By Salim Osman
August 23 2013
Life has not been good for Shi'ite Muslims in Malaysia. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists are free to practise their religions in this Muslim-majority country but the Shi'ite form of Islam has been outlawed.
Last month, the Malaysian home ministry banned their organisation, the Pertubuhan Syiah Malaysia. Several state governments also gazetted a 1996 fatwa (ruling by an Islamic council) of the National Fatwa Council declaring Shi'ism as deviant and, hence, Haram or forbidden. Offenders charged under the Shariah Criminal Offences Act for defying the fatwa face a fine up to 3,000 ringgit (US$904) or a jail term of two years.
The ban and the gazetting of the fatwa mean that Shi'ites are restricted from practising their faith, and prohibited from propagating it to Malay Muslims in Malaysia, who follow the faith's Sunni version.
This is surprising. Even Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is dominant, has not banned Shi'ism. Shi'ites there even performs the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities exclusive to Muslims.
But there are reasons for the hardening stance towards Shi'ism in Malaysia. First, there is alarm over Malays who converted after being enamoured of Shi'ism and the 1979 Iranian revolution. The home ministry said the small community has grown in a decade to an estimated 250,000 in 10 active groups. This development has divided the Malay community, which has traditionally subscribed to the Shafai School of the Ahle Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.
Malay representative United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) leaders view the matter with concern because a divided Malay community implies a weakening of the political position of the Malays, who half a century earlier were united under Sunni Islam.
Sunni Islam is now seen as threatened by the presence of Malay Shi'ites, who are swelling a Shi'ite community that was previously dominated by Indian Muslims from the Dawoodi Bohras, the Ismailis, and the Jaafaris or the Ithna Ashariyya school of thought - the official faith of Shi'ite-dominated Iran.
There is also a fear that large Shi'ite numbers in a largely Sunni society could lead to sectarian conflict, similar to that in Pakistan. Hence, it is a security concern.
The historic seeds of distrust were sown when the group that later became the Shi'ites disputed the succession of Prophet Muhammad after his death in AD632. Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, they said, was the rightful successor as caliph of Islam. They refused to recognise the three companions of the Prophet who became caliphs before Ali became the fourth caliph in AD656.
After 14 centuries, the Shi'ites still lament the usurpation of Ali's rights as caliph and mourn the death of his son Hussein - killed by the forces of Caliph Yazid in AD680 - as if the two events occurred just yesterday. Hence their vilification of the Prophet's three companions and two of his wives.
The Sunnis hit back by labelling Shi'ites as infidels; theological differences involve prayers as well as other rituals and beliefs.
The animosity between the two strands continues despite efforts at rapprochement. Both Sunni Islam and Shi'ism were accepted as two branches of Islamic orthodoxy by Al-Azhar cleric Mahmud Shaltut in Cairo in 1959 and the conference of clerics in Amman, Jordan, in November 2004.
Significantly, the Jordan conference issued the Amman Message that recognised four schools in Sunni Islam and two Shi'ite schools, namely the Zaydi and the Jaafari, as Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Malaysia was one of the 2004 signatories.
Politics is yet another reason for Malaysia's hardening stance towards the Shi'ites. A small Shi'ite community has emerged in several Kedah districts, upsetting Umno as the Shi'ites support the Islamic Parti Islam SeMalaysia (or Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS).
Word has spread that PAS has been infiltrated by Shi'ites, and that even some top leaders have become believers. Hence, the current witch hunt in PAS. But PAS and its Kelantan state government are opposed to the anti-Shi'ite campaign.
After Kedah's Umno state government announced plans to gazette the 1996 fatwa declaring Shi'ites as deviant, other state governments, excluding Kelantan, announced similar moves. For several weeks last month, UMNO-linked Malay-language newspapers raised the spectre of a Shi'ite threat to Islam and Muslims, with articles suggesting Shi'ite proselytisation among Sunni Muslims, widespread conversions and controversial Shi'ite practices, escalating Malay hatred towards the group.
Global politics has also played a part in whipping up anti-Shi'ite sentiment. This includes Syria's civil war and the sectarian violence in Iraq.
Although the roots of the Syrian turmoil are complex, with the involvement of foreign powers and Islamists siding with the rebels, it is being perceived as primarily a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. In other words, a struggle by the Sunni majority against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is regarded in Malaysia as a Shi'ite dictator oppressing Sunnis when in fact, he is an Alawite, an offshoot strand of Shi'ism.
Assad is backed by Iran, a Shi'ite power, and Lebanon's Shi'ite militia Hizbollah, in a conflict that has killed thousands of Sunnis. This has incensed Sunni clerics in the Arab world and Gulf states to the point where anti- Shi'ite rhetoric is whipped up against Iran and Hizbollah. Such rhetoric resonates in Malaysia where one of the Sunni clerics, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, has a large following. He is also revered by Muslims worldwide.
In a May 31 sermon, the Qatar- based Egyptian cleric called on Muslims to wage jihad against Shi'ites and Hizbollah in Syria. He also regretted the many years he had spent on attempts at Sunni- Shi'ite rapprochement, adding that Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi clerics were right to consider Shi'ites as infidels. His words are largely responsible for the upsurge in Shi'ite bashing in Malaysia.
Malaysia may feel that its clampdown on Shi'ism is justified on religious and security grounds.
But by doing so, it downplays the concerns of civil society groups regarding human rights violations and freedom of religion. The ban and the related fatwa hit non-Malay Shi'ites who lived in peace until last month, when the nation started demonising Shi'ites and Shi'ism.
They, and the Malay Shi'ites, will feel victimised as individuals whose only crime is having a different vision of the world and spirituality. As Malaysians, they feel they deserve to be protected and their interests served.