February 18, 2014
Most of the attention on growing religious tensions in Malaysia has focused on Christian-Islamic relations. Relations between Malaysia’s three major races, the Chinese, Malay, and Indians, also eat up a lot of headlines. Now, even Malaysia’s Islamic community is becoming increasingly divided. Besides the Sunni-Shia split, moderate and conservative Muslims are also frequently at odds.
Shia-Sunni Split Due To Historical Divide Over Leadership
Shia and Sunni Islam share the same fundamental beliefs in the central tenets of Islam. In fact, the break between the two branches originally started more as a political disagreement, rather than a religious one. In short, when Mohammad the Prophet died, Shia and Sunni Muslims became divided over who should take lead of the Islamic community.
Shias believed that leadership should have been passed down along hereditary lines, giving leadership to Mohammad’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali bins Abu Talib. Sunni, on the other hand, believed that leadership should have been passed along by someone voted into power. Most early Muslims supported the idea of a vote and elected Abu Bakr to lead the Islamic community.
The fracture between Shia and Sunni Muslims grew over time, though the Sunni faith spread far more quickly than the Shia faith. Only Iran, Iraq, and Azerbaijan feature Muslim populations that are predominantly Shia. Malaysia itself has only a small number of Shia individuals.
Persecution of Shia Muslims Could Create Larger Problems
There are not enough Shia Muslims in Malaysia to really cause a problem. While exact numbers are not available, the Shia community is believed to be quite small and lacks the voice to really stir things up. The Christian and Buddhist communities, however, do constitute significant portions of the population, and tensions between those communities and the Sunni Muslims have also been rising.
While Muslims do make up a majority of the population, Malaysia is a highly diverse society. With tensions rising, other religious have been pushing back against hard lined Muslims. And with many of Malaysia’s Muslims being relatively moderate, numbers could quickly sway in favour of the more progressive voices.
Malaysia’s Religious Tensions Are Becoming Political
Tensions came to a head this past December when the three men were first tried. At the time, the Malaysia Islamic Development Department (Jakim) claimed that Shia Muslims are not even Muslims and that their teachings violate Islamic law.
At the moment, however, Malaysia’s reputation abroad as an Islamic country has been sullied by a series of puzzling actions. The most prominent misstep on Malaysia’s part has been banning Christians and others from using the word “Allah.” This move was condemned by Islamic scholars around the world.
With Malaysia’s more conservative UMNO political party suffering setbacks in recent elections, the potential for religious issues to intensify is only increasing. Malaysia has enjoyed decades of relative stability, but numerous fractures along racial and religious lines have been growing.
Now, a somewhat minor issue on the national scale could quickly blow up into something more serious. The Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, along with various progressive religious groups, could use this issue as a wedge to try to divide moderate and conservative Muslims.
With UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition all but dependent on the Muslim vote, this could be turned into a major advantage for the opposition. Indeed, it could be that the case itself was dropped precisely because the ruling party was worried about stirring up a hornets’ next.