On the Eve of Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review: Sectarian Apartheid

A Follow-up to the “Sunni-Shia Dialogue” Plenary Meeting held at the 11th Rhodes Forum. By Dr. Mohd Faizal Musa, National University of Malaysia

Malaysia is a multireligious and multiracial nation, and as a sensible scholar researching on human rights I do not see why the Shia do not have the freedom to practice their own faith in Malaysia. This is totally absurd and beyond the human rights in any sense. I have to emphasize that I am shocked to learn that Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom denied the rights of Shiites (read here: No violation of human rights in ban of Syiah teachings - Jamil Khir - Latest - New Straits Times). In Malaysia, most Muslims belong to the Sunni school of thought. Shia are one of several Islamic sects under close watch by governmental religious authorities. According to CIA fact books Malaysian Shia make up 280,600 of the population of the country. However local Shias believe their community is much larger but they cannot reveal their faith due to lack of their security and safety. According to Home Ministry Secretary General on Aug 5th 2013, an estimated 250 000 Shia have been identified nationwide.

Numerous crackdowns have been targeted towards the Shia community, one being in November 1997, where 10 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act for alleged grounds of practicing Shia Islam (http://www.ipsnews.net/1997/11/religion-malaysia-crackdown-on-shia-muslims-puzzles-many/). Those who were released early in 1997 were told to renounce their Shia faith and to revert to the Sunni Sect as a pre-condition of their release from ISA. The reason of arrest according to the police then was “activities prejudicial to national security and Muslim unity". The arrest violated Article 12 of the International Bill of Human Rights: “Rights to personal security. Everyone has the right to live in peace and free from fear of arbitrary arrest and detention without fair and public trial” (http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/3500). The Shias have often been maltreated by detentions without trials under the Internal Security Act. For instance, Abdullah Hassan, one of the Shia adherent was detained without trial under the ISA (Internal Security Act) from October 2nd 1997 until December 31st 1999. He filed a report to The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) on 2012. Abdullah Hassan’s report to SUHAKAM was filed in sequel to the detaining of other six Shia followers under the ISA within October 20th 2000 to January 5th 2001.

In December 2010, more than 200 Shia including Iranians and Pakistanis were arrested by Selangor state Religious Council in a lightning raid at a local Shiite community centre (http://dawn.com/news/592364/malaysia-may-charge-200-for-deviating-from-islam; http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2012/01/14/malaysian-shiites-face-growing-persecution/). Since the raid, the Shias have been subject to continuous condemnation by Malaysia’s Islamic Religious authorities. In May 2011, a lunch celebrating the birthday of Fatimah Zahra, daughter of prophet was broken up by Selangor religious officers. Four Shiites were arrested that day. On recent accounts, two Shia adherents were arrested on August 5, 2013, right before Muslims celebrate Eid by the Perak Islamic Religious Department. One of them was a woman who is also a homeopathic practitioner. Her clinic in Taiping was raided by twenty officers from the Perak Religious Council (JAIP) in which they seized the books in her possessions and later arresting her. She was then taken to the lock up center in Pekan Baru and released later on bail. Later on 10th September 2013 four more adherents were arrested also in the state of Perak (http://www.nst.com.my/nation/general/close-watch-on-shia-followers-in-perak-1.334060; http://www.nst.com.my/streets/central/6-in-perak-held-over-banned-shia-teachings-1.353474; http://my.news.yahoo.com/16-shiites-arrested-130-monitored-cops-says-minister-090610245.html).

What shocked me most is that Perak Islamic Religious Department of Malaysia stated that, "Shia is a serious issue and we will try our very best to eradicate it". What does ‘eradicate’ mean? To remove (something) completely : to eliminate or destroy. And Wikipedia link the word eradicate to: genocide, the deliberate, systematic destruction of an ethnic, religious or national group of people. To me this is nazism at the early stage, a pure sectarian apartheid blindly ignored by international community.

On the 28th September 2013, another raid was conducted at the center in Selangor (http://www.nst.com.my/latest/jais-raids-shia-hq-in-taman-seri-gombak-1.364599). Religious authorities seized properties, a sum of charity money for orphans and numerous valuable items belonging to Shia adherents from the mentioned location. The raid has caused severe damage to the premise. On the same day another Shia adherent was arrested in the state of Pahang. The violence, aggression, abuse, and cruelty committed on minority Shiites are run in tandem with the speech given by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak at the headquarters of the United Nations Association of New York during the 68th UN General Conference addressing Sunni-Shia devotees to commit to concord and peace (http://www.nst.com.my/latest/pm-s-call-at-un-moderation-can-be-powerful-tool-and-muslims-must-unite-against-those-using-religion-1.364879).

