Anti-Shi’a Sectarianism Spreads to Malaysia

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Anti-Shi’a Sectarianism Spreads to Malaysia

A controversial Islamist said Shiism should be regarded as a “poison” and called for breaking ties with Iran.

The bitter sectarianism that has been engulfing the Middle East appears to be spreading to parts of Southeast Asia.

Mufti Datuk Wan Zahidi Wan Teh, a radical Islamist in Malaysia, called for cutting all ties to Iran because of its adherence to Shi’a Islam.

“Shiism could be regarded as a 'poison' that can destroy the harmony and security of the country as what is happening in some other countries, including Iran, Iraq and Pakistan,” Wan Zahidi said, BBC Monitoring reported, citing a report in the Malaysian paper, Berita Harian, one of the country’s oldest papers.

The report added that Wan Zahidi said Malaysia should emulate Morocco is severing ties with Iran, and said that “The Shiite teachings must be blocked, just as we restricted the spread of Communism in this country some time ago.”

The radical Islamist reportedly made the remarks at the Islamic Center in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, which was holding a seminar titled “Facing the Shiite Virus.”

Wan Zahidi is known for his controversial comments and claims. Earlier this year, he made global headlines when he issued a fatwa declaring that participating in beauty pageants was forbidden (haram) for Muslim women. As a result of the fatwa, four Muslim women were forced to drop out of the Miss Malaysian contest.

Wan Zahidi’s comments and the anti-Shi’a conference seem to reflect a growing anti-Shi’a trend in Malaysia, which is over 60 percent Islamic and about 20 percent Buddhist.

Last month, a minister from the Prime Minister’s Department told reporters that Shi’a inside Malaysia were not allowed to propagate their religion.

“It is not wrong for them to practice Shia Islam, just like it isn’t wrong for Malaysian Chinese to practice Buddhism,” the minister said at a press conference. “But they can’t spread the ideology to the local Muslims, who are Sunnis.”

Reports in the Malaysian media have also said that persons in possession of Shi’a religious materials had been arrested and faced up to two years in prison along with fines.

There has always been a degree of sectarianism in Malaysian society, although this could be increasing because of increased Iranian immigration to the country as well as the growing sectarianism in the Middle East.

Recent years have seen an influx of Iranian nationals into the Southeast Asian country. According to one estimate by the Middle East Institute, more than 100,000 Iranian nationals are living in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur alone. The MEI report also noted that many Sunni Malaysians have chosen to convert to Shi’ism voluntarily. This is especially controversial among Malaysian religious authorities.

Indeed, the BBC Monitoring report quotes one participant at this weekend’s seminar as saying he had been tricked into worshipping Shi’ism for six years but had since converted back. The individual said the Iranian Revolution in 1979 had been particularly influential in convincing him to adopt the Shi’a faith.

Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.