Spotlight on online anti-Shia militancy after seminar called off over bomb threat

Gerakan Banteras Syiah is one of many Facebook pages targeting Shia Muslims.

PETALING JAYA: The circumstances which led to the last-minute cancellation of a seminar on the problem of sectarianism in the Muslim world have brought into the open fears on the rise of Salafist Islam, a strand of thinking whose promoters have often considered those outside their folds as deviants and apostates.

A check by FMT revealed that several social media accounts have been set up in recent months, where minority Muslims such as the Shias – who belong to the second largest Muslim school of thought that Malaysia’s religious authorities have labelled deviant – are targeted, including with threats of violence.

“Just make a bomb, throw it at their gatherings,” said one post on a Facebook account called “Gerakan Banteras Syiah” (Anti-Shia Movement).

The account has garnered close to 19,000 followers within less than two months.

“FB is not the right place to discuss destroying the Shias. Maybe there are more Shias here than Sunnis,” said user Suratman Hj Mandira.

Yesterday, FMT reported that a seminar on the Amman Message – a declaration signed by Muslim leaders worldwide pledging to end sectarianism, including the age-old Sunni-Shia conflict – was cancelled on security grounds.

Faisal Tehrani is no stranger to receiving death threats over his writings seen as sympathetic towards Shia Islam.

Organiser International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies lodged a police report following a threat to bomb the seminar venue, posted on the same Facebook page.

Police said the threat was made by one Amirol Md Zain on July 6.

“The Facebook account owner said: ‘We are bombing this place’,” Bukit Aman spokesman Asmawati Ahmad told FMT.

The Amman Message, signed in Amman by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2004, brought together some 200 senior Islamic scholars worldwide representing different schools of thought.

The document recognises the validity of all eight Islamic schools, including Sunni and Shia, the two biggest denominations in the Muslim world.

Shia Islam is predominant in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain and several parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

But some scholars aligned to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology have branded Shias as heretics, although stopping short of banning them from visiting Mecca where only Muslims are allowed in.

Since the 1990s, Malaysia’s Islamic authorities have echoed such views, with a 1996 ruling by the National Fatwa Council declaring Shia teachings “deviant”.

Authorities have in the past raided private religious events by Shia Muslims, arresting them and charging them with violating local Islamic laws on the basis of the fatwa.

Putrajaya has also banned books which it claims promote Shia Islam, while muftis such as Perlis’ Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin have often criticised Shia Islam.

Novelist Faizal Musa, better known by his pen-name Faisal Tehrani, can personally relate to the government’s anti-Shia stand.

Many of his novels, sometimes themed on ancient Muslim figures revered in Shia Islam, are still banned.

For this, Faisal, an academic who has often questioned the prevalent narratives in the studies of Malay history, was himself targeted by Salafist groups on social media.

One example is a Facebook page called “Bongkar Ajaran Sesat”, which posted pictures of Faisal and where users left threatening comments.

“If you see him crossing the road, just ram into him,” says one comment.

Faisal said he is used to the death threats.

He showed FMT at least three death threats he received on Twitter, including one calling for his beheading.

“I’ve actually tried to ignore the threats because I regard them as a group of uneducated extremists,” said Faisal, whose seven books still remain under a ban slapped by the previous government.

But Faisal said he would have to take such threats more seriously in the wake of the threat to attack the seminar on the Amman Message.

He said those behind anti-Shia groups would often cite writings and opinions of “certain Muslim scholars and muftis” who are associated with Wahhabism.

He said there is little protection for those who do not toe the official line.

“This is what happened to people like Amri Che Mat,” he said, referring to the Perlis activist who went missing in 2016.

An inquiry by the Human Rights Commission this year concluded that Amri, alongside another missing activist Pastor Raymond Koh, were victims of “enforced disappearance” which was blamed on the police.