Najib and Rosmah in Mekah

A few days before the election campaigning officially began, the renowned and respected Egyptian Islamic scholar, Syeikh Yusof Al-Qardawi was reported to have openly acclaimed Prime Minister Najib Razak’s religious credentials and commended his efforts for the struggle of the Palestinian people. Al-Qardawi complimented Najib for being the first non-Arab leader to travel to Gaza as a guest of Hamas. Al-Qardawi’s remarks served as a much needed boost for the battling Prime Minister, who was facing his ruling coalition’s greatest challenge from Anwar Ibrahim and a resurgent opposition.

On the flipside, the opposition camp too claimed that Anwar had the endorsement of Al-Qardawi. On the 26th of April, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the influential Murshidul Am (Spiritual Guide) of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), revealed an open letter believed to be written by Al-Qardawi. In that letter, Al-Qardawi approved Anwar Ibrahim as the best leader to lead Malaysia. The contents of the letter, inter alia, alluded that:

He (Anwar) is the most eligible to assume the leadership and the most eligible to implement the demands of the nation at this crucial juncture to develop Malaysia in every aspect

The effort to get Al-Qardawi’s support and endorsement is understandable particularly in winning the hearts and minds of the Malay/Muslims electorate. Yusof Al-Qardawi is the most highly respected religious figure in the Sunni world. His voice is akin to that of a ‘voter’ that all other ‘voters’ take their cue from. In the contemporary context, Al-Qaradawi’s influence to Sunni Islam has been compared to that of Ayatollah Khomeini to the Shias. The author of more than 120 books, including the famous The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, Al-Qardawi’s opinions are widely referred to by the religious elites in the Malay world (especially Malaysia and Singapore) today. In fact, many religious opinions issued by the religious elites in Malaysia today have, accurately or otherwise, treated the consultation of his writings as essential.

But garnering Al-Qardawi’s endorsement also serves another objective: to consolidate the support of the local ulama. For some while, the competition for the support of the local ulamas’ remained a key battle front between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and PAS. Without a doubt, the latter always had the upper hand in recruiting ulamas to its fold, for PAS has always been the party that championed the leadership of the ulama (kepimpinan ulama) since the Islamic resurgence movement began in the 1980s. UMNO too have been trying to obtain the support of the ulama, albeit less successfully. For instance, the former Imam of the National Mosque (Masjid Negara) – Ustas Firdaus Ismail- was an UMNO candidate in past elections. This tradition to allow the ulama to contest in elections continues. The leader of the Young UMNO Ulama (ILMU), Ustaz Dr Fathul Bari, was a candidate for the Sanglang (DUN) seat in Perlis. Dr Fathul lost by a slim margin of 121 votes to PKR. Another UMNO ulama, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Brigadier General (Rtd) Jamil Khir Baharom, was more successful, winning the Jerai (Kedah) parliamentary seat.

Apart from relying on UMNO’s ulama, Najib Razak, had for months before the elections, tried to shore up the support of the neutral ulamas by organising meetings with them such as the Perhimpunan Perdana Ulama dan Umara, dan Asnaf in March 2013. Lacking the Islamic credentials of his predecessors Tun Abdullah Badawi or his opponents, Anwar Ibrahim, let alone Abdul Hadi Awang, Najib Razak tried to close ranks with the religious elites with the intention to improve his standing among the Malay/Muslim electorate.

Throughout the campaigning period, the role of ulamas not affiliated with either UMNO or PAS were equally important. Prominent ulamas, such as the former Mufti of Perlis, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (Dr Maza), were invited to speak at many public forums to deliver their thoughts on the elections. Other ulamas, such as Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, backed by his ‘official’ status as the Mufti of Perak, weighed in the election discourse by reminding Muslims to choose a candidate that can ‘glorify Islam’.

Getting the opinion of the local ulama is important particularly in tackling the controversies that had beleaguered Malaysian Muslims in recent times. Traditionally, what divides UMNO and PAS have been the issue of Islamic State and hudud laws (traditional Islamic laws that included amputation of hands for theft and flogging for drinking and illegal sexual intercourse). While these issues have again been played up during GE13, other recent issues such as whether non-Muslims can use the term ‘Allah’ for God and the challenge of religious pluralism as a dangerous ideology have also been widely politicised. At least, these are the more serious issues, unlike the circulation of videos that sought to undermine the credibility of key Muslim leaders from the opposition.

But how successful was UMNO’s attempt to play the religious card and getting the support of the ulama at GE13? It has been mixed. The attempt of UMNO to cajole the local ulama and the traditional Islamic boarding schools (sekolah pondok) in Kedah is believed to have been crucial in BN’s re-capture of the state from PAS. UMNO mainly pointed out the irony of PAS working with the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Interestingly, they also played out the issue of how Shiism can be a threat if PAS is allowed to continue to rule. All these tactics led to a ‘knockout punch’ to PAS in Kedah, which were already troubled by internal divisions and the incompetency of the Ustaz Azizan PAS led Kedah state government.

UMNO was also seen to be successful in Perlis. Although its young ulama Dr Fathul Bari lost, so did the Deputy Murshidul Am of Pas Dr Ustaz Haron Din in Arau (state legislature). Dr Haron can be said to be most consistent PAS leader in struggling for hudud laws to be implemented and also for the exclusive use of the term ‘Allah’ by Muslims.

However, the courting of the local ulama and pondok clerics has been less successful in Kelantan. It was believed that Najib Razak tried to deploy the same method in Kelantan as that in Kedah, but met with little success. The fact that Nik Aziz only announced his retirement as the Chief Minister of Kelantan, the position he held for 23 years, after the elections paid off. Nik Aziz, widely revered as modest and down-to-earth ulama, had attained ‘cult’ status in Kelantan, contributing significantly to PAS victory there.

Most importantly, the scare tactic that BN deployed through the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) to woo the Chinese voters, as it did successfully in 1999 elections, failed miserably. Since the 1990 general election, the BN had tried to paint any alliance between PAS and DAP as a marriage of convenience. Conflating PAS with religious extremism was meant to scare the Chinese voters especially but moderate and liberal Malaysians generally with suggestions such as harsh hudud laws will be implemented if PR gets into power. BN also used this strategy in an attempt to consolidate the Chinese votes in the state of Johor. It clearly backfired. In fact, PR, through DAP, made unprecedented gains in the UMNO fortress, although UMNO continued to do well in the majority Malay areas in the state.

One cannot easily generalise the impact of Islam in the 13th general elections. Electoral strategies to win over the Malay/Muslim electorate such as obtaining the endorsement by internationally renowned ulama, garnering the support of the local ulama, and using scare tactics had achieved limited success. Clearly, there are many intervening factors that may have decided the elections including the rural-urban divide which also manifest the diversity of the religious orientation of the Malays. To be sure, if there is one impact that Islam ever had on the election outcome, it is not the support and endorsement of renowned religious scholars such as Al-Qardawi, but the fact that the leaders have neglected Islamic ideals that is manifested in massive abuses of power. The failure for the government- and to some extent the opposition too- to effectively address allegations of corruption, nepotism, abuses of power, and personal morality proves to be their own undoing, if not in this elections, the next one.

Norshahril Saat is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University (ANU). He researches on the religious and political behaviour of the ulama in contemporary Malaysia and Indonesia.