By Murray Hunter
A small but rapidly growing minority of ethnic Malays in Malaysia are adopting the harsh Salafi doctrines of Saudi Arabia, with the center of Salafi teachings in the tiny conservative rural northern state of Perlis, seeking to supplant the milder, less militant Sunni Islam that most Malay followers practice.
Salafism is a direct interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah aimed at restoring Islamic faith and practices back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers after his death although it is far from homogenous.
Major sub-groupings include the traditional Athari Salafism, which believes in remaining apolitical so as to avoid the corruptive nature of politics, Tanzimi Salafism which accepts the involvement in politics and organizations, and various strands of Jihadi Salafism.
The chief practitioner of this hybrid Salafism is Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, popularly known as Dr Maza, a graduate from Jordan who is seen to have liberal views on contentious religious issues such as khalwat (unmarried male and female proximity) raids, sound levels of mosque speakers, yoga, henna, and singing at weddings. He is regarded as holding a contemporary approach to Islam. He was appointed Malaysia’s youngest ever mufti, or Islamic legal expert, in the northern rural state of Perlis.
According to alarmed critics, Dr Maza is redefining the concept of racism away from Ketuanan Melayu, the Malay supremacy concept, towards a Kafir Harbi concept – that non-Muslims have no rights including the right to live – that even Dr Maza’s comrade Maszlee Malik, the recently dismissed education minister in the now-defunct Pakatan Harapan government, claimed was divisive and polarizing back in 2016. Dr Maza is an admirer and supporter of the fugitive Indian televangelist Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India and who was banned by police from speaking at an event he organized last year in Perlis, raising friction between Perlis religious authorities, the Royal Household and police.
Dr Maza’s comments that Malaysia is for the Malays have angered non-Malay Sabah and Sarawakians, a derogatory poem about cattle on Facebook angered ethnic Indians, and comments about vernacular schools have angered the Chinese community. His new racism is alarming. His theology is evolving in new directions, where he is spilling over into political comment, rather than keeping to spiritual issues.
Nonetheless, despite the controversies, pressure is being put on the Perlis chief minister Azlan Man to pass a bill to appoint Dr Maza Mufti for life, thus setting up a theocracy in Perlis.
Dr Maza and his Salafi vision have put police Special Branch intelligence officers in a quandary, with deep, serious concerns about the festering of terrorism within the Perlis Salafi environment. However, The Perlis State Constitution states the official religion of Perlis shall be Al Sunnah Waljamaah (follower of the Quran and Sunnah), in contrast to Sunni Islam in other states. The Perlis ruler is the rightful head of Islam and the police have an obligation to stop any potential terrorism.
There have already been episodes of friction between the Royal Household and the police. One concerned person within the palace complained that Dr Maza is using the Royal Household for his own ends.
Thus, the Special Branch is faced with either abiding by the constitution and stay out, or continuing to sift out terrorism and protect the Royal Household, which is an increasing Dr Maza ally.
After Dr Maza and the then-chief minister Shahidan Kassim enthusiastically re-established Sunnah Perlis doctrine, regularly traveling across the country to preach, Dr Maza left the position of Mufti of Perlis in 2008 to become an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). However, he returned to the position in 2015 and began to further develop and embed his movement.
Both Dr Maza and Shahidan had a close relationship with the Islamic consul at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Saudis gave them special treatment and established student scholarship programs for study in Saudi Arabia, fund schools, and sent preachers and scholastic experts to Perlis.
Education was a major focus, with a mission to develop strong Salafi-leaning values within the next generation, Dr Maza personally establishing one primary school which, along with a number of other Salafi-leaning schools, receives the bulk of operating funds from the Perlis Islamic Affairs and Malay Culture Department (MAIPs). MAIPs also owns the Perlis Islamic University College (KUIPs), where its CEO Dr Mohd Mizan Mohd Aslam was sacked for not supporting a Salafi agenda within the institution and replaced with a strong Dr Maza ally, Dr Mohd Radzi Othman.
A number of madrasas in Perlis are aimed at educating both local and foreign teenagers.
One was raided and shut down by the police Special Branch and anti-terrorism squad, acting on intelligence that a Yemeni-based terrorist group was setting up a center to promote Salafi Jihadi teachings. This reportedly caused some friction between the Royal Household and the police.
