Ismail Sabri’s vision for Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian Family) tries to paint the picture of an administration that is more inclusive than its predecessors, or that it is departing from Islam-centric policies. However, upon closer inspection his rhetoric rings hollow.
Malaysia’s history has shown that no Malay-based party can resist the strong temptation to utilise Islam as a political tool. This obviously applies to Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) during its era of dominance that ended in 2008. Since then, UMNO-led governments, such as the current administration, have continued to politicise Islam – but in different ways.
In 2019, then opposition politician Ismail Sabri accused the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration – specifically the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – of scheming to drop the status of religion from Malaysian identity cards. He claimed that the move was an attempt to put Islam on equal footing with other religions. While information on one’s religious status remains on Malaysian identity cards, this incident provides a good glimpse into Ismail Sabri’s approach to Islam since becoming Prime Minister on 16 August 2021.
Apart from his accusation against PH on the issue of identity cards, Ismail Sabri has also made his position on the crisis in Palestine very clear. For example, in 2014, he sensationalised his denouncement of HSBC Bank, which closed accounts owned by Islamic organisations supporting Palestine. In support of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ismail Sabri cancelled his credit card with the bank. Years later, he accused PH of recognising the state of Israel.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s vision of Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian Family) tries to paint the picture of an administration that is more inclusive than its predecessors, or that it is departing from Islam-centric policies such as the Policy on the Inculcation of Islamic Values introduced in 1985. However, upon closer inspection his rhetoric rings hollow. It is no different from previous UMNO-led superficial attempts to promote multiculturalism, including the 1Malaysia brand of Najib Razak’s Prime Ministership.
In fact, Islam still has a master seat at the family table, this time in the form of the campaign’s adoption of the concept of tasamuh, an Arabic word referring to tolerance or open-mindedness. In Ismail Sabri’s view, practicing tasamuh means having an attitude of acceptance and mutual respect for the various religious and cultural communities in the country.
However, the adoption of tasamuh is highly questionable especially given his decision to place the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) under the purview of PAS. The conservative Islamist party leaders certainly feel they are highly qualified to administer Islam, but we should note that this is the first time the party has been given such massive power. JAKIM receives an annual budget of RM1 billion, about double the allocations for the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
Yet, despite their self-defined position as custodians of the faith, they have offended the Malay Rulers – the constitutional heads of Islam – twice in the past year. This is largely the working of Idris Ahmad, the vice-president of PAS and Minister for Religious Affairs who oversees JAKIM.
In April 2022, Selangor’s Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah publicly rebuked Idris Ahmad for opposing the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs (MKI). The Muzakarah (Conference) Committee of the MKI – the council of muftis, or persons entrusted to interpret Islamic law – announced that a Sufi order by the name of Tarekat Naqsyabandiah al-Haqqani could be practiced in Malaysia. JAKIM, with Idris’ blessing, responded that Sunni Islam is the only legitimate branch of Islam.
The MKI, a body directly linked to the Malay Rulers, had deliberated long and hard. The April announcement followed previous decisions that signalled increasing accommodation toward diverse Islamic practices. In 2000, the 48th Muzakarah of the MKI’s Fatwa Committee issued a ban on the Sufi order, on the grounds that its teachings deviated from Islam and were therefore unlawful. The fatwa even stated that the followers of the order had to repent immediately.
However, in 2020, the 117th meeting of the MKI’s general Muzakarah Committee disputed this ruling, setting the stage for this April’s favourable decision toward the practice of Sufism in Malaysia. Sultan Sharafuddin, as MKI chairman, responded to JAKIM’s reaction to the announcement of the legitimacy of the Sufi order, warning JAKIM and Idris Ahmad that they were not allowed to comment on the decisions made by the MKI.
With the 15th General Election around the corner, PAS and Ismail Sabri will inevitably turn to Islam as their lifeline. However, capitalising on Islam may not be as easy as before, now that the Prime Minister’s appointees in the federal government unexpectedly find a royal opponent.
In June 2022, Idris Ahmad was again rebuked by Sultan Sharafuddin for advising Muslims against participating in Bon Odori – a Japanese summer dance festival – because it allegedly posed a threat to the faith of Muslims. The Sultan, as the head of Islam of the state hosting the event annually, countered Idris by instructing Selangor’s Islamic religious department to allow Bon Odori to proceed, adding that he had personally attended the festival in 2016 and did not witness any religious elements which could undermine Islamic beliefs. He further encouraged Idris and other religious authorities to attend the festival and expressed his regret that the minister had misused JAKIM to make misleading statements.
Ismail Sabri therefore has two royal rebuttals under his nose as a result of his choice to put Idris Ahmad in charge of religious affairs. Given his administration’s provocation of the monarchy, it is difficult for him to claim that tasamuh truly is the basis of Keluarga Malaysia; the above-mentioned incidents do not bode well for his political future.
With the 15th General Election around the corner, PAS and Ismail Sabri will inevitably turn to Islam as their lifeline. However, capitalising on Islam may not be as easy as before, now that the Prime Minister’s appointees in federal government unexpectedly find a royal opponent, in contrast to their traditional opponents who have tended to be political parties or civil society groups. While it remains to be seen how they will deal with this new challenge, it is clear that with PAS helming religious affairs in the country, Keluarga Malaysia is coming apart at the seams.
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.