Zulkifli Hasan as Malaysia’s New Deputy Religious Affairs Minister: An Analysis

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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s new appointee in the religious affairs ministry has the requisite credentials to aid in the government’s bid to resist the rise of the conservative opposition.

One year after the formation of Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government (also known as the Madani Administration), the re-emergence and ascendancy of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) within the government has been openly and formally solemnised. This was most evident in the cabinet reshuffle on 12 December 2023 which saw Dr Zulkifli Hasan’s appointment as Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs.

Zulkifli is part of ABIM’s new generation of activists. Born in 1977, the former lecturer at the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) was an alumnus of the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). After obtaining his doctorate in Islamic finance from Durham University, he became an academic advisor to Kolej Dar al Hikmah, a private college in Selangor owned by ABIM. He was formerly the chief of ABIM’s Negeri Sembilan branch (2015-2018 ) and deputy chairman of ABIM’s International Affairs Bureau (2011-2017). Beyond ABIM, Zulkifli is known among shariah law practitioners and professionals in Islamic banking.

He is not the only ABIM member in government. The Special Officer to Dr Na’im Mokhtar, the Minister of Religious Affairs, is Dr Muhammad Razak Idris, ABIM president from 2009 to 2011.

An Islamic mass-based organisation established in 1971, ABIM started out in student and youth activism on Malaysia’s university campuses. ABIM quickly gained fame and expanded its members’ activities into the education and economic sectors, including lecturing at IIUM. ABIM gradually moved into local and global humanitarian and charitable causes, and were pioneers in promoting interfaith dialogue in Malaysia.

ABIM was an instrumental ally to Anwar when he was part of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not surprising since Anwar was one of the founders and former leaders of ABIM. In fact, ABIM activists spearheaded the Policy on Inculcating Islamic Values (Dasar Penerapan Nilai-Nilai Islam) introduced by Mahathir at that time. ABIM was also seen as responsible for promoting the concept of “Madani” which Anwar first coined in 1997. Unlike groups such as Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) which had direct links with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), ABIM was known for utilising MB’s recruitment methods and activities to expand their membership, although they emphasised a Malaysian approach (manhaj maliziy).

In her post on X welcoming Zulkifli to the administration, Minister of Education Fadhlina Sidek stated that he has been her “source of reference” on various issues, adding that he is an authoritative and young intellectual. This is significant, given that Fadhlina is the daughter of the late Siddiq Fadzil, the great maestro of ABIM who served as its president from 1983 to 1991. He was famous among university students, cultural activists, educators and even clerics for his leadership style.

Now that Zulkifli is in the administration, it is important to see whether his views on law and Islam have changed. For example, he previously said that Malaysia’s civil laws were also partly Islamic laws and fell under the category of takzir, which refers to discretionary punishment for any crime which has no specified punishment according to shariah. Elsewhere, he has stated that Islam’s position on apostasy does not negate its compatibility with modern human rights. Zulkifli said that Islam has a strong theological and theoretical foundation for apostasy and that punishment for apostasy – which is the death penalty under strict hudud law – has become a human rights issue only because it has been politicised. This view, within maqasid syariah (Higher Objectives of Sharia), prioritises the protection and enhancement of human life, and contrasts with that of those in PAS who would immediately decree the death sentence for apostasy and completely eschew any discussion on human rights.

Zulkifli is in fact a proponent of maqasid syariah and was involved in editing and launching Jasser Auda’s book on the topic. Auda was one of Anwar’s strategic advisors in implementing the current conceptualisation of Madani. In fact, with Zulkifli now in the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), there may be more clarity on the Anwar administration’s conceptualisation of Madani. On its part, ABIM has been keen to promote Madani, an approach towards Islam where outreach (dakwah) is important and progressive values are upheld.

Now that Zulkifli is in the administration, it is important to see whether his views on law and Islam have changed.

The Islamic authorities regularly invited Zulkifli to conduct workshops for them prior to his ministerial appointment. His appointment is arguably a tactical move by Anwar who may need someone more aligned with him to control PAS’ growing influence and to strengthen his Madani framework. In contrast to his minister Na’im who is a career bureaucrat, Zulkifli’s ABIM background may make him more authoritative on Islamic matters.

When leading the Negeri Sembilan branch, Zulkifli greatly emphasised ABIM’s mission (also part of Madani). In a speech at a convention, Zulkifli stressed that Rahmatan lil alamin (Mercy for All) was an important part of Islam. This slogan is central to the Unity government’s Madani framework. Zulkifli spoke about universalism as a key principle for maintaining moderation, ensuring human rights as long as they do not clash with Islamic principles, planning institutional reformation from within the government, and championing Islamic moral codes.

Appointing Zulkifli and the seeming re-emergence of ABIM is Anwar’s approach to slow down the rising rightists as well as PAS in power. At the moment, this is the only solution that he can offer.

2024/4

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