Thursday, June 29, 2017

Taking on Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism: Geostrategic Interest and Rise of Populism

William JK Leong Malaysian MP Selayang

Terrorism must be condemned without exception

Nothing justifies terrorism. It is criminal, inhuman, immoral and repulsive. It must be condemned unequivocally in the strongest terms. An act of violence designed to induce terror and fear on non-combatants for the purpose of a political goal must be condemned without qualification irrespective of its cause or whether perpetrated by friend or foe.

Where superpowers describe those who use violence to achieve political ends as “freedom fighters” when they are fighting the enemies of the superpowers but they are described as “terrorists” when fighting friends of the superpowers they encourage the illusion that victory or the validity of their cause would justify the brutality of their crime[1]. It can never be. History may be written by the victors but the wrongs will never be forgotten or forgiven.

Nelson Mandela and Menachem Begin are examples of Western Governments and media labelling them as terrorist and when they became the leaders of their liberated nations they were called “freedom fighters” and “statesmen.”[2] Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Mujahidin were hailed by the Saudi and US governments as heroes when they fought to rid the Soviets from Afghanistan but became terrorists when they attacked US interests to force the US military out of Saudi Arabia after the First Gulf War. Yesterday’s villains can be today’s heroes, today’s heroes may be tomorrow’s enemies but right and wrong cannot be based on which side you are on.   

The indiscriminate use of the word “terrorism” as a pejorative term to label one’s opponent and enemies has distorted its meaning. An act of terrorism cannot depend on one’s point of view or subjective moral judgment or whether one sympathizes with the victim or the perpetrator. The saying “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is grossly misleading. A terrorist act is terrorism regardless of the validity of the cause.[3] Such gloss on the use of the term dilutes the force of the condemnation.

The United Nations failed to conclude a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that incorporates a single all-encompassing, legally binding, criminal definition of terrorism.  Noam Chomsky explains that in December 1987 the member states at the United Nations General Assembly passed a very strong resolution against terrorism, condemning it in the strongest terms, calling on every state to fight against it in every possible way. All approved, one abstained, Honduras. Two voted against, the United States and Israel. The reason, there was a paragraph which states nothing in the resolution infringes on the rights of people struggling against racists and colonialist regimes or foreign military occupation to continue resistance in their just cause. The United States could not agree because its official ally, South Africa had denounced the African National Congress struggling against a racist regime as a terrorist group. And of course Israel supported by the United States was at that time occupying Southern Lebanon. A US vote against is a veto. It also vetoes it from history.  None of this was ever reported and none appear in the annals of terrorism.[4]

There is also no international legal consensus that the definition of “terrorism” should include “state terrorism.”  There are arguments for and against that terrorism is not committed by states. It is contended that when states abuse their powers they should be judged against international conventions dealing with war crimes and international human rights law. However, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said that it is “time to set aside debates on so-called ‘state terrorism’. The use of force by states is already regulated under international law”. Annan said “…regardless of the differences between governments on the question of definition of terrorism, what is clear and what we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one’s cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism”[5]       

Therefore ISIS, Boko Haram and all other terrorist organizations that resort to killing innocent people, raping, kidnapping and forced conversions have no legitimacy whatsoever and the term Islam or Islamic whether fundamentalist or any kind cannot be ascribed to them. Terror in the name of Islam is not Islam. It is not in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or any religion to kill. Terrorism is not a Holy War. It is unholy, it is evil.     

Thus the ulema, Muslim clerics, influential Muslim organizations and all eminent Muslim Democrats must condemn not just these extreme and violent groups but also the dictatorships and autocratic regimes in the Muslim world that have persistently denied democratic rights to their citizens and violated their human rights.

By the same token we cannot stay silent and must condemn with equal vigour those who support dictatorships and autocratic regimes, be political and economic partners with states who support literalist Salafi doctrine, be silent when civilians are massacred in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine.

Violence, terror and death have become commonplace in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, in Africa and Asia with the unilateral declaration of the “War on Terror”, the non-existent weapons of mass destruction for the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein and his regime. It begins with European and American foreign policy and loss of civilian lives a footnote under acceptable collateral damage. The US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Yemen, has repeatedly attacked civilian facilities such as hospitals and schools. A US airstrike on 6 July 2008 killed civilians in a wedding party including the bride in Afghanistan. On October 9 2016 US-armed Saudi coalition bombed a Yemen funeral killing 140 and wounding 525. The 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza to stop Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel resulted in the death of thousands, the vast majority of whom were Gaza residents. Various human rights groups contended both sides violated international laws and committed war crimes. The United States Congress expressed vigorous support for Israel and passed legislation providing Israel with an additional USD225 million in military aid for missile defense. While nothing can justify terrorist attacks, the condemnable action should not blind us to the root causes. Is it right to declare war when citizens are killed at home but consider themselves at peace when they kill the citizens of other countries far away?[6]

