In August of this year, the Islamic sect al-Arqam was declared illegal in Malaysia. As the result of a joint operation by Malaysian security agents and Thai police, the leader of the sect and several of his followers were taken into custody on September 2 in the province of Lampang (Thailand), and forcibly repatriated to Malaysia, where they were imprisoned without trial, based on provisions of Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA).
Following this development, the event has mushroomed beyond the bounds of a domestic Thai issue of a state church versus freedom of belief, into a problem of international scope, sweeping up Thailand and other ASEAN countries in the process. In Thailand, the case touches on issues of religious freedom and human rights, since the leader of the Islamic organization in Thailand declared that the sect in question should be viewed as a branch of Islam, and since the Thai police--who are officially under the Ministry of Internal Affairs--acted without the Minister's approval in apprehending the sect's leader.
The problem is particularly sensitive for Thailand, since the sect had been guilty of no problematic behavior within Thailand, and since the Thai government acquiesced in repatriating the sect members to Malaysia, where they will be tried under the severe provisions of the Malaysian Internal Security Act.
On the other hand, the Malaysian government has claimed that the current measures are necessary in order to preserve the order between religion and politics in Malaysia. The government position is that this sect distorts Islam, and has the potential for expanding into politically extremist behavior. The government further claims that violations of human rights regarding sex and education have been demonstrated within the sect.
The sect al-Arqam was founded in Malaysia in 1968 by Abuya Al Ashaari Muhammad (57). Its practice was centered on communal life and economic activity in line with Islam's tenets, and it is said to have some 100,000 followers in Malaysia. Followers can also be found in some eighteen countries throughout the world, and its financial assets have been said to amount to some U.S. $140 million. On August 5, the sect was declared heretical by the Malaysia's National Islamic Religion Council (NIRC), and on August 27, its activities were placed under prohibition by Malaysian civil law.
Following Abuya's forcible repatriation and incarceration, he admitted his errors by confessing to heresy on Malaysian television and radio, and announced the disbanding of his sect.