Asri’s ‘IS hand gesture’ with Indonesian Salafist raises questions

PETALING JAYA: A photograph of Perlis mufti Muhd Asri Zainul Abidin posing with followers of a hardline Indonesian Salafist scholar while showing a hand gesture that has come to be associated with the Islamic State (IS) militant group has drawn criticism.

“I can’t help myself to jerk!” tweeted prominent Malay novelist Faisal Tehrani.

The photo, taken during Asri’s recent visit to Indonesia, was also posted on the Perlis mufti’s Facebook page.

It showed him with Farid Ahmad Oqbah, a vocal Indonesian Salafist cleric who has been at the forefront of a campaign against Shia Muslims, including in Indonesia where the religious minority has faced attacks from local Islamist groups.

The single raised index finger has come to be associated with IS.

While the sign refers to Islam’s doctrine of tawhid or the oneness of God, and is also used in the five daily prayers to affirm the Islamic declaration of shahadah, it has in recent years come to be used by IS militants, including in their online promotional materials.

“For followers of Isis, a single raised index finger has become a sign of their cause, and it is increasingly common in photographs of militants.

“Some have even gone so far as to call the symbol ‘the jihadi equivalent of a gang sign’,” wrote US-based analyst Nathaniel Zelinsky in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2014.

Asri’s appearance with Farid came days after he labelled Shia Muslims as dangerous to Malaysia’s national security.

His statement was criticised by academics and rights activists, who said those arrested for terrorism were not followers of Shia Islam, but supporters of IS, whose doctrine is an offshoot of the Wahhabi ideology followed by Saudi Arabia.

Asri’s attack on Shia Islam followed a statement by the wife of missing Perlis activist Amri Che Mat, who said she suspected the Perlis fatwa office under Asri as having played a role in her husband’s disappearance.

Asri has denied having anything to do with Amri’s disappearance, but admitted questioning him for leaning towards Shia Islam.

IS has made no secret of its killings of Shia Muslims in the Middle East and other countries.

Shia Islam is the second-largest branch of Islam, and is predominant in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain, with pockets of minorities in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan.

Islamic authorities in Malaysia regard Shia Muslims as “heretics”, through a 1996 ruling by the National Fatwa Council.

When asked to elaborate on his tweet, Faisal, who was accused in the past of promoting Shia Islam through his novels, said he still wanted to give Asri the benefit of doubt.

“It can also be the 1Malaysia sign, the Shahadah, or Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s salutation,” he said, referring to the IS leader.

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