A Malaysian Shiite Muslim performs religious rites inside a place of worship in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan
A Malaysian Shiite Muslim performs religious rites inside a place of worship in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

An Islamic cleric in Malaysia stirred controversy last month after claiming that Shiites, members of a minority Muslim sect, pose a national-security threat and that action should be taken against them.

Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of Perlis, a northwestern Malaysian state, said Shia Muslims could “threaten national security” and a movement was afoot among them to turn Malaysia into a “mullah state,” a reference to the theocratic Shiite rulers of Iran.

This is despite the fact that there are likely at most 200,000 Shiites in Malaysia, a Muslim majority country of more than 28 million, and none have been connected to domestic terrorist attacks or extremist groups. Malaysia’s Muslims, who dominate politics, are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Asri’s comments come amid an investigation into the disappearance of social activist Amri Che Mat, who went missing in November 2016. He is just one of several civil-society actors who have “disappeared” in Malaysia in recent years.

Mufti Asri has claimed that Amri, the co-founder of Perlis Hope, a charity, was secretly proselytizing people to convert to Shia Islam and a form of contract marriage known as mutah not recognized in Malaysia where a conjugal bond can be ended through mutual consent.

Norhayati Ariffin, Amri’s wife, told the Human Rights Commission she suspected Asri’s fatwa office might have had a role in her husband’s disappearance. She has challenged Asri to prove her husband was trying to convert others to the minority sect.

Asri has denied any involvement, telling one local newspaper, “Maybe her husband has gone off somewhere. Maybe he is gone t0 [Shia majority] Iran.”

An investigation into Amri’s disappearance is ongoing.

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

Conservative Islam is on the rise across Malaysia and Indonesia, as are fears that the two nations could one day become hotbeds for Islamic State-inspired terrorist groups.

But with widespread reports on the repression and harassment of non-Muslim groups such as Christians and Hindus, intra-Islam persecution, specifically against minority Shia and Ahmadiyya populations, is often overlooked in the region.

Sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites, the two largest Muslim denominations, dates to the 7th century. Despite numerous differences in belief, the conflict comes down to alternative interpretations of who was Muhammad’s rightful successor.

Malaysia traces its Shia roots to the Persian presence in the trading port of Malacca after Portuguese conquests in the 16th century. Shia Islam is thought to have arrived in Indonesia as early as the 9th century. But many commentators now contend it only spread through Southeast Asia after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Malaysian constitution rules that Islam is the state religion, but makes no distinction between Sunni or Shia. Nonetheless, in 1996, the country’s National Fatwa Council ruled that Shia Muslims were “deviants.” The fatwa made it illegal for Shiites to proselytize or spread Shia principles in print or online.

It also ruled that Muslims in Malaysia must abide by “the teachings of Islam based on the doctrine of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah,” or Sunni Islam.

Malaysian Shiite Muslims attend a religious gathering at a place of worship on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

Eleven of Malaysia’s 14 states are now thought to have implemented the fatwa in their state Islamic authority bodies, though anti-Shia regulations are not standardized across the states.

In 2014, a judge of an Islamic religious court in Perak, a northern Malaysia state, threw out the case of three Shiites arrested for possessing Shia literature because of a technicality in the prosecution’s paperwork.

Malaysia’s federal government has on occasion arrested Shiites under the 1960 Internal Security Act and its draconian successor, the 2012 Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, both of which allow for detention without trial for reasons of national security.

Othman Mustapha, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), part of the Prime Minister’s Department, once described Shia Islam as akin to “a cancer that needs to be prevented from spreading in the best possible way, before it becomes worse – to the point of being a threat to Muslim unity.”

Independent analysts, however, wonder why officials have reacted so strongly to such a small sect. “For a population that has largely kept to itself and remained out of the public eye, the attention Shias have attracted is curiously disproportionate,” wrote Mohd Faizal Musa, of the National University of Malaysia, in an essay published last year.

The situation is similar in Indonesia, where there are at most 2.5 million Shiites, or roughly a mere 1% of the population. Indonesia’s national census does not distinguish between Sunnis and Shias, so the actual number of Shiites is a rough estimate.