Salafism and Geostrategic interests

The Saudi Arabian oil reserves are an important reason for US support of the Saudi Kingdom. Every US President since President Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama has worked with the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated US100 billion over decades to promote its Salafism Islam in building mosques, madrasas, schools and Sunni cultural centres across the Muslim world. ISIS’s ideology has its roots in Salafism.[7]

Wikileaks email reveals that Hillary Clinton acknowledged to colleagues that Saudi Arabia and Qatar sponsor ISIS. The leaked August 17, 2014 email by Hillary Clinton said “…we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”[8]

The West cannot be driven solely by their own geostrategic and economic interests they risk paying a heavy human price in response to the injustice and humiliation they have provoked.

Condemnation of those who commit terrorism, violence, violation of international laws, war crimes cannot be qualified by subjective moral judgment or dependent on whether they are committed by friend or foe. Terrorism must be condemned without exception. We grieve with those who held thousands of candle lights for the victims of the terrorists, but was there even one candle for the thousands killed in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Africa and Asia?

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

The lack of an accepted meaning for “terrorism” continues to create problems. Once again, a former military official turned dictator rules Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is an even harsher authoritarian regime than Hosni Mubarak’s. Sisi wants to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Egyptians have good reason to be angry with the Muslim Brotherhood who, in their brief time, proved incompetent, authoritarian and sectarian. Yet the Brotherhood has deep roots in Egyptian society. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades sought political power through elections and non-violent means, US Congress is currently considering Sisi’s request to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. US declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization will improve ties with Sisi but it would be condoning his brutal repression[9]. It would be history repeating itself.

A Rigorous Religious Counter-Narrative

The use of military force in Iraq and Syria is not enough to end Jihadist terrorism. There must be a counter-narrative to challenge the narrative of ISIS and Jihadist groups. Such a counter-narrative is needed to stop the flow of misled young people joining ISIS and Jihadist groups as fighters. Jihadi recruiters prey on frustrated youth, radicalizing and indoctrinating them by painting tales of glory to right the wrongs of history and mankind against Muslims to justify violence.

ISIS has brought terrorist propaganda to a new level. ISIS recruits its fighters from all over the world turning them into brutal killers of both Muslims and non-Muslims, programming them to make the ultimate sacrifice as suicide bombers. ISIS is able to convince young women and girls to leave their homes from Europe, South East Asia and Australia to perform their Jihad by becoming comfort women to the ISIS fighters.

ISIS is able to do this because it is very much in cyberspace. It is on the internet where its claims often go unchallenged. With its propaganda in the social media and with some of its video footage also broadcast in mainstream media, ISIS has caught the imagination of a considerable number of young Muslims all over the world. They are attracted by its violent messages and catchy slogans. Its apparent success has also led to a number of instant conversions to Islam among marginalized non-Muslim youth in Western countries. The media campaign of ISIS is very professional by any standards with high quality visual footage and well-crafted ideological statements attracting young Muslims and some recent converts to Islam to join its ranks. Per day, ISIS produces up to 90,000 tweets and other social media responses – a volume of activity unmatched by government messaging. According to the American FBI Director, James Comey, ISIS has been issuing statements in almost 2 dozen languages. It is estimated more than 20,000 fighters from more than 100 countries joined ISIS and other Jihadis organizations.[10]

In the United Kingdom, its Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has secured the removal of more than 120,000 pieces of terror-related content between 2010 and 2016. On average about 100 removal requests per day contain Syria-related content, which would amount to 36,500 requests per year. The EU Internet Referral Unit made over 500 referrals in the first 16 weeks after it was established in July 2015 of which 90% were successfully removed. Between mid-2015 and February 2016, Twitter had suspended over 125,000 accounts globally that were linked to terrorists. Google removed over 14 million videos globally in 2014 which related to all kinds of abuses.[11]

Despite these efforts, 800 UK-linked fighters are estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the conflicts began in those countries, 50% of these are thought to have returned. Terrorism-related arrests in UK were 35% higher in 2015 than in 2010.

Countering terrorist cyber propaganda is not achieved just by setting up more websites or having more tweets than them. Ideology and religion are crucial and central for legitimising jihadist violence. There must be a counter-narrative based on facts, rational reasoning and rigorous religious arguments by Muslim scholars and leaders that have the necessary credibility and standing in the eyes of the young Muslims. Only then can they be made to see ISIS is a death cult that kills mainly Muslims and discredits rather than defends Islam.    

