RELIGION-MALAYSIA: Crackdown on Shia Muslims Puzzles Many

Anil Noel Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Nov 23 1997 (IPS) - The recent detention of 10 Shia Muslims for spreading “deviant” Islamic teachings has not only drawn fire from critics, but raised questions about a government effort to avoid “religious disharmony” in this mainly Muslim country.

The debate was spurred by the detention without trial of the Malaysian Shias early this month, a move that has since been denounced by 19 organisations, ranging from human rights activists to political parties seeking their release.

The 10 were taken in under the Internal Security Act (ISA) barely a week after the 10th anniversary of a mass crackdown by the government with the use of the same law.

One of those held, Lutpi Ibrahim, is a professor at University Malaya’s Islamic Studies faculty. The oldest detainee, 63-year-old Paharuddin Mustapha, is reported to be suffering from serious diabetes and to be almost blind. Four of those detained are from the east coast state of Kelantan, ruled by the opposition Islamic Party PAS.

Authorities in Malaysia, where the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, say the 10 were held on suspicion of spreading teachings apparently in conflict with the Sunnaah wal-Jamaah or Sunni Islam. Because they were militant, anti-monarchy and “moving towards violence”, officials said they had to step in.

Abdul Hamid Othman of the prime minister’s office said the practice of other Muslim sects was needed to maintain peace among Muslims, as too many sects would lead to conflict. “Religious disharmony is a national threat which places the country’s political and economic development at an unsafe position,” he said.

Because national security was threatened and the Shias were becoming “aggressive and violent”, the government used the ISA, says deputy home minister Tajol Rosli Ghazali. Zahid Hamidi, head of the youth wing of the ruling political coalition United Malays National Organisation, called the detainees “dangerous revolutionaries who could undermine national security”.

Among others, the Shias are accused of being anti-monarchy, or being against institutions in Malaysia such as the king and the state sultans. The monarchs are regarded as protectors of the Islamic faith, but some Muslims may regard such roles as being incompatible with Islam.

Critics say the reasons surrounding the detention of the Shias are hard to fathom, given their small numbers. Human rights activists point out that the ISA has been used for political reasons. Likewise, critics say there have been preious clampdowns on religious movements that for officials posed a potential threat to the status quo.

In October 1987, 106 dissidents, including opposition politicians, social activists, church workers and Islamic religious teachers, were detained without trial under the ISA for allegedly stirring up ethnic and religious tensions. From 1993 to 1996, the ISA was used to rope in hundreds of members of the now- banned al-Arqam sect, accused of spreading deviant teachings.

“It is ironic that the ISA is apparently being used to protect Islam when that same law goes against the core of the religion,” observed the human rights group, Aliran. The ISA denies justice to the accused and thus violates the concept of justice espoused by Islam and all other faiths, it argued. Aliran said: “This is what makes the ISA an immoral and evil law.”

Ariffin Omar, a historian, points out another flaw. “If you are arresting them for deviation, automatically they should be tried under the Islamic Shariah law and not under civil law, of which the ISA is a part of,” he said.

Others, like members of the opposition Democratic Action Party, say that if there is indeed evidence of promoting violence against the Shia Muslims, they should have been tried under the sedition act.

Until November’s arrests, not many had heard much about the Shias in Malaysia and analysts agree they are not considered a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Shias are not viewed as deviants in other countries, being the other major branch of Islam apart from the Sunnis.

Dr Syed Husin Ali, president of the opposition Malaysian People’s Party, says Malaysia’s Constitution allows Muslims to join other sects: “As far as I know, Shia teachings are not banned in this country.”

There are many Muslims around the world who belong to the Shia sect, Syed Husin added. “Where else in the world are Shia believers detained without trial?” he asked.

Numerous Islamic groups have sprouted in Malaysian history. They have invariably been labelled deviant, such as the turn of the century Kaum Muda, a modernist or reform movement, the Taslim group of the 1950s, and more recently the Al Arqam movement.

Ariffin says people need to look deeper into the roots of Islamic movements that are usually a response to certain trends in society. “Deviant movements arise because some people have lost faith in religious institutions,” said Ariffin, who has written on such movements in the country. This, he adds, results in a sense of alienation.

But analysts say the government tends to be wary of such movements, although Malaysia has been known to take a pragmatic, some sayliberal, approach to Islam. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has constantly urged his countrymen and fellow Muslims to excel in economic growth and in the sciences so that others would respect Islam.

At the same time, there have been calls for a return to a more conservative brand of Islam amid the growing securalisation of Malaysian society, especially after decades of rapid growh. Some groups are seeking more conservative dress for women and one state has barred Muslims from joining beauty contests and bodybuilding contests.

These different strains may have prompted the government’s desire to ensure some uniformity — but Ariffin says this puts the Islamic institutions under centralised government control. “This is a very effective instrument to control the Malays, who by definition must practise the Islamic faith,” he said.

And whatever the reason for the recent clampdown, Syed Husin said: “Doesn’t the government or the religious departments have enough experts to fight ideas with ideas?’ What has happened to the tradition of consultation (musyawarah) and discussion (muzakarah)?”

Differences between Sunnis and Shias stem from dispute over succession in the Islamic caliphate. The Shias believe that the caliph had to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, says Ariffin. The Sunnis believe the caliph could be elected.

There are four main ‘mazhab’ or schools of Islamic thought within the Sunni sect — the Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali and Shafii. The vast majority of Malaysia’s Malays, who make up more than half of the country’s 20 million population, are Sunni Muslims belonging to the Shafii strand.

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  • Shafi Mohd

    we are ashamed of malaysian govt for the steps taken against the shia Muslims. Quran orders for research and why are you imposing ban on research. Let the people read books of all the faiths and religions. Malay people are educated and they know how to live and what to read and beleaf.