Shiite Muslims in Malaysia: A Cultural Genocide

John Lim remembers the people whom Malaysia has forgotten

Among the marginalized in Malaysia, there is a single group perhaps more marginalized than many. They are the people that Malaysia has forgotten. They are the Shiite Muslims. No one knows how many there are. They could be as few as 10,000 or as many as 40,000. The one thing that is certain, however, is that they face such oppression that it borders on cultural genocide. They are raided. Imprisoned. Denied the freedom to worship. Denied the freedom to participate in public life. Left only one choice: convert to Sunni Islam or remain persona non grata.

Shiite Muslims attend a religious gathering in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur | Source: AFP

Shiite Muslims attend a religious gathering in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur | Source: AFP

Nazri (not his real name) provides a rare inside glimpse into this hidden world. I first encountered him while producing a television programme on the lives of immigrants in New Zealand. Nazri reveals that he was once Sunni, but grew disaffected when the Sunni hadith failed to provide him answers to his own spiritual questions. His search led him towards the Shia denomination and he eventually converted. As a consequence, he and several others were subjected to a crackdown. Enforcement officers raided his home, arrested him and seized his personal religious material. Upon release, he was blacklisted and denied employment as well as the opportunity to further his studies. Nonetheless, Nazri believes he is fortunate in comparison with others. He has anecdotal accounts of Shiite acquaintances being tortured and then denied medical treatment as a way of pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The schism between Sunni and Shia dates back to the 5th century. Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, the issue of who would succeed him as leader of the ummah polarized the community. Sunnis, by way of popular vote, chose Abu Bakr to be the first caliph. Shiites, by contrast, preferred Ali, whom they believed the Prophet had chosen by way of divine mandate. This has given rise to two separate interpretations of Islam, with the Sunni tradition holding sway over 80% of Muslims in the world today, often at the expense of the Shiite minority, who are regularly labelled as heretics.

The plight of the Shiites has been making the rounds on the international circuit via news agencies such as AFP,  but has gained little political traction within Malaysia itself. DAP and Keadilan’s stance on the issue has so far been muted, and they are perhaps wary of alienating the Islamist PAS, whose Sunni hadith differs from UMNO only in the degree of application. The current constitution is also a potential minefield—article 11 is vague and offers the government the right to regulate Islam as they see fit. This leaves the doors wide open for persecution against ‘sects’ and ‘deviants’ that may challenge the general Sunni understanding of Islam.

Whichever way the political landscape shifts, one thing is for certain. Malaysia will continue to be an uncomfortable place to be a Shiite. If you are one, you will either be driven further underground or you will have to leave the country.

Buckling under the weight of surveillance, Nazri had chosen to seek asylum in the West, where he is free to worship and practice his faith. But even emigration has not offered him complete relief — while he enjoys freedom from persecution overseas, he fears for the well-being of the friends and family he left behind.

John Ling is a Malaysian writer based in New Zealand. You can find out more about him and his work at

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Posts by John Ling

John Ling is a Malaysian writer based in New Zealand, and his fiction has appeared in various international publications. He is also the editor of Yvonne Foong's 'I'm Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell', a Malaysian bestseller chronicling a girl's triumph over Neurofibromatosis. In 2005, John was nominated as Most Outstanding Youth at the AYA Dream Awards. Visit his website at

Posted on 30 March 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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38 Responses to Shiite Muslims in Malaysia: A Cultural Genocide

  1. Mohd Jesus

    Respect to all prophets, sages n fhakirs. All those enlighten people expressed their beautiful thoughts in the scripts. But they are not relevant to today's reality. N Beliving them as it happened yesterday isn't it stupidity?
    Can't understand why people should belive something written in some scriptures. This is just a fight between one man's blind faith vs another man's stupidity…. ???? No sense to fight some historical event or mythological story scripts. Why can't humans accept that what I know I know and what I don't know I don't know, instead try to smart by believing some nonsense cooked stories or a beautiful story n fight n kill for it? One can belive n practice whatever stupidity they want but how can that scripture stupidity can impose in others including children?
    Is it not the fact with most stupid act by many religious people?
    Don't think the real prophet wants him to follow his scripture as it is after such so many centuries?

