COMMENT by Din Merican : Reading Jocelyn’s article allows me the opportunity to add my observations on the coming UMNO General Assembly. I will try to speculate a little about Najib’s Amanat Presiden.
True, as Jocelyn says, Najib’s position in UMNO is secure. Not even the former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir and his loyalists in UMNO can unseat him at this point in time. Najib has done well to keep UMNO members under control, although that has come with a high price tag.
The fact that his popularity among Malaysians is at an all time low does not affect his hold on power in UMNO and the country. That makes him a smart politician aided by a group of loyalists, anyone of whom can succeed him when the time comes. Names like Hishamuddin and Zahid Hamidi have been mentioned as potential successors, if the incumbent Deputy President and Deputy Prime Minister decides to retire.
Coming to his Amanat Presiden 2014, I think he will be tough and uncompromising in his defence of Malay special rights and Islam. He must as UMNO cannot deviate from its raison d’etre. But let us hope he will not overlook that he is also the Prime Minister for all Malaysians and must, therefore, tone down his rhetoric on Malay rights and UMNO’s defence of Islam.
His message should be a call for unity under a more enlightened and inclusive UMNO leadership. Neither the Malays nor Islam is under threat.There will, of course, be some goodies in store of UMNO members. More contracts and handouts, among other things.
With regard to the economy, he will likely crow about his achievements since his last speech before the UMNO General Assembly. A forecast real GDP growth of 5%+ is not something to be easily dismissed, given the less than optimistic outlook for the global economy, especially China and Europe and to some extent the United States.
Our growth will be domestic consumption driven, led by public expenditure. Najib will not talk about our mounting national debt and 1MDB borrowings. At the assembly, he cannot be a deliverer of bad news. He must rally the UMNO troops and sound upbeat about his economic policies which will remain Malay-bumiputra centric. After all, the UMNO general assembly is also fiesta time. And Najib must play to the gallery.
On foreign policy, he will have plenty to say. He has very good reasons to go to town on his achievements. Malaysia enjoys good relations with the United States, China and Europe. He is seen as a moderate and progressive Muslim leader. In ASEAN, he is well regarded. Our country will become a non-Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council in 2015.
In addition to that, Malaysia will assume the ASEAN Chair when it takes over from Myanmar next year. Both these roles give our country a very high profile in international affairs. Even his detractors will concede that Najib has done a good job on foreign policy.
Let us hope his domestic political plays and statements will not affect Malaysia’s image abroad. His speech will be listened to, analysed, and discussed at home and abroad. He has grown to be a regional leader with strong foreign policy credentials and must remain so.
The UMNO general assembly next week will have to take note of the growing restlessness among party members about UMNO’s direction and the way it is dealing with issues close to their heart.
IT has been quite a turnaround for Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. At around this time last year, the Defence Minister was lying on a hospital bed, recovering from “chest pains”, that euphemism that public figures use when they get a heart attack.The year 2013 had not been good for him. He had come under severe criticism for his handling of the Sabah incursions, his image was down and there was even speculation that he would be removed from his Defence portfolio.
The effect of all that caused him to come in last among the three UMNO Vice-Presidents and he was almost beaten by newcomer and Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir.He had hit a low point in his career. But he became a grandfather shortly after that. His grandson is now a cute and chubby toddler while the new grandfather is looking fit and healthy. Hishammuddin smells better these days because he has stopped smoking, he eats fruit and biscuit for lunch and he works out.
A year is a long, long time in politics and the sun is shining again for Hishammuddin. “His image has lifted following his role in two tragic disasters involving our national airline. He is probably one of our best known leaders overseas,” said publisher Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.
His mother’s death a few months ago was another rite de passage and that hehe-haha boyish style he used to be known for has disappeared, replaced by a more serious demeanour. He has put a lot of effort into his role as chairman for the UMNO resolutions committee. He wants to bring greater meaning and result to the hundreds of resolutions that come in from UMNO branches and divisions every year ahead of the UMNO general assembly.
His committee has received a total of 755 resolutions from 191 UMNO divisions all over the country. These resolutions range from localised matters like calls for better roads to weighty stuff like defending Islam.
In previous years, the relevant resolutions were selected for debate at the assembly while the rest were usually acknowledged with a simple reply. This year, Hishammuddin has sifted through the resolutions and brought them before the relevant ministries for attention and action. His argument is that these resolutions reflect the needs, requests and aspirations of the party grassroots and must be acted upon. That was what the round-table meeting involving ministry officials on Wednesday was about.
“He is looking at the scenario beyond the general assembly. He wants the UMNO folk down there to know that issues which are of concern to them are being taken seriously by the party leadership. Taking action on views from the grassroots is a way of empowering them,” said Pasir Salak Youth chief Dr Faizal Tajuddin.
The man who had struggled to retain his Vice-President post is on a comeback and comparisons are being made with top Vice-President and Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
The charismatic Dr Ahmad Zahid was the man of the moment a year ago, celebrated as much for his God-given people skills as for his tough stance on organised crime. The moment has passed, and his profile has slipped somewhat. But it is to his credit that gangland violence has also gone down and several states have reported lower crime rates.