It is also necessary to develop credible alternative narratives that Islam is not the answer to their political, economic and social problems and to give a new sense of purpose, meaning and hope to those who feel they have no future in their societies.

The Politics of Fear

The terror attacks are just “mad”, “irrational” and “inhuman”. If we wipe away the tears, the smoke and see through the blind emotional reaction stoked by fear and terror, there is method to the madness. In fact it makes perfect logical sense. It is about provoking fractures between Muslims and the citizens of the West. It is about making Muslims feel they will never be welcome in European, American or any Western society. Their goal is to use Muslims to feed fear of Islam; for the West to associate Islam with danger and violence. It is to spread insecurity and social instability along religious fault lines.

As terrorist attacks continue, Islamophobia is spreading all around the world. As a consequence, bona fide Muslim organizations and Muslim democrats become targets even as ordinary Muslims fall prey to “hate crimes.”

In responding to the terrorist attacks, it is important to keep in mind that jihadists and extremists do not represent Muslims. There is a growing body of literature that claims that over-reaction to terrorism causes more terrorism. It appears that many acts of terrorism is motivated by revenge for acts of repression, injustice and humiliation. The democratic, rule of law-based states have to find a balance between freedom and security. Although there cannot be freedom without security and people generally opts for security first over liberty, if the state overreacts to terrorist provocations and become very repressive and aggressive, it often produces additional mobilization on the other side. It is now widely accepted the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities have contributed to both radicalization and recruitment to al-Qaeda.[12]

So intense is the demonizing of Muslim extremists today that, in dealing with individual suspects, everything seems to be permitted. While it is normal to detain persons who are acting suspiciously in order to forestall terrorist actions, the arrest and indefinite preventive detention of individuals without respecting their right to a legal defense cannot be considered legitimate. Men have been imprisoned under anti-terrorist security laws who do not know what they are accused of and without judgment. What we observe today as a result of the politics of fear is a danger, above all for the West itself, the abandoning of its principles: extraordinary renditions, detention without trial, torture, incarceration and solitary confinement, degrading treatment incompatible with the professed values of human rights and dignity. UK programmes like PREVENT have been under heavy criticisms for their discriminatory approach.[13] In the fight against terrorists the West have transformed into monsters violating the very rules that the West claim to protect, the system based on the rule of law and human rights.[14]

Kofi Annan had warned “…compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, it facilitates achievement of the terrorist’s objective. By ceding him the moral high ground, and provoking tension, hatred and mistrust of government among precisely those parts of the population where it is most likely to find recruits. Upholding human rights is not merely compatible with a successful counter-terrorism strategy. It is an essential element in it.”[15]

We have to be mindful that the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist’s objective is to provoke mistrust of government and society against Muslims.  As Anwar Ibrahim said Islamic terror groups, the self-righteous and self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, are stabbing the religion in the back by preaching intolerance and animosity. These groups are using jihad as an excuse to justify their violence, trying to outdo one another in their demonstration of faith. He said these groups went against what Prophet Muhammad had done, who despite facing many difficulties and obstacles during the spread of Islam, had shown compassion, tolerance and commitment to dakwah, not violence.[16] He asked:
“Where does it say that Muslims should avenge the prophet by attacking and going on a killing spree?”

Terrorists and murderers are and will continue to kill and maim to do battle against the whole world including Muslims, it is to ferment Islamophobia.

Knowing that groups like Boko Haram, ISIS and terrorist groups want to instill fear and deepen divisions on an international level, we must guard against a natural reaction to the terrorist acts which is defining ourselves as Muslims and non-Muslims, “Us” against “Them.”

Tariq Ramadan issues the same reminder against turning to populism that narrowly defines the “Other” and holds him responsible for all society’s ills because of what he is: precisely the definition of racism and of the politics of fear. It will drive the West so powerful and yet so fearful, so far from its ideals, so near to its demons.

Unfortunately, after the US Presidential elections, Barack Obama noted the world is entering a new illiberal era. Populism is on the march. Immigration is an explosive issue for whom populists from US to Europe strongly oppose. Among the reasons are political entrepreneurs fanning fear and latent prejudice. This has given rise to fear, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. There is no substitute for political will and enlightened leadership, the kind that, instead of pandering to people’s worst instincts, appeals to their better judgment. 

