic approach is adopted towards governance and administration.
Already, one can see a shrinking space for the freedom of religion and expression, as Idris’ first task appears to be the proposal of a Bill to control the spread of religions other than Islam in the Federal Territories.
The biggest elephant in the room is whether Idris’ ascension to the cabinet would see the revival of the proposed amendment to the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act. Also known as RUU355, the Act is designed to increase the power of the Shariah courts such that they will be on par with civil courts. First tabled in parliament by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang in 2016 under Najib Razak’s administration, the amendment could lead to harsher punishments against Muslims who are perceived to run afoul of Islamic laws. These include Muslim minorities such as Shi’as and liberal groups, as well as those in the LGBT community. All in all, the proposal could lead to more disputes between practitioners of civil and Islamic law.
Given that Idris Ahmad’s performance in the cabinet will determine his political future in PAS, it is likely that Idris would seek as much as possible to advance PAS’ Islamist agenda, including emphasising dakwah (Islamic missionary activities), in order to appeal to and expand his conservative base. At stake is the prize of eventually taking over the helm of PAS – as both he and PAS’ Deputy President Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, the current Minister of Environment and Water, are considered frontrunners to succeed Abdul Hadi Awang, if Abdul Hadi leaves the political scene.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.