News Focus: Battling the deviant sects

High-profile deviant sects like al-Arqam and the Ayah Pin group are the mere tip of the iceberg. Authorities are struggling to battle a growing number of religious deviants, with new groups sprouting regularly

New Straits Times, Singapore/February 2, 2007
By Abdul Razak Ahmad

When Muhammad (not his real name) wanted to learn more about his religion, a friend told him about a group he felt was a perfect fit.

The 28-year-old, now doing his Master’s degree in a public university, felt his grasp of Islamic knowledge was weak. But he was too shy to register at the adult classes available.

The outfit his friend suggested sounded right. It offered Quran classes taught by urbane ustaz, tailored for busy executives.

Muhammad’s first class took place at a shophouse in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. What he found impressed him — all the "ustaz" were dressed in modern attire, polite to a fault and seemed to be experts.

But as his course progressed, he sensed that something was not right. Classes would shift venues for no apparent reason. The advanced students would be blindfolded and driven to secret locations for their lessons. Muhammad soon realised why.

"They kept moving because they were afraid of being found out by the authorities," he says.

The group’s reading of the Quran was built on a single, dominant theory: That the Islamic world was now corrupt, and the group was the only capable saviour. All non-members were considered infidel.

The group members claimed they would one day take over the country, although Muhammad detected no tendency towards violent action.

What they were more interested in was cash. The ustaz promised students entry to heaven, but one literally had to pay to get in. Students were asked to fork out fees starting with RM1,000 upon admission, and the bill grew and grew. One of his classmates ended up handing over RM10,000 to the group.

Muhammad finally decided he had had enough. He left and reported to the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) and the police. The authorities are now looking very closely at the case. But this was not a new story for them. The outfit, known as the Kahfi Youth Movement, is just the latest addition to a long and growing list of cults the state Islamic authorities nationwide are battling.

Authorities generally define deviant groups as any teaching or practice which claims to be based on, or is in line with Islamic teachings, but which go against akidah (faith) and syariah (religious law) derived from the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet).

The first recorded case of deviationism in Malaysia was the Taslim, founded in the 19th century in Seberang Prai, Penang, by Ahmad Matahari.

There are now 56 groups that have been banned in the country. With new groups like Kahfi emerging, the problem appears to be a serious one.

Just who are these deviants?

Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) public relations officer Fakrul Azam Yahya says they fall into three categories — novices, amateurs and professionals.

"The novices and amateurs are the not-so-clever individuals who try to persuade others to join their groups and often meet with little success."

Groups in the first two categories operated on a small scale and were rarely able to get more than 100 followers, he added.

In one case, authorities only realised they had a possible deviant on their hands when a woman, seeking divorce, told the court her reason: She wanted to leave her husband for a bomoh who was able to arrange meetings with mythical figures such as Hang Tuah and Puteri Gunung Ledang.

Some deviants may seem harmless. But the pros are worrying: They are highly organised groups run by those who have significant knowledge of Islam. A prime example is al-Arqam, which some suspect peaked with about 5,000 members before the group was banned 13 years ago.

All, however, use common tools of deception. One is the claim that the leader has supernatural powers. The second is embellished claims about their group’s influence.

Al-Arqam, for example, once boasted that its business arm had 700 branches worldwide.

"In reality, when one of their followers furthered his studies in Tunisia, that would be enough for them to say that they had a branch in that country," says writer Mohd Sayuti Omar, a former al-Arqam insider who has written several books detailing the group’s corruption.

"If one of their followers — who was a closet al-Arqam member — won a tender to operate a school canteen, they’d say that he was an Education Ministry supplier."

Such groups may appear obviously bogus in hindsight, but why do people continue to fall for them?

"These people are clever at manipulating the psychology of their followers. They promise the ‘sky’, things which you cannot imagine, and they convince you that they are able to deliver by linking reality with fantasy, between the real and the made-up things," explains Dr Juanda Jaya, the deputy mufti of Sarawak.

Islam is under state jurisdiction and the current approach is for the respective state authorities to issue fatwa against deviant sects, and then to gazette the fatwa to allow legal action.

The amount of red tape involved when navigating between overlapping state jurisdictions form loopholes which some deviants have learnt to exploit, for example by moving constantly between states to delay action against them. But it is uncertain whether greater centralisation in Islamic affairs alone will work.

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