Fundamentalist Islam

To counter Jihadist ideology and use of religion, we need to know more of the precepts of Fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalist Islam is a contemporary phenomenon of approximately only 100 years. The movement was a reaction to the frailty and weakness of Islamic countries compared with their glorious pasts. Fundamentalism emerged not out of conservative circles but rather reformist movements which were aiming for an “Islamic Awakening.”[17]

The goal of fundamentalism in fact is to return to the “sacred texts” carefully executing what it says, without interpretations, and rejecting the official and more conservative, historical interpretations of it. For the fundamentalists, a return to the original and primary reading and avoiding any latter interpretations is the solution to all current problems.

The idea of an Islamic state characterized by the implementation of sharia is a modern phenomenon developed by Abul A’la Maududi in the context of British colonial rule and the identity politics of the Indian Subcontinental. In response to the Muslim League’s calls for a Muslim state of Pakistan, Hindu calls for a secular India and communist calls for a socialist state, Maududi called for the establishment of an Islamic state. Maududi’s concept found support among influential Islamic thinkers and leaders. Sayyid Qutb built on Maududi’s works in his book, “Milestones”. He took the core concepts of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and Maududi, reshaped and sharpened them to exhort Muslims to radical action.[18]

Like Hassan al-Banna and Maududi, Qutb regarded the West as the historic enemy of Islam and Muslims as demonstrated by the Crusades, European colonialism and the Cold War. The Western threat was political, economic and religio-cultural. Equally insidious were the elites of the Muslim world who rule and govern according to Western secular principles and values that threaten the faith, identity, and values of their own Islamic societies. Qutb denounced governments and Western secular-oriented elites as atheist against whom all true believers must wage Holy war.

Fundamentalist Islam seeks to establish an Islamic state ruled by sharia. They apply a literal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam and harken back to earlier times to return to the fundamentals of the religion which is out of line with modern times. They apply the teachings of Sayyid Qutb in his book “Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) or guiding markers along the road that will lead to the revival of Islam from its current extinction. According to Qutb the Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries and reverted to “Jahilyyah” (the state of ignorance of the guidance of God) because those who call themselves Muslims failed to follow the laws of God or sharia. When God’s law is established on earth, it will lead to blessings on all mankind. What is non-Muslim or “jahiliyyah” is evil and corrupt and its existence anywhere is intolerable to true Muslims. To restore Islam on earth and free Muslims from jahli society, jahili concepts, jahili traditions and jahili leadership, Qutb teaches that a vanguard (tali’a) is to be formed modelling itself after the original Muslims, the companions (Sahaba) of Muhammad. Qutb believes these Muslims to successfully vanquish Jahiliyyah have to do carry out two duties:
·                They have to cut themselves off from Jahiliyyah- they have to ignore the learning and culture of non-Muslim groups; (Greeks, Romans, Persians, Christians or Jews) and separate themselves from their old non-Muslim friends and family;
·                They have look to the Quran, not as learning and information or solution to problems but for orders to obey.

Following these principles the vanguard will fight Jahiliyyah; by preaching and through the “the movement.” Preaching will persuade people to become true Muslims while the movement will abolish the organizations and authority of the jahili system by physical power and Jihad. Force is necessary, Qutb explains, because it is naïve to expect those who have usurped the authority of God to give up their power without a fight.

Remaining aloof from Jahiliyyah, the vanguard will travel the road growing from a cell of three individuals to ten and ten to hundred until there are thousands and blossom into a truly Islamic community. The community may start in the homeland of Islam but its objective must be to carry Islam throughout the earth to the whole of mankind.  

This is the ideology and narrative the Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Jihadists use. An alternative to this fundamentalist approach is critical to counter terrorism and also to re-think the religion to bring it to be compatible with modernity.

Maqasid al-Sharia

Since Jihadi recruiters use religion as a political tool, to defeat them there must be a response with solid and rigorous religious arguments. Religion is use as a tool to disguise political aspirations, lust for power. It is Machiavellian and inhuman.

Who can be the messengers of the counter-narrative and what is the content? There are those re-thinking Islam applying maqasid al-sharia and ijtihad. There is an increasing number of Muslim scholars and political leaders who utilize rigorous, historical and texture analysis to re-examine, reconcile and re-think the role of Islam in a secular state and related issues to bring modern concepts of democracy, human rights, inclusivity, tolerance, pluralism and religious freedom to be comparable to Islam’s universal concepts. They assert good governance, economic development, inclusiveness, protecting basic rights and freedoms are Islamic objectives adopting a maqasid approach and ijtihad.   

