Tuesday August 02, 2005

BESUT, Aug 1 (Bernama) -- Ayah Pin's Sky Kingdom, sited at the 13th mile of Hulu Besut here came tumbling down when the giant teapot and other key structures at the commune were destroyed by a demolition squad Monday.
In the clean up operation, which began at 9 am today, 20 lorries were busy removing the structures which were said to be worth RM5 million.
Private-owned lorries were also used to carry the structures to a mining area in Lata Tembakah, situated about nine kilometres from the commune.
The operation which entered its second day, involved 50 enforcement officers from the Besut District Office, Public Works Department (PWD), Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) and Syarikat Air Terengganu (SATU).
Among those to go were a teapot, yellow umbrella, guest house, assembly hall and "Noah's Ark."
However reporters and photographers who had gathered near Ariffin Mohamad's commune since 8.30 am, were barred from entering the operational area.
The police also stopped the public from entering the area.
A police spokesman when met at the area of operation, said the tight security was imposed to prevent any untoward incidents from occurring.
According to the Besut district land office, the occupied houses would be demolished after the occupants had moved out as it was believed that an evacuation notice would be issued soon.
The commune has been in existence for the past 30 years while the giant replica was first built in stages since 1995.

Sunday July 3, 2005

Sect followers nabbed during raid

KUALA TERENGGANU: The controversial deviationist cult known as the "Sky Kingdom" here was dealt a severe blow when 21 of its followers, including a police inspector and a drummer of a popular rock band, were arrested in a massive raid.
However, sect leader Ariffin Mohamad, 65, better known as Ayah Pin, eluded arrest as he was missing during the raid on the sect's commune on Saturday evening.
The authorities are investigating if he escaped the dragnet following a leak about the raid from his followers who include civil servants.
Also picked-up was a 33-year-old woman who is believed to be the fourth wife Ayah Pin.
The raid on the sect’s commune in Kampung Batu 13 in Jertih was carried out by 21 religious enforcement personnel and 40 policemen.

EARLIER STORY on Monday May 30, 2005

Sect leader will not resist action


A giant teapot at the ‘Sky Kingdom’ religious sect's commune at Kampung Batu 13 near Jerteh. The deviationist sect led by Ariffin Mohamad, better known as Ayah Pin, has refused to demolish the teapot and other giant structures - including a vase, an umbrella and a concrete boat - on its land as ordered by the Besut district office.
JERTEH: The leader of the “Sky Kingdom” deviationist religious sect said he would not stop the authorities from demolishing the giant structures, including a teapot, on its commune near here.
“But the action will seriously tarnish the image of the Government internationally,” said Ariffin Mohamad, 65, better known as Ayah Pin.
Besides the teapot, the other giant structures on the sect’s commune on land bordering rubber trees and an orchard at Kampung Batu 13 near here, included a vase, umbrella, concrete boat and a “palace.”
The structures were built over 10 years ago at a cost of more than RM1mil.
Ayah Pin told this to The Star during an interview at the commune yesterday. He was sitting in a wooden coffeeshop with about 30 followers of all races.
Rosli Abdul Samad, the liaison officer of the commune, said the structures combined the architectural elements of major religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
“It is aimed at promoting universal unity. The teapot signifies the purity of water and its medicinal values. It is associated with all major religions, including the water oozing from Lord Shiva’s forehead.
“The umbrella is a place for people to take shelter beneath God and it can also be associated with the nine planets in Hinduism.
“The boat symbolises the love of parents.”
Besut district officer Wan Zahari Wan Ngah said he would act against the landowner, Che Minah Ramlee, 58, who is Ayah Pin’s wife, under Section 129 of the National Land Code.
He said the section empowers the district office to summon a landowner for a hearing.
“She must be present at the office within two weeks from the date of the notice to explain why the structures were not demolished,” he added.
Wan Zahari said they would seek an order from the court to tear down the structures if she failed to attend the hearing.
“We only allow structures related to agriculture to be built on the land and whatever built now is illegal,” he added.
Last October, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Abdullah Md Zain had said Ayah Pin was jailed 11 months and fined RM2,900 in June 2001 for humiliating Islamic teachings.
He had also said that the teachings of Ayah Pin were dangerous since the members of the group had declared themselves as apostates.

