The day the mob came for Ayah Pin, he seemed to don a cloak of invisibility, walking right through the angry crowd, past the giant teapot and the two-storey umbrella and out of Sky Kingdom. He has not been seen since.
Today, Sky Kingdom’s village square is a bare patch of earth, littered with the broken tiles of bulldozed monuments. The well has been filled in. The villagers, many facing charges of violating a fatwa banning contact with their leader, have been warned not to talk. In a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution, the Sky Kingdom followers are discovering there is no freedom to reject or reinterpret Islam.
Ayah Pin, born a Muslim, has led the small multi-faith Sky Kingdom sect for 30 years, and claims to have 1000 followers in Malaysia and 10,000 abroad. He has been imprisoned for apostasy, the crime of rejecting the fundamental beliefs of Islam.
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“When I was 10 years old, I found myself to be dead for 40 days and was sent to the sky world. 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,” Ayah Pin is quoted as saying on his weblog.
“He is a man of knowledge, it’s difficult to say if he is man of god or a prophet but he is a man of knowledge, unique,” Cik Jaharah Awang, the second of Ayah Pin’s four wives, told the Herald.
Another villager recalled Ayah Pin’s escape from the mob on July 18: “He was around but for some reason we cannot explain, they could not see him. He was invisible to them.”
He said the sect, which Ayah Pin established near the settlement of Kampung Batu 13 in Malaysia’s remote north-east, was being persecuted and forced to follow Islam.
Ahmad Ikram, aide to the Chief Minister of Terengganu, where the sect is based, said tolerance and justice were very important in Islam and had to be applied within and outside the religion.
So why the crackdown?
“Sky Kingdom is a different story altogether. It has nothing to do with tolerance, rights or freedom of different views. We are talking about Muslims who have deviated from their religion,” he said.
Human Rights Watch says 22 groups have been judged deviant in Malaysia in recent months, but Sky Kingdom has received the most aggressive response from authorities. More than 60 of its members have been charged with violating the fatwa on Ayah Pin, their leader is on the run, and their Alice-in-Wonderland like compound has been demolished.
“Because of the teapot, he was more difficult to ignore,” said Masjaliza Hamzah, program manager with Sisters in Islam, the country’s only feminist Islamic group.
On Wednesday, Suaram, a Malaysian human rights group, filed a formal complaint with the United Nations, alleging state-led persecution against Ayah Pin and his followers.
In Malaysia, Islam is more than a religion, it is a racial identity for Malays, who make up 60 per cent of the population. Six years ago, those Malays voted for PAS (Parti Islam Se Malaysia), a conservative Islamic party, giving it control of the northern states of Kelantan and Terengganu. The party introduced hudud, the most strict form of Islamic law, which allows beheading for apostasy, cutting off hands for theft, public stoning for adultery. None of these punishments has so far been meted out.
To win back the electorate, in 2004 the mainstream ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, under Abdullah Badawi, remade itself with a greater focus on conservative Islamic issues. When it won back power in Terengganu, it left the hudud laws in place.
Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, is concerned that she cannot see the Prime Minister’s progressive attitude to Islam reflected in the actions of his religious apparatchiks. “I don’t think the majority of Malaysians want the kind of Islam PAS wants,” she said.
But Dzulkefly Ahmad, director of the PAS research centre in Kuala Lumpur, said it had found 60 per cent of Malays wanted more Islamic morality and law.
“The Islamic state is like our raison d’e^tre, we cannot drop it. But it has been misconceived. Call it whatever you like, but the fact remains what we are asking for is good governance and morality based on Islam.”
Ms Zainah said one positive aspect of the growing influence of Islam in politics was “more public awareness, with non-Muslims claiming their right to speak on Islam”.
“The most important thing is to create a public space for public debate on islamic matters,” she said. “Without that democratic space we can’t begin to speak to women’s rights, freedom of expression and of religion.”
– In 1975 Ayah Pin (it means the father) founded the Sky Kingdom commune, claiming to be a reincarnation of the holy figures of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
– In 1994 he started to build the monuments, including the teapot and umbrella.
– The teapot represented the purity of water. The umbrella was a place for people to take shelter beneath God.