The content must satisfy rigorous conditions. The road to Islamic re-thinking despite its twists and turns cannot reach its destination without passing through the gates of Islamic authoritative traditions. Those re-thinking Islam have to frame the narrative and discourse to engage Muslims in accordance with the practices and authority of Islamic traditions. This is a critical problem that all religious scholars or leaders of whatever faith face. They need to demonstrate a relationship between the re-thinking and the authority of tradition. The re-thinkers must show some form of continuity between tradition and change. For Muslims, the interpretations and practices sanctioned by the ijma of the past, the classic Islamic traditions, consensus of religious scholars or ijma represents the source of religious authority. If the re-thinkers are unable to establish the necessary link or continuity between the authoritative ijma of the past and modernity, their effort to effect change will fail.[19]

These Islamic intellectuals such as Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Tariq Ramadan, Dr Nurcholish Majid, Abdullah Ahmed An-Naim, Abdul Aziz Sachedina and Islamic political leaders such as Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim and Tunisia’s Rachid Ghanouchi have striven to demonstrate Islam’s compatibility with modernity, democracy, human rights, gender equality, pluralism and peaceful co-existence with non-Muslims.

Islamic political parties have struggled for decades to find the appropriate balance between Islam and modernity. Ijtihad and the maqasid al-sharia approach enables these parties to maintain Islamic legitimacy while evolving from ideology-oriented to policy-oriented parties and thereby responding to the needs and aspirations of broad constituencies.

Maqasid provides an alternative to the generally anti-Western, ideology-oriented, focused on moralistic discourse and defined by their commitment to establishing an Islamic state based on the implementation of sharia law.

Anwar Ibrahim has explained that: “The maqasid-al-sharia (higher objectives of the sharia) sanctify the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family, and wealth, objectives that bear striking resemblance to Lockean ideals that would be expounded centuries later. Many scholars have explained that laws which contravene the maqasid must be revised or amended to bring them in line with the higher objectives and to ensure that they contribute to the safety and development of the individual and society. Notwithstanding the current malaise of authoritarianism plaguing the Muslim world, there can be no question that several crucial elements of constitutional democracy and civil society are also moral imperatives in Islam- freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the sanctity of life and property-as demonstrated very clearly by the Koran, as well as by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad” [20]

Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Anwar Ibrahim and others are teaching that there is an alternative to the fundamentalist approach that democracy is not compatible with Islam. These Muslim Democrats show that the principles of Islam can be compatible with modern democracy. Ghannouchi’s party, Ennada in May this year announced a historic transition from an Islamist party to a party of Muslim democrats.

We need to support and give these re-thinkers the room and opportunity to provide the Counter-Narrative. Unfortunately, many obstacles are placed in their paths to prevent the Counter-Narrative from being told, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim lost his teaching position in Al Azhar, his teacher Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was hanged by the Gafaar Numeiri government for apostasy, these re-thinkers face harassment, threats, arrests and some like Anwar Ibrahim are put into prison.


While we see light with the emergence of Muslim Democrats calling for inclusiveness and democratic values, the rise of populism with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States who said he would “bomb the s---- out of them” creates great concern. Hopefully as Obama seeks to reassure the rest of the world: “How you campaign isn’t always how you govern” otherwise Islamist terrorists may find Donald Trump to be a Godsend for their cause, just as one photo of the atrocities in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay recruited more impressionable minds to join the terrorists than a hundred Jihadist recruiters could have done.

21 November 2016

[1] Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism: theirs and Ours
[2] Theodure P. Seto, The Morality of Terrorism, The Times published on July 23 1946 described Irgun as Jewish terrorist of which Menachem Begin was a leading member; Lord Desai Hansard house of Lords September 3 1998; Jomo Kenyatta, nelson Mandela and Menachem Begin-to give just three examples- were all denounced as terrorists but all proved to be successful political leaders of their countries and good friends of the United Kingdom.
[3]Adrian Humphreys, One Official’s ‘refugee’ is another’s ‘terrorist’
[4] Noam Chomsky, What is Terrorism?
[5] Press conference with Kofi Annan and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, United nations 2009-03-25
[6] Tariq Ramadan March 25, 2016 “Terror isn’t just ‘mad,’ ‘irrational’ and ‘inhuman’
[7] The Week August 8, 2015: How Saudi Arabia exports radical Islam
[8] Your October 12, 2016 Wikileaks: Hillary Confirms Saudi Arabia Sponsor ISIS
[9] Steven Cook, Egypt’s Nightmare, Foreign Affairs November/December 2016
[10] Dr Alex P. Schmid: Challenging the Narrative of the “Islamic State” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism
[11] House of Commons, Home Affairs Committee; Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point July 19 2016
[12] Dr Alex P. Schmid: Radicalisation, de-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review ICCT  March 2013
[13] Tariq Ramadan The Politics of fear: how Britain’s anti-extremism strategy has failed; The Guardian October 19, 2016 UK’s Prevent counter-radicalisation policy ‘badly flawed’; House of Commons, Radicalisation: The counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point.
[14] Tariq Ramadan, Salafi jihadism and the West
[15] Kofi Annan March 10, 2005 “A Global Strategy for Fighting Terrorism”
[16] Anwar Ibrahim June 2, 2015: “Extremists Stabbing Islam in the Back” International Youth Gathering 2015
[17] Ali Mamouri, “The Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam” Al-Monitor
[18] Halim Rane, The Relevance of a Maqasid Approach for political islam Post Arab Revolutions, Journal of law & Religion Vol XXVIII page 489 
[19] John L Esposito, Rethinking Islam and Secularism, Association of Religion Data Archives 
[20] Anwar Ibrahim, Universal Values and Muslim Democracy 17 J. Democracy 7 July 2006