Weekend: April 23-24, 2005

Weekend SPECTRUM: Escape from Islam


Sky Kingdom compound near Jerteh, Terengganu. - Photo by Vaudine England.
The large tiled teapot stands taller than a two-story building, with its elegant spout and arched handle reaching meters higher. Nearby is the Umbrella, a tall orange structure adorned with a bright yellow canopy.
Scattered around are other structures including one where the Lord of the Sky Kingdom gets inspiration - through a skylight.
To the uninitiated, Ayah Pin, 65, once known as Ariffin Mohammed, seems like just another aging Malay villager. To his followers in the eastern Malaysian state of Terengganu, however, Ayah Pin is a reincarnation of everyone from Shiva to Buddha to Jesus Christ to, yes, the Prophet Mohammed.
On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon Ayah Pin's colorful Sky Kingdom compound near the town of Jerteh saw acolytes and visitors gathered around God, in person, at the coffee shop.
God is smoking Salem menthol cigarettes and his rheumy eyes suggest a lack of sleep, perhaps due to the late-night sessions of religious fervor and consultations held at his compound.
"When I was 10 years old, I found myself to be dead for 40 days and up in the sky. Since then, it's a long story and the details don't matter, but I've been dead 17 times and each time have come back to save the lives of all people, of any religion," says Ayah Pin.
His simple philosophy is that all religions are one, and should live in peace with each other.
"All things belong to Ayah, I am the Big Father. All Muslims belong to Ayah, all Hindus belong to Ayah, all Christians belong to Ayah ..." he says in a trailing voice.
In most countries, Ayah Pin would be dismissed as the local crackpot and left at that.
Not so in Malaysia.
Ayah Pin.  - Photo by Vaudine England.
Here it is a daring thing to follow the Sky Kingdom. Four of Ayah Pin's followers have been labeled apostates by the government's religious authorities and forced to do time in jail for trying to leave Islam. Two days after I visited the old man, the Malaysian police Special Branch was on the phone asking me why the visit had been made, what had been said, and more.
The overreaction stems from the Malaysian constitution which states, all too clearly, that if one is Malay, then one is Muslim, and that's that. Islamic scholars say it's not that ethnicity determines one's faith, but that anyone who enters Islam must remain. Here in Malaysia's Hotel Islam, you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Sober Islamic scholars insist that serious reasons are needed to explain any desire to overturn the submission to Allah implied in the Muslim faith.
Why should modern Malaysians worry about such things? Because alongside the country's civil code and legal system is the Islamic sharia court system, and a group of often zealous officials in the Religious Affairs Department eager to enforce their notions of Islamic law. Any Muslim person can be subject to the sharia court on matters of faith and behavior.
Critics of sharia say it is gaining more power at the expense of civil courts partly due to a general fear that once religion is involved, the need to be seen as good Muslims, and thus as good Malays, takes over.
In January, a controversial raid by the Religious Affairs Department on a nightclub netted more than 100 "indecently dressed" young Muslim men and women. Shocking to many of their middle-class parents was the abusive behavior of those in charge of the arrests.
The raid highlighted a string of excesses by these self-styled guardians of public morality. Couples have been arrested for holding hands. In February, an actor and his female friend were arrested for "close proximity" inside an apartment which was raided.
This goes too far even for some Muslim scholars. The chief minister of Kelantan state, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, a leader in the opposition Islamist Party of Malaysia, (PAS), says that Muslims are allowed to drink, undress and generally do what they want in the privacy of their own homes.
"But once you are out, you need to behave yourself. Because once you are out, you are part of society. Apart from enjoying your personal freedom, the [members of] society have equal right to protect their personal freedom. So when these rights are betrayed, this is where the police, the enforcement officer and the government comes in. I am for it.
"Wise men used to say - and I fully believe in it - your freedom ends when the freedom of others start," he says.
In everyday life however, it's not so simple.
Kamariah Ali is a homey-looking woman who believes that her time in jail for following Ayah Pin "was worth it." She is now "free," at peace in the Sky Kingdom and looking forward to joining her dead husband, a fellow detainee.
