MALAYSIA - Malaysia is clamping down on Shi'ism, the second branch of Islamic orthodoxy, in a move that appears to have both religious and political overtones.
The nationwide crackdown began last month with the ban of local Shi'ite group Pertubuhan Syiah Malaysia. The same month, state governments gazetted a 1996 fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council that declared Shi'ism deviant and therefore haram or impermissible.
There is also a witch hunt that has been going on for Shi'ite believers in four universities in Selangor and the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, as well as in the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
It is now illegal for Shi'ite groups to conduct their activities and preach the teachings to Malays who subscribe to the Sunni branch of Islam known as Ahli Sunnah Wal-Jamaah.
"Stern action will be taken against those propagating the Shi'ite ideology," de facto Religious Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom said last Saturday.
Those who contravene the ban can be prosecuted for defying a religious edict and fined up to RM3,000 (S$1,200) or jailed for two years if convicted.
According to the Home Ministry, a growing number of Malays have become Shi'ite believers in recent years, with an estimated 250,000 people now belonging to 10 active groups.
Although Shi'ism is accepted as part of the Islamic orthodoxy by the Muslim world, it is being treated as a non-Islamic religion in Malaysia. Like other religions, it is prohibited from being preached to the Malays.
Islamic officials have argued that the government cannot allow Shi'ism to take root in Malaysia because it would divide the Malays and the Muslims who are Sunnis.
In the words of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad: "Whenever there are Shi'ite and Sunni teachings (in the state), there is bound to be enmity that can lead to war and murder as has happened in several countries like Pakistan and Iran."
There are major theological differences between Shi'ism and Sunni Islam and the deep distrust among the followers can spark sectarian flare-ups.
Sunnis have accused Shi'ites of vilifying the three companions and the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, venerating Shi'ite imams or spiritual guides more than the Prophet and practising Muta'ah or temporary marriage that degrades women.
Some Malays started to convert to Shi'ism after being enamoured by the Islamic revolution in Shi'ite Iran in 1979, and started small groups in Selangor.
"Ten years ago, it was a small community with three camps, but now they have spread nationwide," said Home Ministry secretary-general Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi at a press conference on Monday.
"The development of information technology is among the factors for their growth as the teachings are spread through a range of social sites."
Large Shi'ite communities have emerged in Kedah and Perlis, prompting the ruling Umno party to blame PAS for supporting the growth of Shi'ism in the two Malay states.
PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu has been singled out as the man responsible for promoting Shi'ism and has been accused of being a Shi'ite himself by Umno-owned media and pro-Umno bloggers. The allegation is based on his support for Iran, Lebanon's Shi'ite militia Hizbollah and the regime of Syrian
President Bashar Al-Assad. Mr Mohamed Sabu declined to respond to the allegations when pressed by reporters, but other party leaders have come to his defence.
Party information chief Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man told Utusan Malaysia: "Until Friday, there has been no evidence that they are Shi'ite as alleged (by Umno)," referring to Mr Mohamed Sabu and others in PAS.
He and other PAS politicians suspect that the anti-Shi'ite campaign by Umno and the government is political and an attempt to split the Islamic party.
Datuk Seri Jamil has denied this. "For the government, Shi'ism is not about any party," he said. "It's a belief and teaching that for us in Malaysia is not part of the Sunni teaching practised here."
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