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Flawed Proposal: Infusing Racial Politics into Pakatan Harapan

1.           The proposal for Tun Mahathir to take over leadership of the opposition and for Bersatu to become the dominant party in Pakatan Harapan to win Malay votes, instead of securing victory will end in disaster.

2.           It is indeed critical for the opposition to win the Malay-majority constituencies, especially the rural Malay areas. There are 114 Malay-majority constituencies in peninsula Malaysia alone. In 2013, BN won 77, PAS 20 and PKR 17. Najib can retain power by winning these 114 parliament constituencies without drawing on his Sabah and Sarawak BN save deposit vote banks. A way must be found for the opposition coalition to win these constituencies but it has to be based on principles, respect for all interests and consensus. The proposal fails in these respects.

3.           The proposal in essence is infusing racial politics into Pakatan Harapan. This will not sell. The proposal to win office, is to attract Malay voters by turning Pakatan Harapan into a BN and the continuation of UMNO’s racial policies minus Najib. This proposal has serious flaws, three of which are set out below.

Betrayal of the Reform Agenda

4.           Firstly, the assumption that by adopting a racial supremacy policy, Pakatan can hold on to the 52% who voted for the Reform Agenda in 2013 is false.

5.           If Pakatan Harapan trade Ketuanan Rakyat for Ketuanan Melayu-Minus-Najib in exchange for power, it will be a betrayal of principles, a selling out of core beliefs. Pakatan Harapan cannot argue they are acting as statesmen or being pragmatic. The argument that such a compromise is justified by the higher objective of Pakatan Harapan forming the government cannot hold water. It is disingenuous to say gaining power is better than remaining in the opposition when the deal requires Pakatan Harapan to give up the very core reason to gain power - to institute change through implementation of the Reform Agenda.  It is not a compromise. It is not even a rotten compromise. It is a capitulation. Power without principles is simply greed. Winning office without the power to implement the reform promised is a betrayal of the 20 years of struggle and the cause so many have sacrificed so much for.  

6.           Mahathir cannot hope to hold onto Pakatan Harapan supporters with such a proposal. Even though they will not vote BN they will prefer not to vote at all. This will reduce Pakatan Harapan’s vote share.  

7.           A recent example of the significance of a reduced vote share is the US elections. Hillary Clinton just could not hold onto the support given to the Obama coalition. This proved to be her fatal undoing. Hillary obtained 88% of African-Americans compared to 93% for Obama, 65% of the Latinos to Obama’s 71%, 54% of the younger voters to Obama’s 60%. Although, Trump’s 58% of the white votes was less than Romney’s 59% in 2012. Distaste for Trump was not sufficient to overcome their apathy for Hillary. Democrats stayed at home and handed victory to Donald Trump. If the proposal is implemented, Pakatan Harapan will suffer a similar fate. 

Leadership of the Reform Movement

8.           Secondly, the assumption that by taking over the leadership of Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir will take over the leadership of the opposition is false.

9.           The opposition is not Pakatan Harapan. Pakatan Harapan is only a vehicle for the real opposition, the masses who arose from the Reform Movement. The opposition are the reformists, activists, civil society, the 62 NGOs that formed BERSIH, the thousands who with their own money, time and energy went to the towns, villages, estates, FELDA settlements and long houses to spread the word for change, the hundreds of thousands that came out to the streets, and the millions that voted against BN.  

10.        There are no elections in the Reform Movement. Anwar Ibrahim holds no official position in Parti Keadilan Rakyat. He is the de facto leader of the Reform Movement because he inspired commitment, built consensus, mobilized resources, recognised opportunities, devised strategies, framed demands and influenced outcomes. He appealed to the various races, religious groups and diverse interests by being inclusive. More importantly it is his courage of conviction for the Reform Agenda in choosing imprisonment over freedom that the masses accept his leadership.