  2. ali

    all peoples have freedom. so all peoples have brain . my question is that why malaysian government have prblem with shian e haider e karrar. because if person convert in shia then that is not brain washing we called that brain using. so my request to malaysian government give freedom to shian e haider e karrar.

  3. Jaffar

    I was deeply shocked by reading about persucation of Shias in a country like Malayisia. I thought that among muslim countries there were only two that had pragmatic, balanced and tolerent attitude towards minorities, namely Malayisia and Turkey. But it seems that persecution of minorities is state policy in Malayisia. Let the readers know that all the prepetrators of 9/11 and 100% of all Taliban and Al Quaida are Wahabis or Salafis, that is the Saudi version of Islam. Not a single of them is a shia. Few days back there was an edict from Malayisia that the name "Allah" should not be used by christens. So Malayisia is well on its way to an extreme theocratic country. God help Malaysia!

  4. Shadaan

    Religion poisons everything that is why it can turn regular people into hateful individuals. Where there is religion there is violence. Let the religious groups in Malaysia practice their own faith be it Shia, Sunni or other. They just want to go to heaven or paradise and they make their choices wish them well. The moment politicians interfere there is always trouble. The politicians interfere because they want to divide and use the already divided and hate spreading religious idelogy. Policians are cunning and religious leaders are emotional, the cunning one will eventually win. All ideologies are idiotic, whether religious or political, for it is conceptual thinking, the conceptual word, which has unfortunately divided man and conditioned him to hate the other.

  5. abc

    i never understand why they people of Malaysia and the Government getting so worse like they are the one who really don't want Islam and peace.i m living in Malaysia from many years believe me they know nothing about Islam even their Aalims who just follow the Wahabism. for them Islam is only Saying prayer and keeping fast and thats it.really feel very weared. now they are trying to create Fitnah among people by use the Word Shia and Sunni. they never See who is their GOD and who is their Prophet(S.A.W.W).for them may Allah show them the Right Path.May Allah make their heart Soft for other Muslims.

    Above 2 people(Ataka, IBMX) propagate Against Shia Islam. please being a Muslim don't propagate against any Sect and try to remove Wahabism from heart,Mind and Country.

    Our Prophet(S.A.W.W) never say bad to anybody their whole life.even to Kafir he Never said that u very bad this that.don't Which Sunnah the Malaysian People and Government is going to Follow.

    May Allah give Hidayah to all specially Malaysian People to become Proper Muslims.

  6. Salafi

    New Zealand is in the West?

  7. Armchairwarrior

    I see that the bigot's only way out here is a straw man and a red herring. If Shiites allowed, therefore Ayah Pin is legit. Alas, one should look to history only to find that two persecuted sects become world religions.

  8. fawad

    dear sir i m in pakistan ,peshawar city i m from shia commuinty here in pakistan for shia life is not save can anybody tell me how to get asylum in malaysia .here in pakistan people r killing shia people so i need help how to apply for asylum in malaysia .with my family
    reply in my email
    [email protected]
    plz reply ok bye take care

  9. John Ling

    Thank you for your post, Abbas.

    Allow me to respond to the points you brought up.

    Firstly, neither Iran nor India came forward to offer Nazri asylum. New Zealand did, and hence, he chose to settle in New Zealand. He was provided with housing, re-training and help in acquiring a job here. Last I heard, he's doing well for himself, and he's looking into bringing the rest of his family over to join him in due time.