Last year’s UMNO assembly had been a sort of mixed feelings type of gathering. The rank and file were euphoric that they had successfully conducted a landmark party election without too many boo-boos. There was a celebratory mood as they ushered in the new batch of leaders.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin retained their posts uncontested, a sign of the party’s stability despite a bruising general election. They could also see the second echelon taking shape in the form of Vice-Presidents Ahmad Zahid, Hishammuddin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.
In particular, Khairy Jamaluddin’s spectacular second-term win as UMNO Youth chief means that he is the one to watch in the years ahead. Khairy has brought the wow-factor to his position as Youth and Sports Minister, and he is one of the most watched UMNO politicians among those outside of UMNO.
His opinions on issues have shown that he is a cut above the rest and, more recently, many thought that he handled the doping issue involving Malaysia’s No. 1 badminton star with great maturity.
UMNO is still struggling between the old and the new. It wants to hold on to its traditional core values as a Malay nationalist party but it is also under immense pressure to adapt to the changing political landscape.
At the same time, there was the painful fact that UMNO is no longer the political powerhouse that it used to be and they were still hurting over what they saw as the “Chinese betrayal”. The hurt is still there and they are uncertain about what the future holds for UMNO.
The general expectation is that issues like the Sedition Act, vernacular schools and the attacks against Islam and the Malay rulers will dominate the debates. “Warning shots” have been fired in the run-up to the assembly, with some politicians claiming that Chinese schools are creating “two nations in one country” while another politician urged that all Malay-majority seats should be contested by UMNO.
The euphoria of last year has dissipated. In its place is a restlessness for measures that can prepare the party to face the next big battle.
There is the sense that party members are impatient for answers and solutions. They are tired of excuses and inaction, they are not going to be satisfied with sweet talk and feel-good stories. They want the leaders to get tough and address issues in a concrete way.
In that sense, the debates should not be over-controlled. There was one year prior to the general election when the debate guidelines were so strict that everyone sounded like robots reading from the same script.
Frank views and reasonable criticism should be welcomed to help the leadership keep the finger on the pulse and also for delegates to let off steam.
The party has not moved forward very much since the last general election. The inability on the part of Barisan Nasional to present itself as the alternative in Selangor even as Pakatan Rakyat was fighting like crazy over the Menteri Besar post was testimony to that.
UMNO members were also incredulous that in Terengganu, a defiant Menteri Besar who was not ready to go, had arm-twisted the party and almost brought down the state government. It was so old politics.
The bright point was the UMNO win in the Pengkalan Kubor by-election. That was a real victory – a much bigger winning majority despite a lower voter turnout. The political fatigue seen everywhere is not only because of too much politicking over everything but also because people are disillusioned that the promise of new politics has not materialised.
“The PM’s political transformation is in danger of becoming a mere slogan. UMNO leaders need to put more beef into the transformation agenda or else it will become like Islam Hadhari. No one talks about that anymore,” said political analyst Dr Azmi Omar.
UMNO people are still adjusting to Najib’s political style. One of their grouses is that he is “too quiet”. They say it is important that he makes known the government’s stand and opinion on an issue so that UMNO politicians down the line know how to respond on their own part. It is also a form of taking the lead and shaping public opinion on issues.
Shortly after Najib took over as Prime Minister, Pakatan leaders claimed that he wanted to bring back what they called “Mahathirism”, whatever that meant. They insisted that Najib’s cordial relations with Dr Mahathir meant he was taking orders from the former Premier.
It was an idiotic story, yet so many people swallowed it. The fact that Dr Mahathir has withdrawn his support for Najib for not doing what the elder man thinks is the right thing, says it all. Ties between the two men are rather choppy at the moment. Dr Mahathir has openly criticised Najib but he still loves UMNO and wants the party to survive and recover its former glory.
It has been a challenging year for Najib who is now into his fifth year as UMNO president and Prime Minister. But despite everything, said Juhaidi, Najib’s position in Umno is solid, more so than most UMNO presidents in their fifth year on the job.
“Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was already shaky in his first term while Dr Mahathir had fallen out bigtime with his deputy Tun Musa Hitam. Tun Hussein Onn lasted only a term because of heart problems while his predecessor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s health problems took his life in his sixth-year in office,” said Juhaidi.
Only Tunku Abdul Rahman could declare that he was the “happiest prime minister in the world” but the happiness did not last. Najib, said Juhaidi, has won the general election and the UMNO election. “Internally, I don’t see any challengers to his leadership. The UMNO general assembly will not be like what happened at the PAS muktamar where the guns were pointed inwards. The UMNO guns will be pointing outwards,” said Juhaidi.
Holding MACC Accountable: The Case of Ahmad Sarbani and Rosli Dahlan
by Din Merican
The Malaysian courts are full of drama. Last week, the Sodomy II Trial of Anwar Ibrahim had the nation transfixed when two legal giants, candidate AG Tan Sri Shafee Abdullah and former Federal Court Judge Dato Seri Gopal Sri Ram, battled it out on whether any sodomy took place or whether it was just a political conspiracy.
