Shias Unwelcome in Multicultural Malaysia

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Ashura gathering attacked in MalaysiaInstead, what occurred on the night of Ashura in Gombak points to the ominous and encroaching influence of Wahabism in Southeast Asia – one that habitually distorts and derides Shia Islamic practices or any act promoting the teachings of Ahlul Bayt.

Ashura gathering attacked in Malaysia

“Even though I personally don’t agree with Shia teachings and even frequently criticize and debate with them, I cannot accept the approach of the allegedly democratic Malaysian government in denying the people’s right to practice their faith.”

(Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, former Mufti of Perlis, Malaysia, commenting on the Ashura roundup of Shia Muslims, 18 December 2010)

The inclusive, multi-ethnic, multicultural nature of Malaysian society was not expansive enough to afford 200 Shia Muslims a December night’s peace as they commemorated the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain.

At an Ashura mourning ceremony at the Ali al-Ridha Hussainiyah in Seri Gombak, Selangor where mostly Shia Malays had gathered, state officers from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) burst in and ordered all attendees detained for having breached Islamic law. It was one of the largest mass arrests on religious grounds in recent Malaysian history.

In a nation where Christians, Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus can freely and openly worship, the Malaysian government precludes the Shia from doing likewise, deeming them a “deviant” sect. As will be discussed, the nature of the allegations leveled against the mourners betrays the raid’s real instigators.

Shia community leader Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Aziz relayed, “The officers broke into and damaged our prayer hall, a private property where we were having special prayers for the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren… We were condemned, criticized, slandered and threatened in local media just because we practice what had been preached by our ancestors who were Shia and have lived in Malaysia for centuries.”

The participants were eventually released on bail but will soon face trial in the Malaysian Islamic Court on charges of following a banned “movement” which carries a penalty of two years incarceration. In the interim, community representatives appealed to the government-backed Human Rights Commission for assistance. A spokesperson for the watchdog group confirmed their help had been solicited to prevent further crackdowns from occurring.

“If other communities like Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and others have their right to worship and practice under the constitution, then why not us?” asked Abdul Aziz.

Indeed, in a country of 28 million, why are 40,000 Shia singled out?

The JAIS director, Datuk Muhammed Khusrin Munawi, stated that Shias pose a threat to national security because the school permits the killing of Muslims from other schools of thought – a belief repeatedly echoed by state media.

According to Munawi, the mourners violated the Mufti of Selangor’s fatwa in which he decreed that Shi’ism is antithetical to the teachings of the Ahlul Sunnah wal Jama’ah and the “true Islam.”

Munawi went on to say (with a straight face, we assume): “Hajj is not compulsory for them; visiting Imam Hussain’s shrine is sufficient for them to get into heaven; they can combine prayers at any time, Zuhr and Asr together, Maghrib, Isha and Fajr without…conditions like travelling 90 ‘Marhalah’; some of them which are fanatic and believe that we [Sunnis] are not Muslims and our blood it is ‘Halal’ for them; it is a jihad if they could kill Ahlul Sunnah wal Jama’ah…for me, this makes them the most dangerous deviants compared to other deviant teachings.”

Promulgating misconceptions and outright falsehoods like those described by Munawi is the trademark of the party that regularly incites this type of Fitna (division between Muslims). So who are they?

In the Arab world’s notoriously anti-Iranian, secular dictatorships, persecution of Shia Muslims is justified based on their alleged Iranian sympathies. They are regarded as “fifth columnists” disloyal to the state (although the actual fear is over the little tolerance they have for unjust, despotic rule and their penchant to rise against it). But such political considerations are absent in Malaysia, an ostensible Islamic state with courts that rule according to Shari’ah law.

Instead, what occurred on the night of Ashura in Gombak points to the ominous and encroaching influence of Wahabism in Southeast Asia – one that habitually distorts and derides Shia Islamic practices or any act promoting the teachings of Ahlul Bayt.

As Dr. Zainul Abidin remarked, “Malaysia is trying to become a country a la Taliban that only allows one school of thought.”

It is hoped that the Human Rights Commission will play a constructive role in mediating between the Shias, the government, and the courts – for it is time to debunk the ridiculous myths being peddled about the Shia and extend the welcome mat to all of Malaysia’s confessionals groups, equally.

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