Founded in 1968, al-Arqam believes a messiah will soon arise to lead the world into a new era of Islam, just before a prophesied doomsday. The Malaysian authorities have sought to compare its charismatic leader, Ashaari Muhammad, who has lived in exile for several years, with American cultists who led their followers to disaster, such as Jim Jones or David Koresh.
From the government's statements, however, it is clear that it also sees al-Arqam as a political danger. Last month the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, accused the sect of subversion, and yesterday a junior minister described it as the biggest threat since Communism.
The ruling Umno party has successfully browbeaten more conventional opponents into submission during its 24 years in power, but may find it less easy to deal with a movement which appears to have captured a sense of spiritual unease with the country's rapid development.
An Arqam spokesman was defiant yesterday, saying: 'They can't stop us from holding classes in our homes or under a tree. They can't stop us from reciting the Koran.'
Under yesterday's clampdown the sect will have to close its 200 schools, and it will be illegal for Muslims - about half the 19 million population - to own, print or sell any of al-Arqam's material. The chain of businesses owned by the sect, worth some pounds 75m, will have to remove its logo. Malaysia failed this week to persuade neighbouring countries to go along with the ban, although some have agreed to bar Mr Ashaari, who is believed to be in Jordan.Reuse content