Arrest of Iraqi Shias unacceptable, says former ambassador

iraqPETALING JAYA: A former Malaysian ambassador has hit out at the recent arrests of more than 200 Iraqi Shia Muslims, saying this could court condemnation from the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Speaking to FMT on condition of anonymity, the former ambassador said the authorities shouldn’t impose their views on foreigners.

“We don’t even impose Islamic laws on non-Muslim Malaysians, so how can we subject foreigners to our Islamic laws?”

The former ambassador said that it was different if the Iraqi nationals, who were celebrating Ashura, were engaging in self-harm rituals.

Shia Muslims worldwide mark the week leading to Ashura with events to commemorate the death anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, a central figure in Shia Islam.

In some Middle East countries, Shia Muslims beat and injure themselves with razors, knives and whips as an expression of remorse and guilt for not saving Hussein in the battle of Karbala in 680AD.

In Iran, the act of self-harm has been banned since 1994, after Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa against it.

In Iraq, the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, banned Ashura celebrations.

“We have to make it clear to foreigners that we don’t allow this kind of practices.

“But if the foreigners are celebrating Ashura in a peaceful and safe manner behind closed doors, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

The former ambassador also said when taking action against foreigners, religious authorities should consult Wisma Putra first to avoid incidents which could “sour” bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, a Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) academic said the problem was a lack of clarity on how foreigners are supposed to be treated by the law in cases like this.

Speaking to FMT, Shafina Tantiana Zulkipli, from the university’s Department of Politics and International Relations, said from a legal perspective, the government can control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine among Muslims and it has also prohibited the spread of Shia ideology.

“At the same time, when we look at the rights of foreigners, the respect for a person’s religious belief is one of the major international issues of concern to the United Nations.

“Generally, the international community recognises religious freedom as a universal right which needs to be respected.”

From an international human rights point of view, Shafina said the treatment which host countries should accord to foreigners puts a limitation on the country’s sovereignty.

“This is a problem not only in Malaysia but throughout the world.

“There have been cases where domestic laws restrict the rights of an individual, including foreigners to practise their faith.

“Baghdad’s reported reaction to the issue, in pressuring the authorities to release its citizens, is appropriate as it has a duty to protect its citizens abroad, including affirming its values, beliefs and culture.”

Shafina said she didn’t believe the incident will spark tensions or affect diplomatic relations with Iraq, as Malaysia’s stand on the Shia sect isn’t new.

She noted that a few years back, some Iranian businesses called for a boycott of Malaysian products due to Putrajaya’s stand on the Shia sect, but the issue was resolved and trade continues between both countries.

Furthermore, she said, Malaysia’s economic diplomacy with Iraq is far more vital than the issue of differing sects.

“We have a lot of foreign direct investments in Iraq and Petronas is the largest international oil company operating there,” she said, adding Malaysia has also trained Iraqi engineers and helped develop the Gharaf oilfield.

“In reality, in regard to secondary issues like differences in faith, countries will always refrain from creating animosity with another country, so both Malaysia and Iraq are likely to resolve this issue in a diplomatic manner.”

Over the weekend, it was reported that Islamic authorities in Selangor had arrested nearly 200 Iraqi nationals, most of them students, during a crackdown ahead of Ashura, which falls on 10 Muharram of the Islamic calendar.

According to several Arabic-language media outlets, the Iraqis arrested were released following pressure from Baghdad.