Relations between different religious groups are mixed in nature here in this country. It is perfectly accepted to be non-Muslim; however, there is no tolerance in being Muslim but practicing any branches of Islam besides Sunni. Freedom of religion, despite being guaranteed in the constitution, faces many restrictions in this country. Shiism is either considered a non-Islamic deviation from ‘true Islam’ or Shia Muslims are not allowed to freely practice their faith and religious rituals.

A 1984 Islamic law and a 1996 fatwa by Malaysia’s top Islamic clerics banned Shiism, declaring it a deviant ideology. The 40th Special Conference of the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia convened in 1984 to discuss the status of Shias in Malaysia agreed that an earlier provision “After discussing and deliberating on this working paper, the Committee has decided that only the Zaidiyyah and Jafariyyah Shia sects are accepted to be practiced in Malaysia” is abolished. As a result, Muslims in Malaysia must only follow the teachings of Islam based on Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah  (Sunni)  on creed, religious laws, and ethics. Any publication, broadcasting and distribution of any books, leaflets, films, videos, and others relating to the teachings of Islam that contradict the doctrine of Sunni Islam are to be prohibited and considered unlawful. There is a ban on any publications written by Shia Muslims. The Home Ministry was urged by Senator Noriah Mahat to immediately ban printed materials such as books written by Shia followers on the religious doctrine. Many books and publications have been banned so far, among them 'Pengantar Ilmu-Ilmu Islam', 'Dialog Sunnah Syiah' and 'Tafsir Sufi Al Fatihah Mukadimah', which were found to be in conflict with the teachings and principles of the Sunnah Wal Jamaah.

How does this act not contradict international human rights standard? The absurdity of this situation grows as Malaysian government signed The Asean Human Rights Declaration 2012 in Phnom Penh on November 18th 2012 (http://www.thecambodiaherald.com/cambodia/detail/1?page=11&token=ODYwNjEzMDgzNTIzODcwMGIyNTNiZGRkZWM4ODM0). Also, Malaysia’s stand against the Shias is totally contrary to Islamabad Declaration (2007) which was signed by Datuk Syed Hamid Albar, Home Minister at the time to represent Malaysia at The Thirty Fourth Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers on 15-17th May 2007. Islamabad Declaration (2007) asserts that “no Muslim, whether he or she is Shi’ite or Sunni, may be subject to murder or any harm, intimidation, terrorisation, or aggression on his property; incitement thereto; or forcible displacement, deportation, or kidnapping. All Muslims to refrain seriously from any provocation of sensitivities or sectarian or ethnic strife, as well as any name-calling, abuse, prejudice or vilification and invectives.” (Refer General Assembly Security Council File A/61/981–S/2007/656. Resolution No. 28/34-Pol On Strengthening The Islamic Unity). However, as has been mentioned earlier, on a recent account, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom stressed that there was no violation of human rights in the banning of Shia teaching. Coming from a minister of a government that holds a chair at the United Nation Human Rights Council, this statement is clearly inept and inane.  It depicts a clear blunder in understanding the language of human rights. What is strange about this is that Jamil Khir in a statement made in 2011, said that the Shias are barred from promoting their faith to other Muslims but are free to practice it themselves (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jOnK5_TDVaO8Kl0FykHRzSEKiyHg?docId=CNG.dad540f4bf75273895aa99a69b6a1e50.141). He declared to the state media: the government had made “various efforts” to halt the spread of the faith in the country, including issuing fatwas against the sect and the “monitoring and control of materials promoting Shia faith” but recently, the Minister said the government would take action against anyone who practices Shiism in this country regardless of their status or political affiliation (http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/236955).

The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir recently supported the campaign promoted by his son Mukhriz to ban Shiism in the state of Kedah, adding that the ban should be implemented too in other states in the nation (http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/follow-kedah-by-gazetting-anti-shia-fatwa). This is contrary to his recent call for Sunni-Shia unity through a joint appeal conducted with former Iranian President Sayyid Muhammad Khatami (http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2013/05/22/stop-the-violence-mahathir-tells-muslims/; http://www.countercurrents.org/AJoint%20Appeal%20to%20Sunnis%20and%20Shias%20(English)%20to%20Editors.pdf).  The statement to ban Shiism in all states received support from various Islamic clerics across the nation. So far ten states had banned the Shia faith under the Anti-Syariah Enactment whereas four states, namely Pahang, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak are in the process of doing so. The Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia and the State Religious Councils has been actively promoting false propaganda against the Shias, as well as calling for a mass crackdown on the community through arrests (http://shiarightswatch.org/asia/malaysia/570-anti-shi-ism-in-academic-settings#ixzz2iEbKekgz).

