Beware the vigilantes

OCTOBER 8 ― The Ahmadiyyah community is no stranger to harassments while performing Friday prayers.

In 2014, 39 adherents were arrested and charged by Selangor Islamic authorities (Jais) after a raid during their Friday prayers. Their offence? Performing Friday prayers in a place not recognised as a mosque.

The Ahmadis have always performed their prayers at Baitussalam, their community centre in Kampung Nakhoda in Batu Caves, which Jais has designated as unsuitable for that purpose.

The Ahmadis, who are derogatorily called Qadianis here, adhere to the same beliefs as the Sunni branch of Islam, but also believe that their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the Imam Mahdi, Islam’s prophesied redeemer.

Jais has similarly stopped them from performing Friday prayers in 2011.

The community feared similar intimidation last Friday after the Malaysian Muslim Consumers’ Association (PPIM) hosted a press conference by a group calling itself Gerakan Banteras Aktiviti Haram ― Movement to Curb Illegal Activities, or GBAH ― who made not-so-subtle threats to the Ahmadis.

“In Indonesia, they would burn these people’s buildings,” GBAH chairman Masridzi Sat was quoted saying, after announcing a demonstration in front of Baitussalam. It had held a similar protest there last week.

No rally took place on Friday, but only because the Ahmadis invited PPIM and GBAH to a closed-door dialogue.

This threat by GBAH points to a resurgence of vigilantism in Malaysia, under the facade of civil societies.

GBAH had urged the Selayang municipal council to close down Baitussalam, even when it had not transgressed any civil laws. The members' argument was a response against what they saw as a mockery against Islam, and to allegedly prevent Muslims from leaving their faith ― even when the Ahmadis themselves are Muslims.

If the council had failed to act, GBAH had reportedly warned that it may take the law into its own hands.

The thing is, PPIM had acted as an enabler. It is believed that the press conference was held following complaints from some locals living with the Ahmadis.

At the heart of PPIM's vigilantism is its “special forces” director Yusuf Azmi, instantly recognisable by his turban.

Yusuf's name had gained cult status after he recently succeeded in bringing action against developer DBI Technology Sdn Bhd led by actor Boy Iman. Malay paper Sinar Harian reported that some his supporters even wanted him to enter politics so he can be the country's next Home minister.

But Yusuf and PPIM have also been criticised by many uncomfortable with their use of a mob when dealing with complaints. Some do not see the difference between PPIM and thugs.

Yusuf was among those arrested in December 2015 for the Kota Raya fracas: a brawl broke out at the mall when some 20 men armed with sticks and helmets stormed a handphone shop to seek a refund over an alleged cheating case, and got into an argument that turned violent and left two people injured.

According to reports, the complainant had gone to PPIM which allegedly took it upon itself to “raid” the outlet and take RM12,000 in “compensation” although the Tribunal for Consumer Claims had ordered the shop in question to return the original sum.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sungai Besar Umno division chief Jamal Md Yunos, arguably the country's most popular “performance artist” in the last few years.

While many in the arts scene struggle to source funds for their performances, Jamal never seems to have problems staging over-the-top shows on a regular basis.

Just last week, Jamal brought 10 cartons of beer to the gates of the Selangor state secretariat, only to destroy them with a hammer. The “show” was estimated to cost nearly RM2,000.

Plebeians may see the performance as a protest against the Selangor government for allowing Oktoberfest every year, but a more refined eye would see the underlying message Jamal wanted to send: the madness that comes from getting “smashed” and “hammered”, and the emptiness one feels after a night of bingeing.

In July, Jamal had brought cardboard replicas of PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail on a ride from Kajang to Sg Buloh, presumably in praise of the efficiency of public transport.

In December and January, he wore towels to “shower” at the Selangor secretariat, and later brought 10 beds in front of the building. Surely, a commentary on the ennui of the daily routine.

There is no stopping Jamal and his troupe, no matter what the police say.

Unlike popular culture, especially in comics, where vigilantes are a necessary evil to root out crimes and defend justice, thus seen as heroes (or anti-heroes at worst), the irony about the rise of vigilantism here is that most of them inevitably defend the status quo.

In some cases, they actually defend the oppressors!

So what can we surmise from the support and endorsements these vigilantes get, especially from the public?

Vigilantism is ultimately a reaction when society feels dissatisfied with the authorities, especially a feeling that their needs and sense of justice are not being fulfilled by the powers-that-be.

When you have vigilantes take up the roles of the moral police instead, it is a reflection of a society that wishes to have the world surrounding them conform to their own worldview, and only theirs.

And the solution being endorsed by supporters of these vigilantes are simple: those who oppose them must disappear, one way or the other.

But it also points to pusillanimous authorities that do not enforce enough the importance of co-existence and acceptance, in order to defend and protect Malaysia's precious pluralism. Nobody is putting their foot down... and in such absence, vigilantes get the spotlight.

The outcome seems inevitable: that we may see a situation where it takes another vigilante to undo the damage done by the other. That may not be pretty, and in the end the public would have to choose a side ― which would spell a more divisive Malaysia.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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