NUS academic criticises spread of Wahhabism in Malaysia

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Dr Syed Farid Alatas
Dr Syed Farid Alatas

According to an NUS academic, Dr Syed Farid Alatas, an associate professor in the Sociology Department of NUS, the rise of Wahhabism (also referred to as Salafism) has influenced Islam in Malaysia negatively, leading to controversial edicts (fatwas) to be issued.

At a roundtable discussion in early October, organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Syed Farid Alatas, an associate professor at the Sociology Department, National University of Singapore, expressed disbelief over a proposal by Kelantan to impose jail terms and fines on Muslim men who missed Friday prayers for three consecutive weeks.

A state ruled by the PAS, Kelantan is known for strict Sharia laws restricting a broad range of activities that are otherwise unrestricted in other states of Malaysia.

Dr Alatas said “I read that the Kelantan state government intended to fine Muslim men RM 1000 and sentence them to a year’s jail if they skipped Friday prayers three times in a row. While I agree that society needs rules and regulations, it is immoral and unethical to propose such drastic action on those who do not perform Friday prayers regularly.”

He noted an imbalance in the application of Sharia law, with the sanctity of personal life disregarded by such a move. It bordered on coercion, failed to account for civil liberties and was difficult to enforce.

Dr Alatas also noted that even if all Muslim men in Kelantan were driven to perform Friday prayers, the question of sincerity in prayer was raised. Were they praying out of a sense of duty and authenticity, or out of obligation to fulfil the law?

Lack of Intellectual Rigour

Dr Alatas also criticised nonsensical fatwas, citing the example of a former Saudi Arabian grand mufti, the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abdullah.

Abdullah issued a fatwa in 1966 stating that the sun orbited the earth, rather than vice versa, contending that the Earth was fixed and stable. Alerts maintained that if products of such a mindset aren’t countered but allowed to gain traction, Wahhabism would erode the precepts of Malay culture.

Wahabbism is notorious for its rigidity, intolerance and narrow-mindedness, with many followers viewing Sunni or Shia Muslims as deviants for not practising Islam like them, rejecting much of Malay culture in the process.

“Islamic rules and regulations should not interfere in the personal lives of Muslims, until they virtually intrude into their homes,” Alatas said in a reference to close proximity or khalwat cases. Earlier this year, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) was criticised for unwarranted khalwat cases.

In an incident that happened in July 2014, three women and a man threatened to sue Jais. This was following their arrest for close proximity (khalwat). When arrested, the man was standing outside the house while two women were inside and the third woman was standing at the doorway.

Another example interpreted as part of the spread of Wahhabism was Putrajayas’ campaign to vilify and demonise Shia followers in the country. Dr Alatas alleged that “The Malay language newspapers were the worst of all the media as they printed lies and falsehoods about the Shias.”

One outcome of this was an unofficial boycott of Malaysian goods by Iranian merchants in Q1 2014. While not sanctioned by either government in any official capacity, trade between Iran and Malaysia declined in the first two months of 2014.

In the struggle between UMNO and PAS to win Malay votes, religion has become a political instrument, designed to draw the electorate’s support. Islam, once understood as a religion based on tenets of centrism, moderation and social justice, has lost its balance and become a tool of political power.

This lack of moderation has impacted relations with economic partners like Iran. It also has the real potential to disrupt relations with neighbours like Singapore and Thailand, which are both non-Muslim nations.

Most followers of the miltant group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS) are followers of Wahabbism. Recently, it’s emerged that at least one suicide bomber was of Malaysian origins, while there have been reports of Malaysian women travelling to Syria in order to serve ISIS as comfort women. Al-Qaeda itself expelled ISIS from their group, due to their form of extremism being excessive.

With the strong correlation between Wahhabist influences and international terrorism, and the uncertainties created by the confluence of politic and religion, Malaysia and Southeast Asia region may face instability and further terrorism if the influence of Wahhabism isn’t arrested soon.