Tun Dr Mahathir in a speech in 2005 had said that the Shia sect should not be tolerated; "any other sect than Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah should be disapproved and only Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah can be tolerated ..." (see Mahathir Mohamad. 2005. Malaysia as an Islamic State. Kuala Lumpur. Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia. Pg: 7-8). Ever since the 1980s the Shia community has been facing stigma and violations of rights including arrests, attacks on private practices in community centers and confiscation of properties, also mass propaganda to demonize the Shias carried via news and television broadcasts as well as in mosques and workshops organized by government backed Islamist NGOs. The local newspapers had been going on a crusade to demonize the Shias like never before, on a daily basis. Recently the Home Minister has also stated that he will “take stern action against individuals including political leaders as well as organisations involved in spreading Shia teachings in this country and that his ministry and its agencies like the Police, Registrar of Societies and Immigration Department would intensify monitoring of Shia activities”. Local mosques are instructed by state religious councils to deliver anti Shia Friday prayer sermons. The sermons stigmatize Shia teachings, spreading lies about the practices of Shia adherents to the masses so that they may detest, isolate and avoid them.

Former Selangor state religious department head Mohammed Khusrin Munawi, who led the December 16 2010 raid, said that the Shia faith, if left to grow, could undermine security as “fanatical followers of the sect consider other Muslims infidels”. ”For them, the blood of the followers of other faiths is lawful which means that it is okay to kill (Sunnis),” he told the Utusan Malaysia newspaper. “Shiite doctrine is more dangerous than other deviant teachings (as)… Shiite followers in Iran and India are fighting against other Muslims merely because of different faiths,” he said. The Security and Public Order Ministry’s Assistant Secretary, Zamihan Md Zain Al-Ghari said there was an urgent need in restricting the spread of the Shia teachings because there is involvement of politicians and corporate leaders. Their involvement is very dangerous because it can influence society through the spread of ideologies subtly and even via consumer products, he said in his paper entitled 'Modus Operandi of Shiite movement and threat to National Security 'in the seminar ‘Facing Shiite Virus’ in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) on Oct 13 2013 (http://www.sinarharian.com.my/mobile/semasa/perkasa-undang-undang-pencegahan-ajaran-syiah-1.211537).

Even teenagers at schools are not spared. In a recent news Perlis State Religious Council claimed to have ‘spotted’ a student who happen to be a Shia adherent (http://www.sinarharian.com.my/mobile/pelajar-sekolah-disyaki-berfahaman-syiah-1.211445). The report further added that the Religious council together with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) and the Islamic Da'wah Foundation Malaysia (Yadim) will hold faith consolidation program to bring awareness on the dangers of Shiism to Muslims. "The program will be held on October 22, where we will require that all school teachers including mosque Imams all across the state attends the program," the Perlis State Religious Council Director elaborated.

I am also shocked to learn how accusations upon accusations have been made that foreign traders and students from Iran and Iraq are to be blamed for the spread of Shia belief among the society (http://www.bharian.com.my/articles/JAISpantauSyiahdiSelangor/Article/cetak). The religious authorities had been called upon to investigate not only the local students, but also the foreign students in regards to the Shia issue (http://www.sinarharian.com.my/perlu-tapis-pelajar-luar-negara-1.187464). In fact Malaysian mosques do not welcome them to pray there.  To make matters worse, the Islamic Affairs Department of Selangor (JAIS) has even alleged that Iranian missionaries used the carpet business as a front for the propagation of Shiism among Malays.

Forcing Muslims to adhere to the teaching of Sunni Islam under the Shafii school basically negates the co-existence of other schools of thought in Islam that have been practiced for ages. This is a clear assault on the percept of freedom of religion and an aggression against fundamental liberty. It should be noted that majority of the Shias in Malaysia are Shia by heredity. How is the PM’s administration going to force these people to revert to something that they were not from the start?

The fatwa and prohibition of Shiism in Malaysia are against the laws of human rights that apply in the United Nations and it is clear, in this case, that there are violations of human rights at a soaring level. Malaysia should be reminded that it is to face the Universal Periodical Review session in Geneva on 24th October 2013. On what grounds that the nation fails to meet the Malaysian Shiite community rights?

Rather than applying pressure to the Shia community, violating their rights and provoking them to retaliate, Malaysia should be working together with this minority group to ensure that the well being and the rights of the community are preserved.  The government should promote policies and practices that ensure the right of every religious group to exercise its faith free from legal, political, or economic restrictions, this includes the Shia minority. The government is not showing any signs to take decisive action to protect the group from threats and violence; in fact, it’s playing a major role in carrying the stigma towards the community.  This clearly undermines its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy.