What you need to know
An activist vilified for his religion before vanishing is at the center of swirling accusations of religious intolerance.
Allegedly kidnapped, 43-year-old Malaysian activist and mountain climber Amri Che Mat has not been heard of since he went missing in November 2016.
An inquiry into his disappearance was coupled with an assertion by Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of the northwestern Malaysian state of Perlis, that Malaysia’s minuscule Shiite Muslim community constitutes a national security threat. These are but the latest incidents that have raised concerns about the impact of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative strands of Islam.
Shiites in Malaysia, a country of 31 million, are believed to number 40,000. Shiism was banned in 1996, but Shiites are allowed to worship privately.
Amri’s vehicle was found the night of his disappearance near a construction site with its windows smashed a 55-minute drive from his home in Kangar, Perlis’ capital. Witnesses said his car was blocked by five vehicles when he was snatched close to his house.
Accusing Amri of adhering to Shiism, Perlis’ Islamic Religious Department advised the state’s schools two months prior not to participate in programs managed by Perlis Hope, a charity co-founded by the activist. Perlis Hope was donating school bags and uniforms.
The charity, in testimony this month to Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission that is investigating the vanishing of Amri and three other activists, denied that it was associated with any one religious grouping.
Asri, the mufti, fueled debate about creeping influence in Malaysia of ultra-conservatism with assertions earlier this week that Amri was a Shia who practiced mut’ah, a temporary marriage contract under Shiite religious law.
The mufti accompanied police who came to their house in 2015, according to Amri’s wife, Norhayati Ariffin, to question the activist about his Shiism.
Speaking this week, Asri said Amri’s home was decorated with pictures of Shia imams. “The surroundings were similar to a Shia mosque in Iran,” he said.
The mufti denied assertions by Ms. Ariffin in testimony to the commission that his department may have been involved in Amri’s disappearance.
“Maybe her husband has gone off somewhere. Maybe he has gone to Iran. Maybe he has gone to practice mut’ah in Thailand. How should I know?” Asri said.
The mufti asserted that the spread of Shiism in Perlis and neighboring Thailand “could threaten national security.” He asserted that Perlis Hope was possibly seeking to establish a theocracy.
The disappearance and Asri’s remarks follow a string of events and government measures that have sparked renewed debate about what critics have dubbed the country’s Arabization.
Malaysia has long been a target of a long-standing, well-funded Saudi public diplomacy campaign that propagates Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an antidote to Iranian revolutionary zeal and Shiite ideology.
Saudi influence was further spotlighted by a scandal surrounding Malaysia's state development fund 1MDB sparked by revelations that US$700 million had wound up in Prime Minister Najib Razak's bank account in 2013. Najib said it was a donation from the Saudi ruling family, rebutting allegations it was money siphoned from the fund he had founded and overseen. Malaysia's attorney general cleared him of any wrongdoing.
On a visit to Malaysia a year ago, Saudi King Salman inked agreements involving US$10 billion of investment in Malaysia and the building of a King Salman Center for International Peace to bring together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam.
The center would work as resource partners with the Saudi-financed Islamic Science University of Malaysia and the Muslim World League, a Saudi-funded non-governmental organization that for decades served as a vehicle for global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Malaysia has also been thrust into the limelight by Najib’s increased emphasis on Islam and close ties to the kingdom.
Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that Malaysian forces would remain in Saudi Arabia “for the sole purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and possibly contribute to rebuilding efforts in Yemen if required.” Malaysia had earlier refused to send troops to fight in Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military effort to counter Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The government recently backed a parliamentary bill that would allow the shariah courts wider criminal jurisdiction over Muslims in the state of Kelantan. Malaysian authorities last year banned two beer festivals against a backdrop of mounting hostility towards Shiites, atheists and gays.
Malaysia has also given refuge to Zakir Naik, a militant Indian Islamic scholar who has been banned from entering Singapore and Britain because of his advocacy of the death penalty for homosexuals and those who abandon Islam.
Malaysia’s sultans cautioned last October that the country's stability was at risk from political Islam after attempts by two laundromats to only service Muslims were blocked by local authorities.
Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, denounced practices of Wahhabism and Salafism by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.
“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practice Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right, but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the Sultan said.
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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston