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Why arrest Dr Asri?

t’s easy to speculate why Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin was arrested last night for preaching in Selangor without a permit. A raft of reasons has already circulated, and even the maverick scholar alludes to hidden hands in his detention. Is it because he is closer to PAS than Umno? Or has it anything to do with Asri’s purported appointment as chief of Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (Yadim)? Perhaps because he is seen to be a Wahhabi, the austere and puritanical school of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps he is too progressive for Muslim Malaysians? Perhaps he is seen as a threat to other muftis?

After all, Asri is young and popular, gliding and mixing among the liberal Muslims and the political elite in Kuala Lumpur, despite his short stint as the Perlis mufti. It could be for one or all of these reasons that Asri now finds himself on the wrong end of the Syariah law last night. His crime, ostensibly, is to have given lectures without authorisation — despite it being in a private house, and in a country where hundreds preach daily with or without similar “blessings” in houses, suraus, schools or mosques. His greater crime is just being who he is — a maverick scholar who speaks about Islam without all the fluff. Perhaps like the Wahhabis who don’t even celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birthday or consign their ruler to an unmarked grave upon his death.

Truth is, he has never been liked by his fellow muftis, who saw him as an upstart, not yet grey enough in the head or beard to be taken seriously. He is simple, direct and has a weblog; a superstar preacher shaking the authority of his peers. Even the man ambivalent about the religious elite, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has taken a liking to Asri and has told him to remain bipartisan and equidistant among Muslims politicians divided between Umno and PAS. But PAS has been courting Asri. And so has Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who has recommended him to head Yadim, the state-sponsored missionary group. It is currently led by the PAS-turned-Umno man Datuk Mohd Nakhaie Ahmad, and his replacement — especially Asri — would be a boost for Umno’s Islamist credentials in the next general elections.

But the Syarie Lawyers Association (PGSM) has opposed Asri’s appointment on grounds he has defamed some of Islam’s illustrious imams, a charge the scholar has denied. He also appears to have rejected the Yadim appointment due to the blatant opposition towards him. It well maybe that his arrest yesterday was for petty and private reasons related to Yadim, and old scores being settled now that he has returned from his post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Many thought Asri would stay on in the West or return to teaching in Universiti Sains Malaysia. But his popularity and lectures among the capital elite has probably turned them green with envy.

And what better way to cut him down to size than by arresting him for the simple offence of preaching without a permit. After all, if a man can’t follow the law, can he be trusted to enforce the law? Who knows? What is clear is that baser instincts and motives govern those who enforce Islamic religious laws in Malaysia, making them as human as the ones they think are sinning against the faith and Allah.


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