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New Straits Time 08 April 2001

A Special Report

Battle for the mosques
Reports by Shahrum Sayuthi, Sharifah Mahsinah Syed Abdullah, Thanam Visvanathan, Elizabeth John, Nik Imran Abdullah, M. Hamzah Jamaludin and Jason Gerald compiled by Abdul Razak Ahmad

The on-going political war between Pas and Umno is mainly fought in election campaigns and in the media. But the most potent battleground for Pas remains the country's mosques.

FOR Malaysia's Muslim population, mosques are an important facet of society. More than places of worship, mosques also provide the Muslim with a sense of belonging.

Mosque officials, who provide moral and religious guidance for the congregation, conduct rites such as the handling of burials and weddings.

The potency of the mosque in providing leadership and influence makes it a valuable political commodity. The battle for control of the mosques is notably heated in Pas-controlled Terengganu.

Police are monitoring 26 mosques in the State due to the pitched battles in contesting mosque-committee positions such as the imam and bilal.

This followed several incidents last month where fights broke out in several mosques over the right to deliver the Friday sermon.

The State has also seen many instances where separate imam led congregational prayers.

"Pas has the occasional history of labelling political foes as infidels, but Amanat Hadi (Hadi's Decree) gave such practice the practical impetus," says an Umno research officer.

Hadi's Decree is a speech delivered by the now Terengganu Menteri Besar Abdul Hadi Awang in Kampung Banggol Peradong, Kuala Terengganu, on April 7, 1981.

The speech outlined how the political differences between Pas and Umno included the religious, and read: "We are against them (Umno and Barisan Nasional) because they are maintaining the colonialist's laws, maintaining the rules of the non-believers." It continued: "Believe me my brothers our struggle is syahid (Holy Struggle)... and if we die in this struggle, we die as martyrs." In neighbouring Kelantan, police have identified several such mosque committees.

State police chief Senior Assistant Commissioner (I) Datuk Mohd Yunus Othman says the authorities are monitoring the mosques.

"So far, the reports we received only involved minor cases like misunderstanding among the committee members including the imam and muezzin." The police, he adds, will refer cases of a tussle for positions involving imam or muezzin from opposing political camps to the State Islamic and Malay Customs Council (MAIK).

MAIK is scheduled to hold a meeting next month with all the State's mosque committee members. The meeting is to thrash out ways to prevent misunderstanding.

It will have a historical precedent. Two weeks after Hadi delivered his decree in 1981, MAIK, responding to numerous queries arising from confusion due to the practice of labelling fellow Muslims as infidels, convened a special meeting to discuss the matter.

Such practices, reported to have arisen from mainly political differences, had reached an alarming level.

Eight issues which were causing problems in the State were discussed during the meeting, chaired by the State mufti.

They included allegations that: * To be a member of a congregational prayer led by a BN imam is to have the prayer invalidated; * Meat slaughtered by BN people was not halal because their prayers were not valid; * Marriages between BN and Pas people were invalid; * Marriage ceremonies performed by BN followers were invalid; * Those married by BN followers must have their vows renewed; * The remains of BN followers cannot be buried in Muslim cemeteries; * Prayers cannot be conducted for the remains of BN followers because he or she has fallen out of the religion (murtad), and BN followers cannot perform prayers for the remains of Pas people; and * BN followers do not need to pray, fast, and perform the haj because God does not accept their deeds.

The council subsequently issued a statement asking Muslims in the State to be wary of such allegations.

Despite the advice, the situation deteriorated nationwide, leading the National Fatwa Council to issue a decision five years later that the Amanat Hadi was not in line with Islamic teachings and was against the spirit of the religion.

The decision was made during the council's meeting in February 1986, chaired by Tan Sri Abdul Jalil Hassan.

Apart from the two Pas-controlled States of Kelantan and Terengganu, mosques elsewhere tread on calmer waters.

However, the situation in some States such as Perlis and Selangor should be obser-ved closely.

