Religion and political manifestos

APRIL 15 — There are two more weeks before the campaigning period proper actually begins, but already we are seeing elements of religion subtly used, in a bid to win the hearts of voters.

Just last week, Federal Territories mufti Zulkifli Mohamad had to issue an explainer, reminding adherents that Islam permits Muslims to vote for non-Muslims.

However, in the same explainer, Zulkifli also insisted that non-Muslims should not hold positions such as prime minister, defence minister, or the Islamic affairs portfolio.

“All these factors should be taken into account in making the decision before voting and choosing, except when ensuring that the country’s top posts such as prime minister, Islamic affairs portfolio, and national defence remain to be held by qualified Muslims only,” he wrote.

Indeed, it was curious this was brought up,  considering voters do not directly choose their prime minister and the other posts — it is up to the winning parties to appoint them.

It is not as if the Opposition has offered a shadow Cabinet. And even in the fake “dream Cabinet” lists that have been made viral, Malay candidates have always been proposed for such posts.

Campaigning proper has yet to officially start but party flags and all sorts of political grandstanding — including the burnishing of religious credentials — are already highly visible. — Picture by Ham Abu Bakar
Campaigning proper has yet to officially start but party flags and all sorts of political grandstanding — including the burnishing of religious credentials — are already highly visible. — Picture by Ham Abu Bakar

The Constitution itself does not put such restrictions on non-Malays, but the political realities are enough to dissuade any ambitions among non-Malays at this time.

The mufti’s explainer also said that there are Islamic scriptures that prohibit Muslims from voting non-Muslims, but they only apply to non-Muslims who are hostile to the religion

Even in 2018, the archaic concept of kafir harbi versus kafir dhimmi — belligerent versus peaceful infidels — is still being considered.

But this notion is not new. Last year, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang was widely panned for suggesting that a PAS Cabinet would have only Muslims hold important decision-making posts, while non-Muslims would take executive roles.

To commemorate Isra’ and Mi’raj yesterday, Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman Najib Razak took the opportunity to remind voters of his administration’s Islamic credentials.

Among others, he touted the collaboration between “ulama and umara”, or Islamic scholars and political leaders — just in case one needs confirmation that Islam plays a significant role in public policies here.

BN manifestos have also mentioned Islam in one way or the other.

Terengganu BN said Islam and religious harmony would be among its main thrusts but this was not elaborated on, similar to Kelantan BN’s pledge to uphold Islam.

Meanwhile, Johor BN also pledged for the state to be Islamic, with a focus on making the state religious school system relevant.

In its federal manifesto, BN’s Islamic pledges were sporadic — such as forming a special court to deal with marriage cases, forming a national council to harmonise Shariah laws and legislation, equipping tahfiz students with professional skills, and building a so-called Quran University.

Just like the state manifestos, the Islamic pledges felt like an after-thought, tacked on just for some soundbites to woo Muslim voters.

This can be compared to Islamist party PAS and its Gagasan Sejahtera coalition, which had listed down corruption-free Shariah-compliant governance and implementing Islam as a holistic system as two of its 20 main pledges.

Harmonising the country’s legislation and administration with Shariah laws was even included as one of its nine manifesto cores.

After its failure to push forward with the private member’s Bill calling for stricter Shariah punishments, PAS has not been so blatant with its hudud ambitions. It was never directly mentioned, but the Islamic core was vague enough that it can always claim that hudud falls under it.

There is no question that we will see further blurring between Islamic authorities and the administration in Putrajaya, should PAS ever win.

This is unlike Pakatan Harapan (PH), which has pledged for lesser federal intervention when it comes to the administration of Islam. Instead, this would be the responsibility of each state government.

PH’s manifesto has not been received well by the Islamist lobby and non-state actors.

Lecturer Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, known for his antagonism towards the pact, especially after his humiliation by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has thrown his support for Gagasan Sejahtera’s manifesto, which he said represented the Muslim ambition the best.

Last week, he went further by insinuating that PH is being propped up by churches, after Rev Bernard Paul, the bishop of the Melaka-Johor Diocese expressed his support of PH.

With just over a month until polling day, we should be alert to these attempts to use religion to vilify certain parties.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.