Dec 17, 2006
RAWANG, Malaysia, Dec 12 (Reuters) - In a corner of this Malaysian town, a devout Islamic sect has created a self-contained commune, running businesses from restaurants to schools through a group called the Rufaqa Corporation.
Claiming supernatural powers, from averting death to bringing down an aircraft merely by pointing at it, these are no ordinary people -- and the government is deeply suspicious of them.
The authorities in mainly Muslim Malaysia suspect Rufaqa, or "Comrades" in Arabic, could be a front for the revival of the "Al-Arqam" movement, which was founded in 1968 by preacher Ashaari Muhammad but outlawed in 1994 as being heretical.
Ashaari spent two years in prison in the 1990s when Al-Arqam was banned after having won 10,000 followers and up to 100,000 sympathisers, including government officials.
Suspicions can only be raised by the life-sized portrait of the turbaned and bearded Ashaari, complete with his poems, that greets visitors walking into the Rufaqa commune in Rawang, just north of Kuala Lumpur.
But Rufaqa, which has operations in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Jordan, says it has no agenda except to preach for Islam and build its multi-million-dollar businesses.
"The allegations by former members that we have a hidden agenda is a total lie," Rufaqa company secretary Zulkifli Awang Kechik said in a statement. "We face a lot of tests from Allah while we are in this world."
The cult's bizarre teachings include a promise to absolve members' sins by transferring them to Ashaari, who is believed to be able to defer death, and the belief that an Islamic messiah from the east will appear just ahead of a prophesied doomsday.
This teaching is offensive to many Muslims, who say it contradicts the Koran.
In recent weeks, religious police in the central state of Selangor have arrested about 100 members of Rufaqa, including two top officials, as details of the sect's teachings have emerged.
"We plan to charge 12 of them by this month," said Fakhrul Azam Yahya, a spokesman for the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department, adding they could be charged with deviant teachings.
Selangor will also decide on Dec. 21 whether to ban Rufaqa. All those arrested have since been released on bail.
The sprawling four-storey complex in Rawang boasts a baker's shop, a school, a mosque, a car workshop, a maternity clinic, a printing shop, a grocery, a kindergarten and restaurants.
One woman running a clinic said Rufaqa paid a token salary but took care of her lodging, food and other essentials. "We don't mind. I get peace of mind here," said Mimi, 57, who left her family in Kuala Lumpur to live in the commune.
With 700 companies under its wings, Rufaqa was founded in 1997 by Ashaari after the government banned Al-Arqam, or "the Numbers", movement. The government said then that Al-Arqam was training armed warriors.
Ashaari said recently he was "too disillusioned" to revive Al-Arqam, which claimed to have assets worth 300 million ringgit ($84.4 million) at the height of its activities in the late 1980s.
"When Rufaqa grew, the issue of my trying to revive the movement came up," Ashaari, 69, told the New Straits Times newspaper. "Do not confuse developing a legitimate enterprise with reviving the movement."
Nicknamed "Abuya" (father), Ashaari has four wives and 37 children. But he and his family don't live in the commune, preferring instead their several homes scattered across two Malaysian states.
Ashaari has not been personally investigated by the authorities this time around.
Both religious and political concerns are behind the government crackdown on Ashaari's followers, analysts say.
"The current administration can't afford to allow such movements to undermine its position," said political analyst Yahaya Ismail. "This is why they are going all out."
But some Malay Muslims feel the government's action against the movement could be a bit high-handed. "The followers don't go around harming people, but just focusing on their businesses," said Zaki Usman, a 48-year-old advertising executive in Kuala Lumpur.