11.        The Reform Movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves. Democracy does not come from the government, from high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for freedom and justice. Politicians are elected and selected but mass movements do not elect officials or seek blessings or legitimacy from anyone. Mass movements transform society, they aim to persuade the courts, politicians and other actors to fall behind them, not the other way round. Mass movements accomplish this through appeals to shared sets of deep and widely held convictions among the people they aim to mobilize.[1]

12.        Bersatu cannot demand and Pakatan Harapan leaders cannot give to Mahathir the de facto leadership of the opposition movement. Even if Pakatan Harapan yields the leadership to Mahathir the masses will not necessarily accept his authority. The masses by their courage, conviction and commitment for change had withstood tear gas, water cannons, police brutality, beatings, arrests, detention without trial, selective prosecution, imprisonment, repression and ostracism. They will not accept the very policies they have been fighting for so long and so hard to abolish, even if this is proposed by the new de jure leadership of the vehicle. Without the mass support, the vehicle is but an empty shell.  

13.        The relationship between the leader and the masses is dialectical, it takes the agreement of both to work together: “the leader cannot take the people where they do not want to go and he cannot operate outside the possibilities that were already part of the existing social structure and cultural heritage of the original movement.”[2] They will not want go back to a future, substituting Najib for Mahathir without a return to the rule of law, restoration of the institutions and the guaranteed implementation of the Reform Agenda. Weber’s analysis of charismatic authority still holds true: the charismatic leader has to be recognised by his followers in order to achieve the degree of legitimacy required, it cannot be demanded nor given.[3]   

Policy-Oriented Coalition

14.        Thirdly, the assumption that an opposition coalition founded on the removal of Najib from office and not a policy-oriented coalition is sufficient to win the election and sustainable to govern is false.

15.        Coalitions formed for the purpose of securing enough votes or combining a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to govern through power-sharing arrangements without an agreement on the policies and their implementation are referred to as “office-seeking coalitions.” Office-seeking coalitions are coalitions whose main goal is access to power. Cabinet portfolios are the payoffs. Office-seeking coalitions have been accused of being “unprincipled” because their members were ideologically remote and therefore perceived as political opportunists interested in short-term gains rather than long-term policy goals.[4]

16          Policy-oriented coalitions are party coalitions justified by policy goals. For opposition alliances which sole aim is to defeat the incumbent to form a new government, there is no place for ideological affinity and the common-post election strategy in the case of defeat is to join the winner. Such alliances usually collapses as quickly as they are formed because they are, themselves, essentially an office-seeking strategy used by politicians to position themselves in such a way as to make themselves attractive to the governing party or coalition. The lack of ideology and the absence of a post-election strategy make office-seeking opposition coalitions difficult to sustain. In a study of five African countries, Kenya, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa, it was found that it has been easy for the government of the day to buy off opposition leaders of office-seeking coalitions after their electoral defeat.[5]

17.        The case of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) of Kenya is illustrative of the pitfalls of an office-seeking coalition. Daniel Arap Moi of the Kenyan African National Union (“KANU”) won Kenya’s 1992 and 1997 presidential election with 36.8% and 40.51% of the vote respectively. Combined the opposition garnered far more votes than the eventual winner. However, by splitting the votes, they failed to secure the presidency and gain a majority in parliament. In 2002, 14 opposition parties formed a coalition, the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) with the Liberal Democratic Party (“LDP”). LDP consisted of a splinter group of disgruntled KANU leaders following Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as presidential candidate. The coalition of NAK and LDP was called the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). NARC put up Mwai Kibaki to contest the presidency against Uhuru Kenyatta of KANU. NARC won a landslide victory. NARC began to face problems within days after winning the election when Kibaki did not honour the agreement on cabinet posts to the coalition partners. In 2005, President Kibaki dissolved the cabinet, dismissed all the LDP ministers, allocating ministries to KANU, the party NARC had united against. In the 2007 elections Raila Odinga, formerly of the LDP ran against President Kibaki, formerly of NAK. Absence of a common ideology for political reform is one of the main reasons for the rapid disintegration of NARC.