    Secondly, New Zealand is not against Muslims. On the contrary, New Zealand is great donor of foreign aid, with the bulk of it going towards Muslim countries. Discrimination is illegal here, and Muslim New Zealanders are free to practice and preach their religion. We have mosques and schools teaching the Muslim curriculum ( and Muslim citizens participating openly in public life (

  10. Abbas Rizvi

    "Nazri had chosen to seek asylum in the west,where he is free to worshi and practice his faith." It seems Lim is supporting West,the article has nothing to do with the rift between shia and sunni its all about prasing West.And if so called democratic West is open to all religion then please go and ask the West that why is supports all the things which goes agaings Muslims. I am a Shia and belive me evry different indivisual have a diffrence with another.Firstly we all are muslim.I will advise Nazri to go to Iran or better come to India but please not to go to open West.

    • John Ling

      Thank you for your post, Abbas.

      Allow me to respond to the points you brought up.

      Firstly, neither Iran nor India came forward to offer Nazri asylum. New Zealand did, and hence, he chose to settle in New Zealand. He was provided with housing, re-training and help in acquiring a job here. Last I heard, he's doing well for himself, and he's looking into bringing the rest of his family over to join him in due time.

      Secondly, New Zealand is not against Muslims. Per capita, New Zealand is the largest donor of foreign aid in the world today, with the bulk of it going towards Muslim countries. Discrimination is illegal here, and Muslim New Zealanders are free to practice and preach their religion. We have mosques and schools teaching the Muslim curriculum ( and Muslim citizens participating openly in public life (

  11. Navroz


    now where r the human rights people (why do they dont work here???) – where the person in this world is not allowed to practice his faith – which is basic necessity for a person along with food, clothing and shelter>>….

  12. The fact of the matter is this: Barisan has been in power for 54 years now. That's two generations and a half.

    Even if Pakatan takes over today and governs perfectly with zero setbacks, it will take a generation (20 years) to fix things. That's assuming that it takes half as long to fix a country as it does to break it.

    Note that I'm not even including the cultural attitudes of Malaysians, some of which are downright disgusting and abhorrent. That will take even longer to change.

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  14. Kasutraya

    We are worst off now than we were before…now its "i called my daddy Papa first" "no, I called my daddy Papa first"…

    None of you guys are doing any favour for your respective religions. Emotions are taking the center seat from what i can see. Too much emotions breads evil..

    -Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.- Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

  15. Adam Lewis

    yo stefan. look. if somebody is born with something you can't ask somebody to change it. duh. hello? you can't choose how you were born, to whom you were born nor what colour of your skin you born with. but you CAN choose your words. like I give a shit about Christians or Muslims or Jews. not to mention I was asking john so why are you butting in? I prefer people from sabah and sarawak anyday over people from the peninsula. they work harder and are way more honest hence me begging my previous bosses to keep my friends from going back to kuching at all cost. i don't see religion and how the heck am i supposed to know what goes on everywhere?how long people have been doing things???? that's why i asked! and my main point which is an honest one is. why use Arabic? i have Christian friends from Egypt and Saudi who do use "Allah" but it's because they generally they speak Arabic anyway. it only means god. despite being a Muslim, i don't use the word "Allah" unless i'm reading a verse in Arabic. I'm not saying don't use it. do what it is that you feel like. no one has the right to stop you and if they did. well their place in the afterlife would be a very uncomfortable one. i happily see myself as a malaysian and human being before i see myself as a muslim. and i see myself as a very flawed human being but i am utterly proud to be malaysian. it's not perfect but i was a victim of racism to many times living oversea's.

    So stefen, don't think you can ask someone to change something they were born with. asking a person to change his nose because you don't like it? that sounds like this bully i got into a fight with a few months ago. he's exact words was "gua, tak suka lu punya muka, kasi tukar muka boleh" i was like "what?i'm getting into a fist fight cause the shit doesn't like my face???"

    that sounds sooooooo rempit. but i choose my words carefully and avoided the street fight. i still lodged a report anyway :P i'm all for the Christians doing what ever they want. because using Allah isn't a bad thing. they ain't committing no crime. but don't make me sound ignorant.