In Selangor, it was reported early this month that five mosques were being used for political purposes.

In Perlis, Pas followers, especially in areas where the party enjoys strong support, are alleging interference in the appoint-ment of imam and mosque committee members.

A Perlis Islamic Affairs Department official says these Pas members want the mosques in their areas to be dominated "by their own kind".

"That's why we have a policy that includes imam and mosque committee members who support the Government or at least are politically neutral." The official says that the policy, which is sanctioned by State syariah law, is fair because it caters for the congregation as a whole and prevents the mosques from being dominated by any political side.

Pas State commissioner Hashim Jasin says there is some dissatisfaction among Pas supporters over the appointment of mosque committee members in their area.

However, he adds that the situation is under control because most Pas members could accept the appointments and continue to carry out their normal activities at the mosques despite their reservations.

"I have always told our members not to create any tension and if they still can't accept the appointments, then they can just go to other mosques for their prayers." Other States fare better in the relative lack of politics in mosques, credited to a certain extent to a directive issued last year by a Cabinet Committee on Islamic Affairs.

Chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, the committee, whose membership includes all BN Menteris Besar and Chief Ministers, decided that only State Governments would be allowed to appoint mosque committee members.

Representatives of the Kelantan and Terengganu Governments were not present at the meeting.

Before the ruling, mosque committee members were appointed at the annual general meeting.

The general scenario following the increased controls has also been reflected in the States.

Several, such as Pahang, Perak and Kedah, are seeing tighter controls on mos-que affairs to prevent political differences from spilling into prayer halls.

Pahang has reported very few cases of power struggles among mosque officials due to strict controls.

Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob says the imam and bilal generally do not face major problems about opposing political beliefs.

"We have been monitoring the situation and to date there have been no incidents." The situation is mirrored in Johor, which also has very tight controls on mosquerelated matters.

The State's Religious Affairs Department's senior assistant director and the head of its Mosque and Surau Management Division Uztaz Jainal Sakiban says that unlike in some other states, management of mosques and surau in the States fall directly under the purview of the religious department.

"We have a say in everything, from the permission granted for the construction of a surau or mosque, to the way it is subsequently managed.

"The department maintains tight control over what goes on in the house of prayer, and it is our policy not to allow political bigwigs to use the mosque or surau as a venue to air or express their sentiments.

"If we didn't maintain such a tight rein on things, the conflicts going on in other places could very well have happened here too." The situation in Perak is also under control as the State Government implemented a regulation that only allows the State Religious Council to appoint the committee members of a mosque.

Mosque committee members in the State can only be appointed after the council has approved a list jointly prepared by the penghulu, religious officer and Territorial Chief.

A spokesman from the State Religious Department says the regulations concerning the appointments, gazetted in February 1999, are effective in curbing power struggles in mosque due to politics.

They have helped to ensure a smooth transition among committee members in about 500 mosques in the State.

Before the regulations were implemented, there were cases of power struggle and foul play when certain groups brought in outsiders to vote during a mosque annual general meeting.

Most of the cases happened in Hulu Perak district, possibly due to the influence of similar cases in Kelantan and Tereng-ganu.

Kedah State Religious Affairs Committee chairman Fadzil Hanafi, meanwhile, says that the State Religious Affairs Department has begun a series of dialogues with the imam in each district to hear their grouses in order to address problems before they get out of hand.

"We are reminding them that they should leave politics outside the doors of the mosque when they come to pray," he says.

In the heat of battle, it is heartening to note that the voices of reason can still be heard.

Johor's Religious Affairs Department's Jainal concedes that differing political beliefs and inclinations among individuals cannot be avoided.

"However, when they come to the mosque or surau for prayers, we expect them to leave their political beliefs outside at the gates," he says.

Echoing his sentiment, Perlis Pas' Hashim also calls for restraint by both Pas and Umno followers to prevent the situation from getting out of hand.

"The important thing here is for us to go to the mosque and pray with a sincere heart, no matter which party the imam belongs to," he says.


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