KUALA LUMPUR: The head of an Islamic reforms group said the recent conference on diversity featuring Anwar Ibrahim and three foreign Muslim speakers did not live up to its theme as it failed to address sectarianism and intra-Muslim differences.
Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who heads the Islamic Renaissance Front, also questioned why speakers at the "International Unity in Diversity Conference" did not elaborate on the Sunni-Shia divide, despite the issue making headlines in the Muslim world, including in Malaysia.
But he said he was not surprised, saying the speakers at the half-day event yesterday might be ill-equipped to address a complicated issue that "required more than motivational soundbites".
"The conference to me was benign and somehow suits the Taman Tun and Bangsar crowd very well," he quipped when met yesterday on the sidelines of the conference, where he was invited as a participant.
"That type of lectures on becoming good Muslims and the choice of speakers have been their forte all this while."
The three foreign speakers were American Muslims Omar Suleiman and Yasir Qadhi, both of whom are active in fee-based Islamic courses tailored to the needs of busy professionals and English-speaking Muslims.
Another speaker was Nuruddin Lemu from Nigeria, who is also sought after to conduct Islamic training courses.
Anwar delivered the main speech at the conference, organised by his International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) and the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF).
Organisers had earlier rejected a suggestion that the conference was a response to the KL Summit hosted by Dr Mahathir Mohamad last month, which made global headlines after it came under attack from Saudi Arabia.
Farouk said while he did not believe the conference yesterday was to counter the KL Summit, any conference themed on Islam and diversity should not miss the Shia-Sunni animosity, which he described as "the most salient and pertinent issue" in talking about diversity to a Muslim audience.
"I do not think the reason for them — being speakers from abroad —not knowing about such a problem is acceptable. This is a global issue and we are facing a similar problem in this country that must be addressed before it becomes a chronic problem to our society."
Shia, the second-largest branch of Islam, is predominantly followed in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and several parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan.
Malaysian Islamic authorities have, over the years, been enforcing a fatwa declaring Shia teachings as "deviant".
Farouk said the speakers could have at least spoken out against a recent speech by a Saudi diplomat in KL condemning Shias as heretics.
"Failing to address this issue of paramount importance at this time, in particular, is very regrettable. This is especially so when Shias were not only demonised by the Saudi diplomat, but also by local imams during every Friday sermon in Selangor," he added.
"Where else in the world could we find such hatred towards the same brothers that believe in the same God, the same prophet, and the same Quran, except in this country?"
Farouk said "Unity in Diversity", the theme of yesterday's conference, could mean either diversity in a multicultural society or diversity in Islam's denominations.
"The main and acute problem we are facing in this country is the second form of diversity — to accept religious minorities such as Shias as our brothers in faith," he said.
"Similarly, the issue of Islamophobia was addressed (at the conference), though this is more pressing in the West when compared to our milieu."