In this webinar, Dr Mohd Faizal Musa discusses the origins of sectarianism and how it has manifested in the Malaysian context. He specifically looks at how it has affected Shi’a Muslims in the country, and, conversely, what efforts have been put in place to de-escalate sectarianism.
Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme Webinar
Tuesday, 15 March 2022 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar moderated by Dr Norshahril Saat (Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) titled “Sectarianism and De-escalating Sectarianism in Malaysia.” The webinar featured the findings of Dr Mohd Faizal Musa’s research on the origins, nature, and function of sectarianism in Malaysia, and what type of efforts exist to curb or de-escalate sectarianism.
Dr Faizal started his presentation with the argument that sectarianism, despite its grave consequences, has been ignored in the region and is regarded as something that will not take root in Malaysia. He emphasized that it is crucial to pay attention to the development of sectarianism in Malaysia, as it is an extremist ideology that could eventually lead to physical violence against religious minorities in the country.
Highlighting the work of scholars who theorize that sectarianism operates at the level of ideas, individual action, and social structure, Dr Faizal pointed out that the development of sectarianism in Malaysia, especially at the level of ideas and social structure, is strongly tied to the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1774. Its formation was crucial, as its growing power allowed it to export the Wahhabi ideology on a global scale. Some extreme aspects of the Wahhabi ideology include its rejection of intra-religious pluralism and its justification of the excommunication of other Muslims (takfir).
In the Malaysian context, Dr Faizal highlighted a key event held in 1992 which aimed to demonize Shi’ism and Shi’a Muslims, and which eventually became the foundation for a legal ruling (fatwa) released in 1996 which banned Shi’ism in the country. This laid the groundwork for the perpetuation of false information about Shi’ism, which continues to be peddled to this day and which is used to justify discrimination against Shi’a Muslims.
However, Dr Faizal also pointed out that there have been efforts to de-escalate sectarianism in Malaysia. He referred to these efforts as taqrib, or the act of promoting proximity or Islamic ecumenicism. These efforts include a major event in 1993 which was held in response to the 1992 event, as well as subsequent initiatives by various organizations and individuals in Malaysia which aim to correct misinformation about Shi’ism, highlight the consequences of sectarianism, and promote intra-religious understanding. While these voices may not be as loud as the sectarian voices, Dr Faizal emphasized that such efforts remain crucial in ensuring that sectarianism does not escalate to the level of physical violence.
Finally, the webinar concluded with a Question-and-Answer segment, during which questions were raised about the educational background of those who harbour anti-Shi’a sentiments, the role of civil society in countering the spread of anti-Shi’a discrimination and prejudice, as well as the possibility of promoting Sunni-Shi’a rapprochement based on similarities between the two.