The writer says the Shia-threat-to-national-security narrative is nothing more than an ugly exaggeration, albeit one that stems from a larger historical and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East.
By Eric Paulsen
Some 14 months after Amri Che Mat’s mysterious disappearance, his case appears no closer to being resolved. An ongoing inquiry by Suhakam has prompted a verbal back and forth between Norhayati Ariffin, the victim’s wife, and Perlis mufti, Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, with the latter accusing Amri of propagating Shia Islam and therefore a threat to national security.
In a recent interview with Free Malaysia Today, the mufti brushed off Amri’s disappearance before slamming the spread of Shia teachings in Perlis and neighbouring Thailand. Asri even made the incredible claim that Perlis Hope, the charity run by Amri was working towards establishing a theocracy. Quite how the mufti made the leap from being a Shia to establishing a theocracy in Malaysia is never explained.
However, such an exaggerated claim on the dangers of Shia and other activities perceived to be a threat to Islam (in particular proselytisation of other faiths to Muslims), and by extension ‘national security’, reflects the sinister implications that can be derived from the authorities’ lackadaisical attitude in investigating Amri’s disappearance and other similar cases namely, Pastor Joshua Hilmi and his wife Ruth Hilmi, and Pastor Raymond Koh.
People in this day and age simply should not vanish into thin air without a trace, and the nonchalance displayed by the police force in investigating these cases is extremely worrying. That eyewitness reports and in the case of Pastor Raymond Koh, irrefutable CCTV evidence, indicate professionals with the assets and training to abduct people without fear of being traced should concern all Malaysians.
Upon reflection, the mufti’s view, unfortunately, is largely reflective of the Malaysian authorities’ harsh attitude towards Shia Islam, and this has led to dire consequences for its believers in Malaysia.
In Malaysia, Shia Islam is deemed as ‘deviant’ from mainstream Islam (only the official variant of Shafie school of Sunni Islam) by the federal and state religious authorities, and this is reflected in the religious laws, fatwas, publications and sermons.
Under Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, in respect of Islam, laws may be passed to control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine among Muslims. By virtue of a 1996 fatwa by the National Fatwa Council, Shia teachings are declared to be haram. Under the various state Islamic laws, Shia gatherings have been subjected to raids and arrests, books and other paraphernalia seized, and in some cases, believers charged for criminal offences.
Foreigner Shias are also not spared – as recent as October 2017, some 200 Iraqi Shias were detained by the Selangor religious authorities for taking part in a religious ceremony to celebrate Ashura, and they were only freed following pressure from Iraqi authorities.
Due to this continued persecution, statistics on Malaysian Shia believers are hard to come by, estimated at around 250,000 by the Home Ministry in 2013, a minuscule number compared to the wider Sunni Muslim population in Malaysia.
The Shia-threat-to-national-security narrative as described by Asri is nothing more than an ugly exaggeration, albeit one that stems from a larger historical and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it continues to be propagated, with an Islamic scholar even proclaiming Shia Islam to be a bigger threat than the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia during a conference in November 2017.
The vitriol flung at Shia Muslims flies in the face of more pressing security concerns that have enveloped the region. With the fall of their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, experts have warned that IS may adopt a more decentralised brand of terrorism as they struggle on defiantly. Western countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have already seen first-hand, the radicalisation of home-grown terrorists, the fear is there will be a successful attack soon on Malaysian soil.
IS and the real threat to national security
If Asri is truly concerned about the state of national security in Malaysia, he may be best served by reflecting on the inflammatory nature of his comments, and how they feed into the long-running narrative that oppresses a tiny community in Malaysia, and indeed in other more extreme parts of the world, for example in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow of Brookings Institution, the number of Malaysian IS fighters, when adjusted according to population, is actually higher than Indonesia. Similarly, according to Pew Research in 2015, a higher percentage of Malaysians (11 percent) have a ‘favourable opinion’ of IS when compared with Indonesians (4 percent).
IS remain the biggest terror threat for Malaysia; their ideology remains appealing to radicalised Malaysians, and they are continuing to attract recruits – this much was recently confirmed by PDRM counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay.
Within Southeast Asia, IS affiliates have been digging in. For over five months last year, the city of Marawi in Mindanao was decimated in a siege as Philippines security forces and their allies fought the Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorist groups, both of which had pledged allegiance to IS in earlier years. Reports throughout the year indicated that there were Malaysian nationals present amongst the ranks of the terrorists, a new twist to the already-established trend of Malaysians travelling to Syria and Iraq to join IS previously.
That there is a genuine security threat to Malaysia is clear but it does not come from Shia Muslims. The security threat instead comes from radicalised Sunni Muslims who are drawn to extremism, to Salafi-jihadi ideology – and possessing a willingness to support or take part in terrorist activities in order to advance their religious goals.
There must be greater vigilance and a serious policy rethinking as Malaysia continues to count the number of terror suspects arrested and the number of terror plots foiled. It is not inconceivable that spurred on by the bogeyman created by their own leaders, and with a misguided desire to protect their religion and way of life, radicalised Sunni Muslims may one day, be inspired to wage hostilities against Shias right here in Malaysia.
Eric Paulsen is the Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty