His arrest by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department (Jais) last month brought Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin more recognition that his two-year stint as Perlis mufti. SHUHADA ELIS talks to the preacher at his family home in Bukit Mertajam about the incident and his views on politics and the Kelantan menteri besar's doa for the prime minister.
Q: More than a month has passed since you were arrested by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department (Jais) for allegedly promoting the Wahhabi doctrine to supporters. How are you coping? How did it impact your life?
A: Alhamdulillah, this is not a question of cari makan, but when my friends and I aim to preach Islam, we prepare ourselves for the worst of possibilities and challenges. So when I was arrested, I could still smile and joke with reporters. This is not new for me. Preaching Islam is not something I do to gain profit, but this incident had actually promoted my messages of dakwah more than the time when I was a mufti. My two years (of Islamic propagation) in Perlis was not as great, nor as free, a publicity which Jais has given me.
Q: Did you expect to receive such a big wave of support?
A: I am grateful to Allah. Previously, I had many letters, e-mails, people in the street and art groups expressing support for me but I did not know whether they were sincere. But since the incident, I am thankful to them. Also to Prime Minister (Datuk Seri Najib Razak), (former prime minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, academicians like Prof Dr Chandra Muzaffar and Dr Farish A. Noor, Pas spiritual leader (Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat), (Parti Keadilan Rakyat de facto leader) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, members of parliament including Barisan Nasional backbenchers.
Q: What makes people think you promote Wahhabism?
A: Wahhabi has different connotations. In the West it refers to terrorism, but in the history of Malaya and Indonesia, modernists were accused of being Wahhabis.
Many modernist figures who helped bring independence to Malaya were accused of this. To them (the accusers), Wahhabi had negative connotation, although they did not know what it means.
Nowadays in Malaysia, Wahhabi is used by conservatives or some religious bodies to label those who do not conform. They think I am not of the same teaching. A modernist. But now the groups who are accusing me speak like they are Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah, although before this they belonged to a cult whose beliefs include banning education for their children.
They believed television was haram, so they threw TV sets into the river. But now these groups are in the media, sporting beard and robes, and accusing those who are against them as Wahhabis.
Q: Are you serious about joining politics?
A: Perhaps this issue has made political parties think I should be with them, because my name has been frequently mentioned in the media. Or maybe they think I should join politics because some of the characteristics I have can help bring mileage to their political career. But I think I should not do that (join politics), as long as I can still preach.
Q: Do you think the invitation by political parties is made for their own interests?
A: Maybe they see it that way. They may also feel it is better for me to join them because I am always very vocal in the media. Some parties think my approach can attract youngsters and the non-Muslims and can generate support from the grassroots.
Q: How would you like to see the future political environment in the country?
A: I dream of politics free of party fanatics, a generation that is not loyal to any particular party. I dream of a future where Malaysians hold to discipline, facts and figures, society which evaluates debates and arguments so no political parties will be in power.
The rakyat will always be sensitive to political parties so the latter will not place any Tom, Dick and Harry as candidates. I dream of the rakyat who are colour blind in politics.
If we reach a stage where people choose qualified individuals rather than a party, we will be a mature country. Right now we can see all political parties share the same kind of problems -- cronyism and corruption are rampant.
Q: Do you think the rakyat can be too fanatical about political parties?
A: I see the level of fanaticism is decreasing since the past two years as many similar issues have cropped up in most parties.
Nowadays even the Pas spiritual adviser is criticised by his people. The same goes for Anwar Ibrahim or Umno leaders. I am not asking the supporters to criticise their leaders, but I want them to be rational in every matter.
The rakyat need to realise that political parties are going through a great transformation and they are no longer immune.
Q: What do you think of Nik Aziz's doa against the prime minister if the latter refuses to give oil royalty to Kelantan?
A: This is the problem with religious figures. Those who are pro-Umno claim it is absolutely wrong to pray for another's destruction, while the pro-opposition said it can be done.
This is not right. If we are totally against such doa, it contradicts the hadith, as Prophet Muhammad's companions too had prayed for those who were cruel. However, what we need to ponder is whether the other person fulfils the characteristic of a cruel person?
So if one wants to make a doa, he should not mention the name of the other person clearly and it must come with conditions.
For example, "O Allah, if such and such person is cruel against me, please punish him."
We cannot simply say that this person is cruel and therefore should be punished. I am worried that his cruelty is not evident.
I don't want to take sides but I advise those who want to make such doa to be accurate in their words.
On the other hand, the Federal Government should also look in depth into the oil royalty issue so the rakyat will respect them more, it is not a wasteful effort.
And for ulamas who take this opportunity to ingratiate themselves with political parties, I advise them to give fair arguments and not just defend a particular party because it has given you many awards before.
Q: How do you think the next general election will be?
A: In the 12th general election, a third force had created a wave of support and had determined the outcome.
But some political parties are reality blind. They thought they won the votes because the rakyat liked them and were loyal to them when the truth is the people, especially the younger generation, were tired of the ruling party.
So if these parties still do not realise that they need to buck up, I believe there will be a huge change in the next election. This is because someone who voted for Pas before may not be from Pas, he may be a drunkard or someone who skipped prayers, but he voted the party because he wanted an alternative.
Q: You mentioned about the third party, who are they?
A: Some groups of people do not believe in any political party. The third party is not a new political party, I'm not asking anybody to form new parties.
But what I am saying is that those with fresh ideas will get support from the people. The rakyat will not look at a particular party but they need leaders who are clean, trustworthy, sincere and have new ideas to lead the country.
Q: Would you consider yourself as the third party or an alternative to the people?
A: Well, I don't want to be a political leader or someone who leads a party. I want my ideas to be spread to everyone in this country, so everybody can share my views.
Asri, 38, is now a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Following his arrest, he was charged at the Gombak Timur Lower Syariah Court with teaching matters related to Islam without certification. He has claimed trial.