What if the Muslims of Christchurch had been Shiites?

What if the Muslims of Christchurch had been Shiites?

After the Shiite arrests reported in recent days, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand and global hero, must be asking:

“What if the 51 who died and 49 who were injured in the Christchurch mosque shootings were Shiites?

“Would Malaysia’s Prime Minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim have proposed his emergency motion to debate the Christchurch shootings in the Malaysian Parliament? Would Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Rawa have made his solidarity visit to Christchurch? Would he have organized his peace march in Dataran Merdeka?”

In recent days, the Islamic authorities in Selangor and Johor, aided by the police, have arrested dozens of Shiites. They raided venues and hauled away persons who are said to be Shiites. They removed various “religious items” from the venues. They did not claim to have found any weapons.

Malaysia has a government-funded National Fatwa Council. In May 1996, this council forbade the propagation of any teachings deemed contrary to the central teachings of ASWJ (“Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah”), the version of Islam which Malaysian officialdom regards as mainstream.

Shiite teaching is contrary to ASWJ teaching. According to Norshahril Saat, a Malaysian scholar, ASWJ regards Shiism as deviant on three grounds: “it is theologically different from ASWJ; it is mainly a political minority not only in Malaysia, but also in the Islamic world; and it represents a security threat to the religious harmony in Malaysia.”

Like Norshahril, I am unconvinced by the grounds. I’ll give two reasons.

First, despite the theological differences – which include criteria for selecting Caliphs, the role of Imams in government, reverence for saints and more – many Muslims think Shiites should be accepted as Muslims.

Consider the Amman Message, a document issued on 9 November 2004. It is perhaps the greatest product of a congregation of Muslims. It accepts Shiites as one of eight schools (Mazhab) of Islam. The signatories include Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Ahmad Badawi and his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin. Clearly there are many Malaysian Muslims who believe Shiites should not be stifled! Theological difference is not a good ground.

Second, the claim that the political nature of Shiism makes it a “threat,” is a line which has been expressed by many over the years, including Dr Asri, the Mufti of Perlis and Dr. Mazlee, the present Minister of Education. Is it a good ground for stifling Shiites? I think it is not, because Muslims often appeal to the maxim din-wa-dawla, the unity of religion and state. If “political nature” is a good ground, shouldn’t all non-Muslim governments stifle all Muslims because, well, they’re all political?

I will now discuss the law as it relates to the recent anti-Shiite drive.

The 1996 opinion only has the force of law in states whose legislative assemblies have gazetted accordingly. States outlaw “false doctrines” by gazetting fatwas. (This is controversial because many Muslims, including in Malaysia, believe fatwa are opinions which they can choose to reject.)

In Selangor, a fatwa against Shiite (“Syiah” in Malaysia) teaching was published in the government of Selangor gazette on 24 September 1998, while Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister and Anwar was his deputy.

The gazetting made Shiites propagators of “false doctrine.” It made them subject to potential punishments of “a fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to whipping not exceeding six strokes or to any combination thereof,” as defined in Section 7 of the Syariah Criminal Enactment (Selangor) 1995.

The fact is, under law – until either the Federal Court declares it unconstitutional or the legislature amends it – propagating Shiite doctrines in Malaysia is a crime in states like Selangor.

The fact is, the law cannot be enforced without police support. This emerged forcefully during the Suhakam Inquiry into the disappearances of Amri Che Mat and Raymond Koh. Amri’s home-office (allegedly a Shiite centre) was raided by the Perlis Islamic authority. A dinner organized by Raymond in a church hall was raided by the Selangor Islamic authority. Both authorities were aided by the police.

The fact is, the police believe they must assist the Islamic authorities enforce the law. We saw this when ex-IGP Khalid Abu Bakar refused to comply with a 2014 High Court order to find and return Indira Gandhi’s daughter to her and to find and arrest her husband – he chose to defer to the Sharia court. During the Suhakam Inquiry mentioned above, we saw one branch of the special branch baselessly equate Shiites with terrorism!

The actions against the Shiites may be legal, but they deny the freedom of religion enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.

People should be allowed to stick themselves with spikes (like Thaipusam devotees) or whip themselves (like Imago Dei members). People should be allowed to contest for ideas – even political ideas – on an even playing field. We should do in Malaysia what we approve of in New Zealand.

Rama Ramanathan is an activist with Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED).

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online.

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