KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia has rolled out the red carpet for controversial Islamic scholar Ismail Musa Menk, a move that analysts have suggested could be part of efforts by Prime Minister Najib Razak to burnish his Islamic credentials to appeal to middle-class Muslim voters ahead of the general election.
“(Mufti) Menk is popular among middle-class Malaysian Muslims … and if this is to be read as a political motive, then this … will boost Najib’s popularity with that group,” Dr Norshahril Saat, a Fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute told TODAY.
The Zimbabwe-born Mufti Menk has more than 2.3 million Facebook fans and 1.3 million Twitter followers who regularly share his positive quotes on life.
However, the cleric has flirted with controversy: His strong stance against homosexuality led universities in Britain to cancel his speaking tours in 2013 and he had allegedly advised Muslims against wishing others Merry Christmas.
He was due to give a talk at a religious conference in Singapore in 2015 but his segment was cancelled for “reasons the authorities did not disclose”, according to the organiser.
Still, Mufti Menk was in Malaysia over the weekend for an Islamic conference where he was one of the keynote speakers.
Mr Najib hosted a religious talk attended by the preacher at his official residence on Monday night after meeting the latter on Friday, an encounter that the Prime Minister wrote about in his blog. Photos of them were uploaded on both Mr Najib and Mufti Menk’s social media accounts.
“Victory only comes to those who are most patient,” Mr Najib quoted the preacher in his blog, noting that those were the words that “struck me the most” in their meeting to discuss about Islam, extremism, as well as the plight and welfare of Muslims around the world.
The Prime Minister referenced the trials and tribulations faced by Prophet Muhammad and said: “This is one of the reasons why that quote by Mufti Menk struck a chord with me. That has been the way of Rasulullah SAW, and must continue to be the way forward for us Muslims.”
Malaysia’s national polls are not due until next year but Mr Najib is expected to call for snap polls this year after battling issues surrounding state firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad and overcoming efforts by former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to remove him.
Throughout last year, Mr Najib’s ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno), increasingly played up the racial and religious cards in a bid to retain the support from the Malays and Bumiputras — a key voting bloc for his party.
Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah, a director with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, told TODAY that Mr Najib’s association with Mufti Menk is in line with Umno’s political Islam narrative to capture the Malay community’s votes, as the scholar is popular with the Malay electorate.
Mr Asrul’s views were echoed by Mr Adib Zalkapli, a political analyst at political risk advisory firm Vriens & Partners, who noted that any association with Mufti Menk is “definitely a vote winner”.
“Najib is not the first politician to employ this strategy and he won’t be the last. (Former opposition leader) Anwar Ibrahim used the same strategy by getting support from Yusuf Qaradawi when he was on trial for sodomy in 2014,” he said in reference to the renowned Islamic scholar and the head of the Qatar-based International Union for Muslim Scholars.
Anwar was convicted and jailed for sodomising a former aide, a charge he describes as a politically-motivated attempt to end his career.