  16. Stefen: Very well put.

    The viewing glass, in fact, goes both ways:

    Viewpoint #1: Because Allah is such a touchy issue, why are Christians pushing the subject and refusing to respect the wishes of Muslims?

    Viewpoint #2: Because Allah is such a touchy issue, why are Muslims pushing the subject and refusing to respect the wishes of Christians?

    Now, regardless of which viewpoint you subscribe to, it ultimately loops back to the same conclusion: people still seeing themselves as Christians/Muslims first and Malaysians second. So much so that state-sponsored separatism is near impossible to dislodge.

  17. Stefen

    Adam, you said “if somebody doesn’t like something, i’d rather not push the subject and respect that persons wishes”. So if somebody thinks the shape of your nose is a public eyesore, would you undergo plastic surgery to suit his wishes? I don’t think so. East Malaysian Christians have used ‘Allah’ for years. You are asking them to discontinue their usage, thereby relinquishing their constitutional right! Why don't you ask the ‘somebody’, in this case the ruling party, “knowing how touchy the subject is” to “not push the subject” and allow these Christians to practise their religion as they deem fit within the Constitution? The correct solution is to repeal unconstitutional laws that restrict freedom of religion! Those who want “peace” at any cost should learn from history: appeasement emboldened Hitler.

  18. Adam: I understand where you're coming from, and the reverse is also true.

    Let me quote what Faisal Moideen said in regards to the Pope using 'God' instead of 'Allah' in order to appease Muslims:

    What kind of religious leader is this, if he puts diplomatic reasons of greater importance than the name of his God. How can you do that to your god. Imagine, you are a supreme, highest ranking religious leader, but to you, earthly matters or other peoples considerations carry much more weight than your god. This is unthinkable, selfish and disrespectful to god. OMG.

    Rightly or wrongly, there's a feeling among many Christians that they should no longer compromise on key issues, particularly in regards to the divine. Blame it, if you will, on Pakatan's incessant propaganda—if the buzz is to believed, the time is fast approaching for Malay rights to be downsized in favour of non-Malay rights.

    Secondly, for over two generations since Independence, many Christians in East Malaysia have been using Allah. Knowing how sensitive and touchy the issue is, why do Muslim fundamentalists now choose this very moment to kick up controversy? Why are there church desecrations now? Why not 20 years ago? Why not even 40?

    The answer, of course, is simple. The shifting political landscape leaves many fundamentalists uneasy about the direction Malaysia is taking. Now, more than ever, both Barisan and Pakatan are wooing non-Malay votes. This is particularly relevant in East Malaysia, where over 40% of the population are Christian.

    The bottom line? It's all political posturing. It has little, if anything, to do with the common citizen on the ground. It has everything to do with the outcome of the elections.

    • Faisal Moideen

      You need to attribute your quote to the proper poster. Faisal moideen did not say that.

  19. Adam Lewis

    dude, first of all. salam. but i was reading your reply about the use of the word allah. trust me, i'm not saying this to spite anyone because i'm a weird ass muslim. but i was curious as to why they need to use the word "allah"(which only means god in arab so my fellow muslims need to stop being so damn touchy). why not use yahwey? Tuhan? Dues? or God in another language? knowing how touchy the suubject is, why push for it? i have this habit that if somebody doesn't like something. i'd rather not push the subject and respect that persons wishes. i like your reasoning so i thought i'd ask.

    as far as sects go…well i believe in one god. i do my duties. and i believe that man is the demise of religion.

  20. voster: I couldn't have said it better myself.

    The problem is that the 'special position' of Islam is entrenched in Malaysia, and for the longest time, that has mean a limited and rigid interpretation of Sunni Islam. One that excludes other faiths and other denominations, some more than others.

    Until and unless that changes, we'll continue to see large-scale institutional discrimination.

  21. voster

    @Mullah Malaysia

    All countries with more than one religion will have a form of persecution.

    The difference is some other countries have matured to allow the way we treat other religions to be debated. None of that, "go away, you have no right to speak about us" crap.