18.        South Korea has shown the sustainability of coalitions bonded by the common goal to implement democratic reforms. In 1987, the formation of a pro-democracy coalition and an unprecedented level of mass mobilization pressured the authoritarian regime to accommodate democratic reform. However neither of the two civilian candidates, Kim Dae Jung nor Kim Young Sam was willing to yield in their quests to become president causing civil society to be divided in supporting them, clearing the way for the regime candidate Roh Tae Woo to win the election with only 36% of the vote. In the 1997 elections, for the first time in South Korean history, an opposition candidate, Kim Dae Jung was elected president. Civil society and its mobilization were crucial in the democratic transition and consolidation. It was the resurrection and remobilization of various civil society groups and their grand-democracy coalition with the opposition party that ultimately induced the authoritarian ruling coalition to agree on a set of democratic reforms.[6]   

19.        By focusing efforts on making South Korea’s democracy deeper and more substantive they provided the foundation for the empowerment of civil society that has allowed South Korea’s Constitutional Court to rule unanimously on March 10 2017 to remove President Park Geun-Hye from office backing the National Assembly’s impeachment of the president. This was a historic incident for the reaffirmation of South Korean democracy and confirmation of the rule of law.[7] The first candle was lit at a protest in Seoul’s downtown plaza on October 29, 2016, about 20,000 people joined to protest Park’s inadequate apology. The next Saturday, the protest had grown tenfold; a week later, on November 12, the protest drew a turnout of 1 million. The series of peaceful Saturday protests pushed a segment of the ruling-party members of parliament to break ranks to vote for impeachment of the president.

20.        Civil society and the mass movement in Malaysia will not buy into an office-seeking coalition. Bersatu and the component parties in Pakatan Harapan have to weave the policies for winning the Malay votes into the Reform Agenda while maintaining and extending support from all races, religious groups and diverse interests in Malaysia. UMNO’s racial politics have spawned corruption, cronyism, patronage and rent-seeking activities. Malaysians want policies that will liberate the Malay mind, induce empowerment and self-reliance, not continuation of policies that chained the Malays economically and socially to UMNO, enslaving them politically. The proposal is only providing a change of political master not social-economic and political freedom.   

Coalition Building and Consensus

21.        Elections in Malaysia are not democratic, not free and not fair. Opposition leaders and government critics suffer harassment, arrest, detention, imprisonment and abuse of state resources skewed the playing field heavily in favour of the incumbents. Coercive and unfair means are used to disadvantage the opposition. Civil liberty violations, patronage, gerrymandering, malapportionment, media bias, manipulation, co-optation and repression are relied upon to guarantee incumbent re-election. The application of a divide and rule policy has caused deep cleavages in the society according to ethnicity, religion, rural and urban divide.

22.        Many opposition movements have been challenging authoritarian governments but only a few have succeeded. The opposition forces in South Africa voted out an apartheid regime, people power in the Philippines ousted a dictator, popular unrest in Indonesia forced President Suharto to resign, a broad coalition in Chile won a plebiscite that led to the removal of Augusto Pinochet and Solidarity defeated the Polish communist. Bersatu and Pakatan Harapan can learn, draw strength and inspiration on how these opposition ended repressive regimes[8]:

·       They were able to achieve their goals through broad support, coherence and legitimacy;
·       They were able to bridge deep disagreements about aims, strategies and leadership among the opposition and convince diverse opposition groups to work out their major differences;
·       They were able to encourage convergence, forge consensus and built coalitions among the opposition;
·       They were able to connect the opposition to social movements, workers, students, women, human rights and religious groups;
·       They were able to connect with the wider public to provide a sense that the movements were democratic, truly inclusive and not vehicles for particular individuals or groups;
·       They focused sharply on what united the people rather than on what divided them;
·       But they also made the difficult decisions to exclude groups that refused to renounce violence or insisted on uncompromising demands for regional, ethnic or sectarian autonomy;

23.        Bersatu and Pakatan Harapan leaders can apply these lessons by adopting the 4 C’s of coalition building - communications, consultations, consensus and compromise to forge the broad coalition amongst the parties, civil society, the different ethnic and re
ligious groups and the Malaysian public on an inclusive basis. There are no simple solutions, the Gordian knot of cleavages in Malaysian society cannot be solved by one stroke of the sword. It requires patience, tolerance, mutual respect and goodwill. The proposal has to be send back to the drawing board.

William Leong Jee KeenMember of Parliament Selayang12 June 2017

[1] Bruce Dixon, “It’s Time to Build a Mass Movement”
[2] Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today 253.
[3] Max Weber, Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building-Selected Papers (1968), 49-50.
[4] Wolfgang C. Muller, Kaare Strom, “Policy, Office or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe Make Hard Decisions”
[5] Denis Kadima, “The Politics of Party Coalitions in Africa” EISA and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
[6] Sunhyuk Kim “Civil society and democratization in South Kor ea”
[7] Sook Jong Lee, “A Democratic Breakthrough in South Korea?” Carnegie Endowment For International Peace”
[8] Abraham F. Lownthal and Sergio Bilar “From authoritarian rule toward democratic governance: Learning from political leaders” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2015.