But she still faces charges in the sharia courts for attempting to leave Islam. With her husband and two others, she was convicted of deviant practices in 1992. She's been in and out of jail since, followed and harassed by security authorities and forced out of work as a school teacher. In 1998 she chose to leave Islam, as presumably she could no longer be accused of deviation if she left the faith. But trials have continued for years since, for her presumption in attempting to leave the faith.
"Malays are second-class citizens in this country when it comes to matters of faith," says her lawyer Haris Mohammed Ibrahim. Anyone trying to leave Islam faces loss of inheritance, family support and work, and banishment to a legal limbo where the religious label on one's identity card becomes a life-defining fact.
Less dramatic but more everyday examples of Islamic law intruding on ordinary people's lives - often to a startling degree - are rife in a country which likes to portray itself as a modern, moderate Muslim state.
Take the case of Lina Joy, who has for years been trying to get the word "Islam" removed from her ID card so that she can remarry, to a non-Muslim. Her case is in the Court of Appeal and no one will predict her chances of success.
Until the recent morality raids, such cases were seen as exceptions, regrettable perhaps but about which little could be done. But the outrage spreading among Muslim parents who now warn their children about the religious police is sparking new civil actions.
It used to be normal to be hypocritical, one Muslim housewife confides. It was better to go along in public with the rules of Muslim behavior - as interpreted by the state - and to think what one liked in private, she says.
But now a petition started by non-government organizations has garnered surprisingly broad support, including the signatures of several members of parliament and two government ministers.
"We question the state's role in defining and controlling the morality of its citizens and its use of punitive religious and municipal laws. Forced and fearful compliance with such laws results not in a more moral society but a mass of terrified, submissive and hypocritical subjects ...
"We are against the use of these state instruments, and the individuals and groups enlisted as their surrogates, to regulate morality. How people dress and where, how and with whom they socialize are personal choices,'' the joint statement reads.
Its signatories - ranging from feminist Muslims to members of government - are particularly incensed by moves to have Muslim youths spy on each other to report moral infractions.
They call for the repeal of religious and municipal laws that deny citizens fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of speech and expression. They are seeking the appointment of a committee to monitor the repealing of laws, and for the strengthening of pluralism through community dialogue "rather than the divisiveness bred by sub-contracting of moral policing and neighbors spying on neighbors.''
A separate initiative has been announced by a group of prominent Muslims led by Tengku A'Amash. A group of 221 signatories have sent a letter to the sultans of each state in Malaysia who are, according to the constitution, responsible for religious matters. The letter calls for the sultans to reclaim their authority over religion from the hands of more hardline Islamic scholars who have been able to issue fatwas almost at whim.
"There is a sense of helplessness, a sense that not all is right within Islam," A'Amash said at a press conference called to highlight the appeal for a more balanced approach to the faith.
"Our statute books are littered with laws we are told will make us better Muslims. But we need to reflect, are they in fact Islamic? Some act as a fetter on the Muslim mind," he said.
The growing activism among middle-class parents and intellectuals may not produce immediate change but they are part of a growing chorus of discontent over how the country's constitution and Islamic faith are interpreted.
For the leaders of the hardline Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), the mistake of the liberals is to believe there is any room for interpretation in Islam.
Now ABIM is drawing up for battle against groups such as the moderate Sisters in Islam.
Azizuddin Ahmad, ABIM secretary general, says that just because one raid on a nightclub was mismanaged, there is no need to repeal laws and overhaul sharia. "Just because of one mosquito, we don't need to burn the net," he said in an interview, in which he promised to mobilize support across the country against any move to re-examine Islamic laws.
