Organisers of a seminar on the Amman Message - a declaration by Muslim leaders around the world to end sectarianism in Islam - have called off the event in Malaysia after receiving bomb threats by supporters of an "anti-Shia" movement.
The threat exposes the rising militancy against the Shia minority in multicultural Malaysia that has inspired fear among that segment of the community.
The seminar was expected to take place in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
The Amman Message, initiated by Jordan's King Abdullah II in 2004, recognises the validity of all eight Islamic schools, including Sunni and Shia, the two largest denominations in the Muslim world.
A Facebook page, called Movement To Eliminate Shia, on July 6 shared a message encouraging its supporters to "make a bomb and throw it at the event", leading the organisers to cancel the seminar.
For them, this (seminar) is a provocative act as Malaysia is a Sunni stateAhmad El-Muhammady, lecturer
The page was created less than three months ago and has more than 18,700 followers.
Another Facebook page, called the Anti-Shia Movement, has over 133,000 followers, underscoring the depth of animosity towards the minority Shia Muslim community in Malaysia.
"There are groups who perceive the forum as the platform to spread Shia (teachings) in Malaysia. They reacted strongly. For them, this (seminar) is a provocative act as Malaysia is a Sunni state," said Ahmad El-Muhammady, lecturer from the International Islamic University of Malaysia. "It may escalate into violence."
Faizal Musa, an academic from the National University of Malaysia, estimated the Shia population in Malaysia numbers about 50,000 - a tiny minority in the nation of 30 million people where more than three in five are Muslims.
While the Malaysian government has banned Shia Muslims as a deviant sect since the 1990s, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday said minority religious groups had the right to practise their faith as long as they did not spread their teachings among Muslim Malaysians, who are predominantly Sunnis.
In the past, Shia Malaysians have been detained in joint raids by the religious department and police for some of their activities.
Shia Muslims have also faced religious persecution in neighbouring Indonesia.
Faizal, who has written novels themed on ancient Muslim figures revered in Shia Islam, said his books had been banned and he had received death threats.
While he has generally been calm about the threats, he said the mysterious disappearance of Amri Che Mat, a Malaysian Shia social activist who still remains missing today had made him fearful.
A special task force has been set up to probe Amri's disappearance.
Quite a lot of Muslims blindly believe what the ulama tells them, and that is a dangerous trend in countryChandra Muzaffar
Chandra Muzaffar, a prominent Muslim Malaysian scholar, said the Shia community in Malaysia was "very small" and not engaged in propagating their faith.
He also stressed that Shia Muslims were not a "threat" to Sunnis.
"Shias, in sociological terms, don't even constitute a community as they are so small," said Chandra, who is also head of the International Movement For a Just World, an NGO and one of the organiser of the cancelled seminar.
"The community comprises Shias who came to Malaysia generations ago, who are part of Malay communities, foreign students and expatriates working in Malaysia, who are transient," Chandra said.
According to Chandra, a lot of misconceptions existed in Malaysia due to Muslim leaders being misinformed or "influenced by narrow Wahhabi thinking", he said, referring to the strict form of Islam practised by Saudi Arabia which views Shias as heretics.
"And these ulamas (clerics) are in various religious institutions, they are part of the religious bureaucracy in this country, also in universities, institutions of higher learning and private sectors, running their own madrasas (religious boarding schools)," Chandra said.
"Quite a lot of Muslims blindly believe what the ulama tells them, and that is a dangerous trend in country," Chandra said, adding that critical thinking was needed to prevent mistrust and hostility between Muslims.
Academic Faizal Musa
Chandra said the cancellation of the seminar did not "bode well", as it sent a message that Malaysia was bowing to the whims of "fanatical, bigoted elements".
"This recent cancellation of what was an intellectual exchange because of a fanatical fringe … that does not bode well for the country," Chandra said.
"You are giving in, surrendering to these irrational (elements). The question is whether you stand firm against them or you give in," said Chandra. "Giving in is going to have serious repercussions."
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