The Salafi movement has spent enormous time and resources on developing social media as an outreach to college students, the youth in general, graduates, young professionals, academics, and older educated Malays. Sites on Facebook and YouTube draw more than 1.1 million followers on a variety of Islamist views. Many are primarily focused on proselytization. Dr Maza’s primary foundation is Petubuhan Yayasan Al-Qayyim Malaysia. Numerous others are run by aligned groups including the International Khayr Ummah Foundation (IKAF), run by Dr Fathul Bari, a conservative supporter of UMNO and partly funded by Saudi Arabian sources.
The major annual event in Perlis is Perkampungan Sunnah (Sunnah Village Series), a Salafi speakers festival held before every Ramadan in mosques around Perlis. With an accompanying exhibition, national internet broadcasts, and other activities, this event brings the national Salafi movement together each year.
Another tool of influence is what is called the alumni, which according to Ulama Engku Ahmad Fadzil, is made up of graduates from local and Middle Eastern universities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as UK graduates who return home and join the civil service, armed forces, religious organizations, schools, and universities, some of whom now enjoy prominent positions. They dominate the Fatwa Councils, JAKIM, and some state religious administrations.
Many within the alumni are highly intelligent, articulate, well educated, well connected, and don’t necessarily disclose their true beliefs and inclinations in the interests of exerting influence over other peoples’ ideas. This group also protects the image of the movement. According to a culture department insider, every member of the alumni is given an allowance of RM5,000 per month, increasing over time to propagate the faith, which is in addition to the salaries they earn in their employment, primarily funded by Saudi monies.
The damage can be seen in the Universiti Malaysia Perlis, where students are being indoctrinated with Salafi ideas.
The Vice Chancellor Badlishah Ahmad, a close confidant of Dr Maza, saw nothing wrong in a controversial ethnic relations exam question stating that a fugitive preacher Zakir Naik is an Islamic icon, along with a racial slur against ethnic Indians in another question, bringing massive public outrage.
Three major sources fund these activities, including Saudi money, VVIPS like former Chief Minister Shahidan Kassim and Zakat funds – obligatory religious charitable payments – from Perlis’s Malay culture department, MAIPs.
A source within MAIPs told Asia Sentinel that Perlis is offering corporate entities a 50 percent rebate on all Zakat, compared to other states, which offer a 30 percent rebate to distribute Zakat back to those who are entitled to receive Zakat payments. This is good for the corporations as it helps fulfil their CSR requirements, create community relationships, and boost goodwill.
According to the Syariah, there is nothing wrong with using Zakat funds for these activities. The Surah, or consultative council, allows Zakat to be paid to the poor, needy, Zakat collectors, for preaching activities, to recent converts to Islam, helping those in debt, those fighting jihad by either the pen or sword, and stranded travellers with worthy goals.
However, the MAIPS insider said there are no audit trails inside the organizations that receive Zakat, there is favoritism towards Salafi-leaning organizations over Sunni ones and there are no controls over whether these payments are being used for political purposes.
Former education minister Maszlee Malik calls the movement Asrism, others call it Mazaism, the new madhhab – a new school of thought within Islam. Others claim the ideas portrayed are Salafi-Asri ideals, rather than Islamic ideals. Many would agree with the comment that Malaysia needs a dictator like Saddam Hussein, and there should be focus on public, rather than private sins.
To others, Dr Maza goes against the ways many of the Malay elite think. He developed a public groundswell of support when he was arrested by Selangor state Islamic authorities back in 2009 for preaching without a license.
Dr Maza firmly believes Malaysia is not yet Darul Islam, an Islamic state which to him means an Islamic Utopia. This is not directly political, nor is it intended to be necessarily organizational. The movement is about changing attitudes, which will lead to his Islamic utopia. However, not being directly politically involved doesn’t mean he isn’t seeking power and influence from within the bureaucracy through the alumni.
Dr Maza showed his ruthlessness in getting his people into religious positions through the abrupt sacking of 25 imams from mosques around Perlis.
Some of those sacked claimed it was because they weren’t following Sunnah Perlis practices, which led to protests and the firebombing of Dr Maza’s official car.
There are many in Perlis unhappy about the imposition of Salafi-Mazaism upon them. Zakat monies are being used unaccountably to spread this theology across the country. This is already having effects upon how Malays think and according to Engku Ahmad Fadzil this could split the Malay community deeply and continue to ignite inter-ethnic conflict within Malaysia. Finally, the Malaysian bureaucracy is infiltrated by people who are being paid to influence by a foreign power. This is a clear and present danger to Malaysian sovereignty.
(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)
Murray Hunter is a retired professor, and professional runner, who spent the last 30 years in South East Asia, as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, author and researcher, whose speciality is in community development and biotechnology.