A seminar about a message that seeks to promote unity in the Muslim world was cancelled after organizers notified authorities about bomb threats posted online along with hateful comments by followers of a group opposed to Malaysia’s Shia minority.
The seminar scheduled for Saturday was about the Amman Message, a statement issued in Jordan’s capital by King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein during a Ramadan sermon in November 2004.
Abdullah’s message underscored the need to re-emphasize Islam’s core values of tolerance and mutual respect and recognized the various schools of Muslim theology, including its two largest denominations: the Shia and Sunni.
“The cancellation is due to the comment received by the organizer at the Facebook page [the] Movement to Eradicate Shia,” Asmawati Ahmad, spokesman for the Royal Malaysia Police, told BenarNews.
Ahmad emphasized that organizers themselves had cancelled the seminar without any advice from police.
The cancellation occurred after Facebook page postings drew hateful comments that were shared hundreds of times.
On July 6, a follower uploaded a poster about the seminar, which was expected to be attended by Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Malaysia’s religious affairs minister. One poster commented: “We should bomb this place.”
A government official, who requested anonymity, said Malaysia should be wary of militancy movements that could flare up into larger conflicts pitting Sunni against Shia.
“Such a threat should not be taken lightly even if it only comes from one person,” the source told BenarNews.
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, where around 60 percent of its 32 million people follow the Sunni teaching. The practice of other types of Islamic teachings is prohibited by the government, particularly efforts to proselytize Malaysian Sunni Muslims.
The Facebook page Movement to Eradicate Shia has garnered more than 17,000 followers and received 18,000 likes, while another page called Anti-Shia Movement Malaysia has attracted 133,000 followers, with many members discussing issues about the government’s handling of their Islam-related complaints.
Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, agreed that the cancellation of the seminar was necessary because, he said, it “may escalate into violence.”
“There are groups who perceive the forum as the platform to spread Shia [teachings] in Malaysia,” El-Muhammady told the South China Morning Post. “For them, this [seminar] is a provocative act as Malaysia is a Sunni state.”
One of the seminar organizers, the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS), on Wednesday filed a police report on the bomb threat, Asmawati told reporters.
It was not immediately clear if any arrests had been made.
Police said they were probing the case as a possible violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which carries prison penalties of up to one year and hefty fines. Any person arrested for involvement could also face “criminal intimidation” charges that carry prison terms of up to two years, police said.
IAIS posted an apologetic announcement on its website about the cancelation of the seminar, which had a sub-title: “Amman Message as a Platform of Peace.”
“We regret to inform you that the ‘Amman Message Seminar’ which was scheduled on 13 July 2019 has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
The Sunni and the Shia, both believe in the oneness of God and the five pillars of Islam but don’t see eye to eye on a host of issues and religious practices. There are about 40,000 Shia followers who practice their belief in secret in Malaysia, according to religious scholars.
In its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom issued last month, the U.S. State Department noted that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, which won power in May 2018, “indicated that it would continue to enforce a 1996 fatwa declaring Shia teachings ‘deviant.’”
Yet unlike in previous years, there were no reports of religious authorities in Malaysia arresting Shia Muslim for observing Ashura, the report said.
“Media reported, however, that religious authorities in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor state increased monitoring of Shia individuals to prevent Ashura gatherings and distributed leaflets condemning ‘deviant practices,’” it added.
As the controversy erupted over the seminar’s cancellation, Mahathir told reporters on Thursday that the threat that prompted the seminar’s cancellation was “not the right way to act,” state news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.
But the prime minister also said: “If they want to welcome Buddhists or Shia or whatever, it’s their right, as long as they don’t try to spread their teaching among the Malaysian Muslims, who are all Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah.”