Asia File: 'Subversive' Muslim sect heads for ban

THE growth of al-Arqam, a mystical sect which expects a Muslim messiah to arise soon in Uzbekistan and lead Islam into a new age, has south-east Asian governments worried. The most concerned is Malaysia, which says religious-affairs ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) will consider banning the movement when they meet next week.

Since its foundation in 1968, al-Arqam has swelled to 100,000 members in Malaysia and spread to most countries in Asean. Orthodox Muslims are scandalised by its teachings, particularly the claim of its charismatic leader, Ashaari Muhammad, to have had a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad. The Malaysian authorities, who banned the group's activities in government offices in 1991, have asked a council of religious scholars whether it should be stopped from propagating its views, a move also being considered in Indonesia. Brunei outlawed the sect some time ago, while Singapore recently deported Mr Ashaari.

Rapidly modernising Asean governments are certainly disturbed by al-Arqam, whose male followers wear distinctive robes and turbans, and in particular by their adulation of Mr Ashaari. Proving the movement is subversive, as alleged by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, is less easy.

Kuala Lumpur first expressed alarm when 19 Malaysians belonging to al-Arqam were arrested at a fundamentalist demonstration in Cairo. Dr Mahathir has accused civil servants, among whom the sect is said to have about 7,000 adherents, of passing on classified information to al-Arqam, and a former member who was in the Malaysian navy says Mr Ashaari asked him to lead a coup in 1986. From his new base in a five-star hotel in the Thai resort of Chiang Mai, the cult leader denies that claim. Malaysia's government-funded Islamic Centre said the movement was training suicide squads in Bangkok, but backed down when Thailand demanded proof.

Mr Ashaari, once an active member of PAS, the Malaysian religious party, says he has no political ambitions, but teasingly adds that it might be God's will to make him Prime Minister. Other criticism concerns his lavish life style - his movement's holding company last year declared assets of pounds 75m.

Perhaps the Arqam leader, also an enthusiastic promoter and practitioner of polygamy, has more in common with American televangelists like Jim Bakker than with the austere mullahs who run underground Islamic groups in the Middle East.

IN May President Bill Clinton announced that trade with China would no longer be linked to human rights, and monitoring groups say Peking has lost no time in cracking down. A report yesterday from Human Rights Watch/Asia and Human Rights in China said the government has begun a long-delayed trial of 15 labour and political organisers, and published new regulations giving the police greater powers to decide what constitutes subversion.

The names of 17 activists who have been detained incommunicado since March are also listed: in what the two organisations say is 'a new and disturbing pattern', the authorities often deny arresting opponents, which means that they have in effect disappeared. Heavy sentences announced yesterday on five Tibetan activists also give point to the report's conclusion that: 'The Chinese government appears to have waited to act until it was clear that intensified repression would have no negative economic consequences.'

THERE is little sign that the Indonesian government has been deterred by the outcry at home and abroad over its recent closure of three political weeklies. Several other publications, including Kompas, the country's leading daily, have been warned to watch their step. The newspaper's crime? Reporting on demonstrations against the banning of the three magazines.