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.
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 johnling.net