KUALA LUMPUR: Syed Mohamad was celebrating a key date in the Muslim Shia calendar in secret when officials burst in and detained him, one of several raids that have set the long-persecuted community on edge.
Dozens of Shia Muslims have been rounded up recently in the Sunni Muslim-majority country, including several foreigners, fuelling fears that religious authorities are stepping up a crackdown on adherents of the minority sect.
Around the world, Shia Muslims – who are far outnumbered by Sunnis, and follow some different doctrines and rituals – say they face discrimination from authorities and others who accuse them of being deviants.
About 60% of Malaysia’s 32 million people are Muslim and the country is also home to substantial minorities of Hindus and Christians, and the different communities have largely co-existed harmoniously.
Critics however say that a traditionally moderate brand of Islam is being eroded as vocal conservatives gain ground, and the small Shia community – whose teachings have been banned in Malaysia for over two decades – complain of ever greater pressure.
In September religious enforcement officers and police raided a series of clandestine gatherings by Shia Muslims commemorating Ashura, which marks the seventh-century killing of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
As Syed prayed with a small group in a rented premise in Johor, a 20-strong raiding party scaled a fence and burst in.
“It sparked fear among the worshippers, the women and children began crying,” he told AFP.
“There were four men with face masks… One of them had a gun and they accused me of not cooperating and threatened to assault me.”
‘Climate of fear’
Syed was handcuffed and held overnight, along with seven other worshippers including a Singaporean and a Yemeni, and he now fears being charged in an Islamic court.
He could face up to three years in jail and a fine under Islamic law for practising the Shia form of Islam. Malaysia operates a dual-track legal system, with Islamic courts handling some religious and family matters for Muslim citizens.
In another raid near Kuala Lumpur, community leader Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Aziz and 21 other Shia Muslims were rounded up at the centre he runs while prayer books and speakers were seized.
Such raids, which have been happening on and off since 2010, have “created a climate of fear among the Shia community”, the 53-year-old told AFP.
And a private gathering of some 60 Pakistani Shias was disrupted when religious enforcement officers burst in, although none were arrested.
No-one detained in the recent raids was held for long and none have so far been charged in court – but they worry the tactics are aimed at making them too frightened to worship.
Shia Muslims say they have faced frequent persecution in Malaysia since a top Islamic body issued a fatwa against them in 1996, and religious authorities regularly denounce them as “deviant”.
There is no official estimate for the numbers of Shias in the country, with many too frightened to identify themselves, but observers believe there are between 100,000 and 500,000.
There had been a lull in substantial raids for some time until this year however, with some attributing the spike to tensions between Shias and Sunnis in the Middle East, which can spill over to other Muslim countries.
As well as raids, there have been more sinister episodes.
In 2016 activist Amri Che Mat was abducted, with witnesses claiming he was snatched after his vehicle was boxed in by other cars. An inquiry last year by Malaysia’s official human rights body concluded he was taken by police.
The risks have not deterred many Shias from continuing to worship. At a recent meeting in a small hall, Kamil recited the Quran to a group of some 75 men, women and children.
Shias “will not be cowed” by the uptick in raids on their gatherings, he said.
“We will be patient in overcoming these abuses and continue our duties,” he added.
Rights groups say that attempts to stop Shias worshipping are against guarantees of freedom of religion in Malaysia’s constitution, but religious authorities insist members of the sect are a bad influence.
“We do not want any misunderstanding among Muslims in Malaysia or for fights to break out (between Sunnis and Shias),” said Mohamad Zawawi Ahmad Mughni, a member of the official Islamic religious council in Selangor.
“Shia activities cause discomfort among Sunnis in Malaysia.”
Mohamad Faizal Musa, a Malaysia-based associate with Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and an expert on the minority, predicted the country’s Shias and Sunnis would not be able to overcome their differences any time soon.
“I doubt that can be done with the amount of vilification and harassment (against the Shias),” he said.