MALAYSIA - Life has not been good for Shi'ites in Malaysia. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists are free to practise their religions in this Muslim-majority country but the Shi'ite form of Islam has been outlawed.
Last month, the Home Ministry banned their organisation, the Pertubuhan Syiah Malaysia. Several state governments also gazetted a 1996 fatwa of the National Fatwa Council declaring Shi'ism as deviant and, hence, haram or forbidden. Offenders charged under the Syariah Criminal Offences Act for defying the fatwa face a fine up to RM3,000 (S$1,200) or a jail term of two years.
The ban and the gazetting of the fatwa mean that Shi'ites are restricted from practising their faith, and prohibited from propagating it to Malay Muslims in Malaysia, who follow the faith's Sunni version.
This is surprising. Even Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is dominant, has not banned Shi'ism. Shi'ites there even perform the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities exclusive to Muslims. But there are reasons for the hardening stance towards Shi'ism in Malaysia. First, there is alarm over Malays who converted after being enamoured of Shi'ism and the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The Home Ministry said the small community has grown in a decade to an estimated 250,000 in 10 active groups. This development has divided the Malay community, which has traditionally subscribed to the Shafie school of the Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah.
Umno leaders view the matter with concern because a divided Malay community implies a weakening of the political position of the Malays, who half a century earlier were united under Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam is now seen as threatened by the presence of Malay Shi'ites, who are swelling a Shi'ite community that was previously dominated by Indian Muslims from the Dawoodi Bohras, the Ismailis, and the Jaafaris or the Ithna Ashariyya school of thought - the official faith of Shi'ite-dominated Iran.
There is also a fear that large Shi'ite numbers in a largely Sunni society could lead to sectarian conflict, similar to that in Pakistan. Hence, it is a security concern.
The historic seeds of distrust were sown when the group that later became the Shi'ites disputed the succession of Prophet Muhammad after his death in AD632. Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, they said, was the rightful successor as caliph of Islam. They refused to recognise the three companions of the Prophet who became caliphs before Ali became the fourth caliph in AD656.