Cleric's arrest reveals Islamic rift

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2009, 12:00am

Simmering tensions between religious conservatives and liberals in Malaysia have come to the fore with the arrest of a prominent Islamic cleric for preaching without a licence.

The weekend arrest of Dr Mohamad Asri, 52, a preacher called 'moderate' by supporters but described by opponents as 'divisive', underscores the country's complex Islamic system, observers say.

Asri was preaching to about 300 followers at a private house in western Selangor state on Sunday when about 60 Islamic police officers arrested him - and then freed him without charge but on bail, amid an outcry, pending further investigation. The soft-spoken, London-educated Asri refused to speculate on why conservatives were unhappy with his moderate views on Islam.

'If it is about a permit, then it is odd. I have preached all over the country without any problems.'

His supporters, among them Prime Minister Najib Razak, brushed off the charge, saying he had been preaching for years in Selangor and across the country.

According to the law, preachers need a licence to practise, but this has never been applied to prominent clerics, including Asri. The charge, however, is serious and carries a three-year jail sentence.

Each of the 13 states in Malaysia has its own Islamic administration and jurisdiction. Islamic officials are often divided over policies.

Conservatives want strict implementation of sharia laws, such as a total ban on alcohol, curbing the sale of pork and barring men and women who are not married to each other from interaction.

Liberals, on the other hand, stress the 'spirit and values' of the Koran, such as fairness, tolerance and justice, which they say are more relevant in a multi-ethnic society.

Moderate Muslims say hardliners have had Asri in their sights for his reformist zeal and non-conformism.

'The arrest is really to silence him from giving alternative viewpoints on Islam [that are] different from the establishment,' said Marina Mahathir, a Muslim feminist leader and daughter of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Mohammed Kusrin, the Selangor head of Islamic administration, denied that the arrest was to silence or discredit him. 'We have tried to arrest him before, but his followers always intervened,' Kusrin was quoted as telling the Sinar Harian Malay-language daily.

Asri rose to prominence around 2006 when, as the mufti, or chief cleric, of northern Perlis state, he defended human rights and espoused liberal views. He won acceptance among the younger generation and appeared on television and at national seminars.

Last month he was nominated to head Yadim, a high-profile, government-sponsored Islamic missionary organisation. About 15 Muslim groups, including the powerful National Ulama Organisation, said he was unfit for the job.