An East Java branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest clerical body, issued a fatwa against Shiites in 2012. Two years later, several Islamic groups came together to form the National Anti-Shia Alliance. The alliance has since launched public attacks against the sect.

Indonesian police at a Shiite Islamic boarding school after violent sectarian Sunni-Shiite clashes in Jember, East Java, on September 12, 2013. Photo: AFP/Stringer

In 2011, a 500-strong anti-Shia mob attacked a village in East Java, forcing more than 300 Shiites to flee. No one was ever prosecuted for the attack and local authorities a month later forced the Shia victims to return to their village, which had been razed to the ground.

The situation has not improved since, analysts say. “The intensity of the anti-Shia campaign is new,” stated a 2016 report by the Institute For Policy Analysis of Conflict, an Indonesian think-tank.

Some analysts think the rise of anti-Shia sentiment in Southeast Asia is directly related to the growth of Saudi-influenced Wahhabism, a literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam that has motivated many Southeast Asia-based terrorist groups, as well as Islamic State (ISIS).

Saudi-backed Islamization programs became more prevalent during the tenure of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister between 1981 and 2003. In Indonesia, the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 provided Saudi-influenced and funded groups the space to agitate openly  for more fundamentalist interpretations of Sunni Islam.

“Authoritarianism prioritized religious tolerance – for the sake of stability, if nothing else.… But when the democratic floodgates opened in 1998, conservatives could finally organize and evangelize,” wrote Luthfi Assyaukanie, an academic and co-founder of the Liberal Islam Network, an Indonesian advocacy group.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta’s then governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic-Chinese Christian running for re-election who was later jailed on blasphemy charges. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

A corollary suggestion is that more recent anti-Shia sentiment is a result of an ongoing Middle Eastern power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two self-appointed defenders of Sunni and Shia Islam, respectively. The Yemeni crisis is thought to be a direct result of such power struggles, as are recent events in Iraq.

There have been reports, namely by Al Jazeera, that Malaysian soldiers might be fighting with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The government has denied the reports, claiming that Malaysian soldiers in the region are there only for “learning experience,” according to Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Harussani Zakaria, the mufti of Perak, has called Shiism an Iranian sect, which has led some commentators to think of anti-Shia movements in Southeast Asia as an expression of geopolitics, not local resentment.

As a result, many commentators say that intra-Islam sectarianism is becoming more politicized in Southeast Asia simply because of opportunistic politicians burnishing their Sunni credentials to gain more support from rich Middle Eastern countries, namely Saudi Arabia.

There is no doubt some truth to the suggestion, given that the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have frequently backed down to conservative elements in society to maintain their political support.

But the claim is also somewhat reductive. If opportunistic politicians are espousing more conservative and sectarian understandings of Islam, then it must mean they think such a stance is popular with the public.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during a rally against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Putrajaya on December 22, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Syed Farid Alatas, a Malaysian sociologist at the National University of Singapore, last month blamed the silent majority of Sunni Muslims in his country for turning a blind eye to the plight of Shiites.

“When it comes to sectarianism, it is the people’s fault, because our government will change its tune if it knows that the majority will not condone [sectarianism],” he said during a recent talk on moderation in Islam.

The Pew Research Center, a US-based think-tank and pollster, conducted a worldwide survey on the attitudes of Muslims toward different elements of faith back in 2013.

When Indonesian respondents were asked if they favored making sharia the national law of the country, 72% said they would – it is currently only the law in the semi-autonomous state of Aceh.

Of Malaysian respondents, 86% said they would, higher than the percentages recorded in Pakistan and Egypt, two Muslim countries that are not typically described as “moderate.” Of those respondents who favored introducing Islamic law, 60% from Malaysia and 48% from Indonesia thought stoning to death was an appropriate penalty for adultery.

And only 36% of Sunni respondents in Malaysia, and 24% in Indonesia, accepted Shiites as Muslims, a trend in sentiment that appears to be holding today.

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