  22. voster

    @Faisal Moideen

    Northern Ireland's sectarian violence merely hides behind its religion. It is a sectarian violence borne out of forced appropriation of land and historic dominance, rather than religion.

    The Protestants were mostly forcibly implanted into Ulster (Google "Ulster Plantation") and this history of a tussle for resources is the reason behind all the animosity. Religion is merely a useful denominator of which side you're on, but note that the Northern Irish don't fight over religious doctrine, they fight over economic rights and to take revenge for perceived slights or previous attacks.

    So it's NOT a religious conflict. And even if it was, it's all the more important for Sunnis to respect the choices of Shiites rather than let it devolve into a Northern Ireland-like situation, no?

  23. Rasydan: If we followed the logic that outsiders can only offer opinions and nothing else, then the Malaysian government would have no right whatsoever to regulate the use of Allah within the Christian community. It's most certainly an internal matter, especially since non-English-speaking Christians have been using the word 'Allah' for over 2000 years.

    This is exactly the heart of a matter. In a civil society, everyone is free to have an opinion. It only becomes a problem when parties try to enforce their opinion on others.

    Why do Sunnis reject Shiites? Simple. Because they have committed fitna and have refused to toe the official line. But does that justify them being arrested, tortured and denied basic human rights?

    Yes, dislike Shiites all you want. But in a free and civil society, you must respect their right to worship separately from you. Unless, of course, you don't want a free and civil society.

  24. Rasydan

    Outsiders can always give their opinion…opinion only.

    But I agree with Faisal Moideen thoughs on para 3.

  25. Mullah Malaysia: The fuss here is whether the state condones religious persecution or not.

    For example, is there a country in the world today where crime is 100% absent? No, there isn't. But there are countries where crime is more rampant and violent than others because the administrators have not only failed to combat crime, but actually engage in it.

    The question we should really be asking is this: are the religious authorities in Malaysia doing their utmost to promote transparency and equality, or are they fanning the flames of discrimination and oppression?

  26. Mullah Malaysia

    My beloved bro n sis,

    Most of the time, this religous persecution is a result of political power grab.All co-religionists dont differ. I find it rampant in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, India,Pakistan, Northern Ireland, Ireland, UK,US and probably the rest of the world.So whats all the fuss dude??

    Somebody is doing it to someone else all the time, with a good reason , as their book says so, its written!!

    All these ppl, create havoc and kill in the name of the Almighty.They claim a divine right and tarnish the good name of the prophet,saint or preacher.If u consider it seriously, Attila the Hun never used the name of God or Allah when he slaughtered thousands of victims in his conquests….he was honest abt it, no religous affliation to anything.

    Richard the Lion Heart and Salehudin Al-Ayubi are considered as Great Warriors and admired by millions for having killed millions during the crusades. They always said their prayers before going into battle during the deadly crusader wars. Each claiming to have the inspiration and the right to kill frm their own religions. So who is right la??

    Can someone show me a country where nobody cares abt the other persons religion and is really free of prejudice and I will migrate there quickly!!!Mayb Mt Kinabalu,Gunung Tahan or some unnamed island!!

    But nowadays they have GPS to track u down lo!!!

  27. Alea Nasihin: You are right to say that puritan dogma has completely eclipsed true spirituality.

    The primary problem here is that Malaysia is experiencing a slow, poisonous drip of Wahhabi and Salafi doctrine. They are ultra-conservative in outlook and intolerant in practice, and for their adherents, a Shiite is no better than a Christian or a Jew and must be purged.

    Combating this creeping influence is easier said than done, especially since Malaysia is so dependent on Saudi diplomatic ties and investments.

    Yes, there are Sufis in Malaysia, but they remain very much under the radar. Most remain outwardly Sunni, but practice the more controversial tenets of their faith solely within the confines of their own homes. Because they are so insular, they tend to shun gathering together with other Sufis, and this is the only reason they have so far escaped major crackdowns.

  28. Alea Nasihin

    Interesting read about an issue that is rarely discussed. It's sad when dogma is allowed to veil spirituality and tolerance. I'm wondering if there is a considerable Sufi community in Malaysia, and if they undergo the same persecutions?

  29. Faisal Moideen: I disagree with you that religious division is a valid reason to inflict institutionalised violence upon those who hold a different faith.

    A Catholic bursting into the home of a Protestant and forcing him to convert at gunpoint is no different from a Sunni inflicting the same to a Shiite. It's doubly worse when the person carrying out the violation is sanctioned by the state.

    Your point, so far as I can tell is that Muslims and non-Muslims alike ought to give carte blance to the government to do whatever it takes to regulate Islam. 'Whatever it takes' being the operative word here.

    To give some perspective to the issue, let me just point out that the Shia denomination has existed for over 1000 years. By contrast, Christian Protestantism has existed for less than 500.

    It doesn't stack up, logically, for you to say that Protestantism is Christianity, but then deny that Shia'ism is Islam. Shia'ism is not some new-fangled cult, but even if it was, does that give the government the right to violate and rough up those who profess it to be Islam?

    Finally, Islamic Studies was an undertaking of mine in uni. My overseer was both a mullah and a former minister in the Afghan government. So, no, I am not just giving you idle thoughts—as a writer, I have spent 10 years of scholarly research into this area.

    • Bader Ali

      First of all the Conflict and Shiat group didn’t start after the prophet dead. After the great prophet dead (peace upon him) all his friend and his family include Ali –Radhi Allah Anho- were agreed to give Abo Bakur Alkhelafa and being the next leader.

      Shia’ism is a group which created by some old Hypocrites lived between Muslims and those Hypocrites were originally (Khawarej) and those Khwarej were the reason of this divisions. They problem is Shia’a believes in Myths and those people how called Molla and they believed those religion gourds are sinless and Infallible people But in fact if you think and use your mind there is no one if Infallible specially if he is not aware of the whole Qura’a

      Just Imagine some isn’t fully aware (Hafez) the full holy book how you consider him a religion man .. Shait biggest schools in Quonb in Iran and Karbelaa in Iraq are teaching Shiaism but they don’t teach the holy Book (Quran) how you consider their student to be religion savers while it’s not required there to be Quran reader.

  30. Farha: If only we had more Muslims like you, we'd have a fairer and better Malaysia.

    me the martian: Spot on. Unfortunately, the Malaysian government does see it as a conversion, and a dangerous one at that.

  31. Faisal Moideen

    John Lim a Shiite? Or Muslim? Like any other religion, there has been sects evolving from the Islamic teachings by the prophet. Like in the Christianity belief it has evolved too Eg. Protestant, Catholics Lutherans etc. Northern Ireland's entire problem is about such religous division. These are just mainstream divisions.

    Would John Lim know if Catholics accept Protestants as fellow Christian? Shiite has been considered a deviant teachings of Islam. Sure,John Lim has done some research but that is the problem,SOME research only and cannot form final authority as to the reason why Sunni reject Shiite teachings.

    Going by John Lim's logic,Ayah Pin n his Sky Kingdom to would be deemed Islam. Perhaps its time that ppl outside Islam do not write about an issue they could not fully comprehend. This is not about freedom of religion. This is about the religion itself.

    • Bader Ali

      Shia just wants the power and the government that’s why they start to spread their beliefs in Africa because Africans is a good and cheap soldiers. Africans needs Money and Shia+Israel are willing to give them money since both (Iran + Israel are 2 faces for the same coin )

  32. there is no such thing as conversion between being sunni or shia. the fact that there is sunni and shia is a political issue that divided muslims between the 2 creeds.

  33. farha

    convert? to sunni islam…? so that is the extent of their problem? sad.
    i consider anyone believing in Allah the One God and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as its messenger to be a legit moslem, unless im missing something here,…

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