"We will organize our own gathering of NGOs and call on the people to reject this idea. We will fight this culture of hedonism that is gaining ground in society, for which the NGOs are even willing to rope in religion," he told the respected news Web site Malaysiakini.com.
The opposition PAS party is engaged in a public spat with the Sisters in Islam, with some calling for it to be de-registered as an organization and for its members to be brought to book.
The first step for the liberals is to try to raise the debate above the level where anyone seeking change is pilloried as wanting to introduce every known sin into public life. The liberals reply that of course they don't want to wear bikinis in parliament - as one conservative accused them - but they want the state out of their private life.
Growing conservatism is "now hanging in the air like the haze" caused by forest fires, laments Masjaliza Hamzah of Sisters of Islam.
The problem goes back to the way Malaysia was formed on independence from Britain in 1957. The federal constitution gives the government power over most daily matters. But the sultans, the royal families in each state, were given the compensation prize of power over such things as religion. Religious law thus varies from state to state and depends on the personalities involved. A recent speech by the Sultan of Selangor was hailed by the progressive camp as a beacon of light because he suggested that overzealous interpretation of Islamic laws would only turn younger generations against the faith.
When an Islamic leader, or mufti, issues a fatwa, it can become law in a state with the local sultan's consent, creating a gray zone whereby people might not even know something is against the law until they are caught for it.
"It's quite alarming in some ways. There is just not a rational level of debate," says Hamzah, a Muslim intellectual and former journalist who sees no need to wear a head scarf to prove her genuine commitment to Islam.
"Having morality laws opens up the opportunities for abuses. It's often easier to pay off officers who try to arrest you for holding hands in public, for example, than to try to fight the substance of the law itself," she says, citing the case of the actress Jeslina Hashim who was caught in the January nightclub raid and then spoke out against it. "Her name has been dragged through the mud, there's been a whole campaign to tarnish her image," says Hamzah.
She and other NGO activists believe the rising temperature of the debate is indicative of a tug-of-war over Malaysian identity. If Malays fear being overrun, or out-earned, by the prosperous minority of Chinese Malaysians, for example, they stress their superior faith and Islamic commitment.
A key point in the theological argument is whether Islam allows for a multitude of behaviors as seen, for example, in nearby Indonesia, where Islam has a far more diverse and tolerant history.
Some Malaysian intellectuals point out that in their country, where only about 60 percent of people are Malay and thus Muslim, greater efforts are made to assert a Muslim identity vis a vis the Chinese and Indian communities. In Indonesia, where a vast number of ethnic groups and identities are all called Indonesian, Islam has played a smaller role in forging national identity.
Whereas Malaysia's constitution requires Malays to be Muslim, Indonesia's state ideology of Pancasila calls only for everyone to believe in one God.
In Malaysia, the notion of rigid interpretation starts early, in that only Sunni Islam is allowed, with Shiite beliefs outlawed.
"There is no minority in Islam," says Azizuddin, secretary general of ABIM. "I don't like to label people liberal or progressive or fundamentalist. Islam is Islam. But the level of understanding makes the difference."
It is the duty of religious authorities not just to punish transgressions, he says, but to educate people so that they step the right way in future.
"Behavior modification is a process," says Azizuddin.
So is child rearing, confides one Malay Muslim mother, who laments the increasing difficulty of bringing up her children as Muslims. "They see their friends, who are Chinese or Indian Malaysians, able to go out and have fun, who can do what they want, and they ask me why they, as Muslims, don't have the same freedoms," she says.
When the religious police harass young women at nightclubs - or, as in another famous case several years ago, watch an entire beauty contest before arresting its winners - this mother finds it even more difficult.
"How do you explain away the breaking of laws by religious enforcers who claim they are acting in the name of the law?" she asks.