On Ashura, sectarianism bares its ugly head in Malaysia

Today marks the 10th of Muharram, or Ashura, a day Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

It is without doubt the most emotional and poignant event for Shia Muslims around the world. For Sunnis, some are aware of its historical significance while others are not. Others may also be, of course, anti-Shia.

Discrimination against minorities within a religion shouldn’t merely receive attention and coverage during an occasion of celebration or mourning for the said minority.

Yet, in Malaysia, it is all the more appalling that authorities in Johor and Selangor have chosen to raid private Muslim Shia events in the days leading up to Ashura.

One such raid was conducted by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) on the Shia headquarters in Gombak on September 6.

Jais deputy director Azlinda Azman went on to say that they were being investigated. It is unfathomable for one to be construed and framed as a potential criminal just because of practices that upset intolerant individuals in the Sunni Muslim community.

In another raid, eight people were arrested at a private function in Kempas, Johor. In both events, Shia Muslims were gathering to mark the occasion of Ashura.

Mosques in Selangor have been told to preach messages of hate when it comes to Shia Muslims during Friday prayers. The sermons in mosques, of all places, serve as a platform for state-sanctioned hate speech.

If there is any authoritative piece of text or ruling that doesn’t condone such behaviour, it is the Amman Message.

The authors of the Amman Message would morally disagree with how Shias are being treated in Malaysia. In no ambiguous terms, the Amman Message states three points:

1. Recognition of the validity of all eight schools of the Sunni, Shia and Ibadi Islam, traditional Islamic theology (Ash’arism); Islamic Mysticism (Sufism), and of Salafi thought, in coming to the definition of who is a Muslim.

2. Based on this definition, a prohibition on labelling other Muslims as apostates.

3. A prohibition on illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.

These points weren’t the outcome of Muslims with little knowledge of Islam. Twenty-four of the most senior religious scholars from all around the world were consulted. They represented all the schools of thought in Islam. The Message thus has authority.

The Amman Message itself wasn’t able to escape bigotry!

In July this year, The International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia was set to host a seminar on the Amman Message and the problem of sectarianism in the Muslim world. I would tell you what was discussed at the seminar but I can’t because… it was cancelled, and for scary reasons too.

A Facebook page called “Movement To Eliminate Shia” shared a message egging on its supporters to make bomb threats and bomb the venue.

Regrettably, the event, organised by civil society groups, was cancelled. The page of this movement had close to 20,000 followers!

Another Facebook page, called the “Anti-Shia Movement”, is supported by over 133,000 followers, so the anti-Shia front is well and alive.

The Shia population in Malaysia numbers around 50,000, according to Malaysian academic Faizal Musa. From a numbers standpoint alone, Shias live a precarious life in Malaysia.

The proponents of these anti-Shia raids in Malaysia, be they ordinary citizens or government officials, have completely ignored the sentiments of the Amman Message and taken religious matters into their own hands for the sake of eradicating an invisible threat.

Perhaps it is time for that seminar which was cancelled on July 13 to take place again.

Syed Imad Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.