Malaysia

Ignorance, extremist Sunnis fuelling anti-Shia sentiments in Malaysia, says academic

BY SHERIDAN MAHAVERA
December 12, 2013

Ignorance and an extremist brand of Sunni Islam influencing religious authorities are fuelling the current anti-Shia movement in Malaysia, although the minority community has deep roots in the country stretching back centuries, says an academic.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia sociologist Dr Mohd Faizal Musa (pic) said extremist religious authorities have spread the myth that Shia Islam was a recent import starting in 1979 and that the denomination, which is the second largest in Islam, was a foreign threat.

“Wahhabis in Malaysia tend to regard Shiism as ‘another religion’ and consider Shias ‘infidels’, ‘unbelievers’, ‘heretics’, ‘deviants’, and ‘non-Islamic’," he told The Malaysia Insider in Kuala Lumpur.

He said Wahhabism had also made dialogue between Sunni and Shia Muslims difficult, thus compounding the ignorance and fear that the majority Sunni feels towards the Shia.

But Mohd Faizal said the Shia Muslim community was here in the 14th century, at about the same time Sunni Islam arrived in Southeast Asia through Arab merchants.

The community continued to grow in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia as more Shia Muslim immigrants arrived from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

The community has lived side-by-side and inter-married with Sunni Muslims in Malaysia for centuries with little evidence of conflict between them.

In fact, some Shia Muslims interviewed by the academic have been able to trace their ancestry back to the 1800s.

“As I conducted research in Kelantan, I encountered a Malaysian Shia family who claimed that one of their ancestors came from Turkey... who fled the oppressive taxation policy of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

“A cross-check with Ottoman historical accounts showed that ‘in the 1890s the government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) attempted to curb Shiism and convert them to Sunnism,” he said in a paper he wrote about the Malaysian Shia minority.

The essay titled "The Malaysian Shia: A preliminary atudy of their history, oppression and denied rights," was published a month ago by Mohd Faizal, who is attached to UKM's Instite of the Malay World and Civilisation.

The essay’s findings refute the argument used by national religious authorities and Sunni Muslim groups that the Shia minority, which numbers more than 200,000 believers, is a recent, foreign import that threatens the Sunni Muslim-majority.

Last week, grassroots members from the country’s largest party, Umno, called for the Federal Constitution to be amended so that only Sunni Islam would be the official religion of the Federation.

In its annual general assembly, Umno also wanted the religious authorities to persecute Shia Muslims, homosexuals, religious heretics and those it considered as having insulted Islam.

In the past few years, religious authorities have broken up festivals and arrested dozens of Shia Muslims for practising their brand of Islam. Malaysian Sunni Muslim groups and political parties have called the Shias deviants although they are the second largest denomination in Islam. This is despite the fact that influential heads of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, an ancient university well regarded for its Islamic scholarship, have repeatedly acknowledged the Shias as part of the Muslim faith.

Mohd Faizal said because of discrimination, Malay Shia Muslims tended to conceal their faith or practise “taqiyyah” for fear of being discriminated against by the majority Sunni Muslim community.

“The 1979 Iranian Revolution encouraged Shias in Malaysia to become more confident in identifying themselves as Shia Muslims.

“Many of them abandoned taqiyyah and became more daring and active in asserting their identity while calling others to it.”

But in 1996, a decree by the National Fatwa Council was issued that effectively curbed the Shia minority’s right to practise their faith. – December 12, 2013.