Claiming to be victims of religious persecution, Shiite Muslims in Malaysia fear they are being attacked by a hardline and seemingly hypocritical Sunni-led government.
GOMBAK: There is a row of ordinary-looking shoplots in the middle of Sri Gombak. Lined with coffeeshops and grocery stores, one of them is a religious centre, dedicated to the local Shiite Muslim community, Ar-Ridha.
Posters of Islamic quotes adorn the staircase walls leading to the centre’s fourth floor office, with a strong grill barring anyone’s way to the top.
At FMT’s approach (and continuous knocking), a few men appear, including local Shiite group Ar-Ridha director and community leader Mohd Kamilzuhairi Abdul Aziz.
“It used to be open,” Kamilzuhairi said as he opened the gate. “But now we have this grill because we were raided by JAIS (Selangor Islamic Religious Department) without warning.”
In December 2010, more than 200 Shiites including Iranians and Pakistanis were arrested by JAIS officers in a lightning raid at the Sri Gombak shoplot.
At the time, Ar-Ridha was using the shoplot for prayers and their community meetings.
Since the raid, they have been subjected to continuous condemnation by Malaysia’s Sunni Islamic religious authorities.
Shiites represent the second largest denomination in Islam, comprising of about 15% to 20% of the Muslim world, or more than 200 million. Other estimates have put this number at 500 million.
Of this, the largest share appears to be Iran, with more than 70 million Shiites. Malaysia, in comparison, has more than 40,000 Shiites (according to the government), although Kamilzuhairi claimed this number was closer to 100,000.
The split between the Sunnis and Shiites can be traced to a dispute of succession after Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632.
Kamilzuhairi said that Shiites use the Quran and follow the five pillars of Islam, though the two groups have very different interpretations of Islam.
Confusion over ‘earth tablets’
One example, he said was the earth tablet that Shiites put their heads on during prayer.
“The most humble part of our body is the forehead, so we want to show the most humble position a slave can be to God. So we put our head on something which is what you can call worthless. So that is why we use this earth tablet,” he said.
Another example, he said, was the practice of washing before prayer or “wudu”. Kamilzuhairi said that while Sunnis believed in washing their hands and legs, Shiites interpreted this as “wiping” (sapu).
However, a large number of Muslims in Malaysia, he said, did not understand Shiism and were quick to accuse them of not following Islam.
Many of them, unfortunately included the country’s religious authorities.
“When they see us pray, they think we are worshipping rocks. They also accuse us for saying that performing the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is not necessary.”
“But I am a haji myself! We have people here who have performed the hajj 12 times, so what are they talking about?” he said.
The many misunderstandings have led to what Shiites regard as religious persecution.
In 1997, the government detained 10 Shiites under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for not being Sunnis. Three years later, six more Shiites were arrested under the ISA.
Since then, there have been no ISA arrests. Even so, anti-Shiite sentiments in Malaysia do not appear to have died down, especially with a 1996 fatwa declaring Shiism as a “deviant ideology”.
In May 2011, a lunch celebrating the birthday of Fatimah Zahra, daughter of Prophet Muhammad was broken up by JAIS officers. Four Shiites were arrested that day, including Kamilzuhairi.
Shiites were also allegedly targeted in mosques around the country. In September 2011, Kamilzuhairi said that the Islamic Affairs Department of Terengganu (JHEAT) issued anti-Shiite sermons to all mosques in the state, ordering them to be read on the 23rd.
According to a police report lodged by Kamilzuhairi, the sermon included accusations that Ar-Ridha members beat themselves with chains to absolve themselves of sin and that Shiites used a different Quran than Sunnis did.
Other alleged accusations by local clerics included the killing of Sunnis as “halal”.
A Dec 20, 2010 Sinar Harian report said that the Malaysian government “respected foreign Shiite teachings”, but prohibited Shiism from being practiced in the country.
At the time, the minister in charge of religious affairs Jamil Khir Bahrom warned of bloodshed if more than one Islamic school of thought was allowed to be taught.
Government is being hypocritical
This statement was rubbished by Kamilzuhairi, who accused the government of being hypocritical.
“The government is saying: ‘We respect Shiites from other countries, just not Malaysians’. This goes against our human rights, and our Federal Constitution.”
“I don’t know how they want to wriggle out of this. Hindus, Catholics, Christians and Buddhists can practice their religion. But the Shiites cannot!” he said angrily.
He said that local discrimination against Shiism went against the Amman Message, a three-point Islamic ruling endorsed by 84 countries, including Malaysia.
The ruling recognised Sunni (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali), Shiism (Ja`fari and Zaydi), Ibadi and Thahiri as proper Islamic schools of thought.
At the same time, it also said that it was “impossible” to consider people belonging to these schools as apostates, or having left Islam.
Even so, religious experts here do not appear to agree with this.
According to a Dec 20, 2010 Utusan Malaysia report, Islamic expert Abdul Shukor Husin called Shiism “wrong”, and that it would cause misunderstanding in Malaysia. National Islamic unity, other experts claimed, would be destroyed if Shiism was allowed.
Infitrated by Wahhabism
In March 2011, Minister Jamil told Parliament that Shiites were not allowed to share their faith with other Muslims, although they were free to practice it.
Yet, Kamilzuhairi said that none of these experts would say to his face that Shiism was not part of Islam.
“When I ask them (Malaysia’s religious leaders) face-to-face if the Shiites have diverted from Islam, they are afraid of telling me.”
“But to the newspapers, they say we have diverted, and that we talk about killing people. So what they say to my face and what they say to the newspapers is different,” he said.
Malaysia’s discrimination of Shiism, Kamilzuhairi alleged, had its roots in Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam, developed in the 18th century.
(Dominant in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism considers Shiism as heretical.)
The Shiite leader claimed that local religious authorities were being “infiltrated” by militant Wahhabi elements.
“The problem here is not the Sunnis, but the Wahhabis… they are hiding behind the Sunnis… JAIS and JAKIM are not Wahhabi, but there are elements that are trying to penetrate it,” he said.
Wahhabi clerics, he added, especially those in Saudi Arabia, not only discriminated against Shiites in general, but particularly that of anything related to Shiite-led Iran.
In one example, a top Saudi cleric – according to an AP news report – referred to Iran-supported Shiite militant group Hezbollah as “the party of the devil” during the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel.
The Sunni cleric was quoted as saying: “Don’t pray for Hezbollah.”
It was a problem made worse, Kamilzuhairi said, by Zionist and American (allies of Saudi Arabia) involvement in the Middle East. The two groups, according to him, were dead against Iran, and were using everything in their power to widen the rift between the Sunni and the Shiite.
This effect trickled down to Malaysia’s fractious religious scene, Kamilzuhairi said, who added that Shiites did not have a problem with the Jews or Wahhabis “who did not cause trouble”.
“Before the (Iranian) Revolution, Shiites could mix with other people. Every year we call about 2,000 people (from all communities to join in our festivities). Nobody here believes that we go out to slaughter people.”
“Who believes this (slander)? The bad reputation comes from those who attack us… not even the police (in Malaysia) disturb us… before 1997, we weren’t that significant.”
“Maybe (it’s happening now because) they felt that we have grown in number,” he said.