But let us not forget other equally interesting cases involving the the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) which was established in January 2009. The MACC was supposed to be a fearsome anti-corruption body. Instead of being feared for stamping out corruption, the MACC gained infamy for causing deaths and fixing innocent citizens.
The first death in MACC’s custody was on July 16, 2009, when Teoh Beng Hock was thrown out the MACC’s Selangor Office in Plaza Masalam, Shah Alam. The second death was on April 6, 2011 when Customs Director, Ahmad Sarbaini bin Mohamad was said to have jumped out of the MACC’s office at Jalan Cochraine, Kuala Lumpur. These two incidents established the MACC’s reputation for throwing people out of high-rise buildings and getting away with it.
The Commission of Inquiry and Coroner’s Inquest of these two deaths did not produce satisfactory answers neither to the family nor to the public at large. Both Teoh Beng Hock’s family and Ahmad Sarbaini’s family have filed lawsuits to hold MACC accountable for these deaths.
The honorable thing to do would have been to apologize to their families. But under advice of Attorney-General Gani Patail who is the Government’s legal advisor, MACC chose to fight these out. That is how dishonorable our Government has become under A-G Gani Patail.
What I find surprising is that Utusan Malaysia is not settling with Rosli despite having admitted to its false story and wrong doing in a public apology. I find it equally astonishing that A-G Gani Patail seems to be outsourcing all his work to private lawyers like Tan Sri Shafee Abdullah and Tan Sri Cecil Abraham.
If that is the case, the government might as well close down the A-G’s Chambers, hire Shafee as the Public Prosecutor and hire Cecil Abraham, the drafter of the late PI Bala’s Second Statutory Declaration in the Altantuya Murder case, as the Attorney-General. That may be cheaper for the taxpayers.
At the same time, another case against the MACC was supposed to take place this morning. This involved Lawyer Rosli Dahlan’s case against Utusan Malaysia and the MACC for conspiracy to fix him in 2007. Although Rosli’s case against the MACC was filed in 2009, A-G Gani Patail has resorted to all kinds of maneuvers to avoid going to trial. The same thing happened this morning when at the 11th hour the A-G asked the court to postpone Rosli’s trial.
That said, I sympathise with Rosli. I know that he had spent a lot of money to seek his redemption. And yet, he is being obstructed from having his day in court. If a lawyer of his outstanding credentials can suffer that fate, what chance do ordinary folks like us, and Kassim Ahmad, Azmi Shahrom, Adam Adli et. al have? The MACC and the A-G have deep pockets thanks to the Government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.
In just the last two months, nearly two dozen activists have been charged under Malaysia’s archaic Sedition Act.
His Freedom is on Trial
Anwar Ibrahim ( Malaysia’s Parliamentary Leader of the Opposition) is in the Malaysian Federal Court this week for what hopefully is the last chapter in a sordid affair that has done nothing but distract him from his reform agenda. We have been critical of Malaysia’s Judiciary in the past and hope that at this moment in time, the five judges at the Federal Court who are tasked with reviewing the appeal of Ibrahim’s March conviction on charges of sodomy, will adhere strictly to the Rule of Law and not be swayed by external political influences.
Malaysia as a Model Pluralistic Muslim Nation Under Tremendous Strain
Malaysia’s image as an example or a model of a Muslim majority country that is on a democratic path, economically vibrant, adheres to the rule of law, and a model to the world on how to exist as a pluralistic society is under tremendous strain today. Ibrahim’s trial is just one example of how dissident voices calling for reform of institutions in Malaysia are being persecuted.
In just the last two months, nearly two dozen activists have been charged under Malaysia’s archaic Sedition Act, including Anwar Ibrahim. Ultra right-wing groups have targeted minority communities threatening to burn bibles and tell the “immigrant” Chinese and Indian population of Malaysia to go home.
Academic Freedom too under Attack
Academic Freedom Under Attack
Academic freedom is also under attack. Two highly regarded professors were charged with sedition and Anwar Ibrahim’s lecture scheduled to take place at the University of Malaya on Monday night was systemically blocked. University staff, dismissed early in the day, and the front gates of the university were put on lockdown. A few thousand brave students defied the ban and were able to hear Anwar Ibrahim speak.
At a time when the world is confronting violent and regressive movements in parts of the Muslim world, Malaysia could be a shining example of what is possible when Muslims focus on rebuilding the tradition of scholarship, technology, and pluralism that is present throughout the history of Islamic civilisation. While the Prime Minister (Najib Tun Razak) has made positive remarks about the need for a “movement of moderates” in the Muslim world, the actions of his party at home belie his intentions.
The continuing efforts to use the judicial system against opposition political leaders will undermine Malaysia’s leadership role in regional and global affairs as well as weaken Malaysia’s traditions of political openness and democracy. Malaysian authorities, as Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Phil Robertson, has stated, “risk making a travesty of the country’s criminal justice system” unless they withdraw their case against Anwar Ibrahim.
Former US Vice President Al Gore framed the issue clearly last March when he said: “It is extremely disturbing that the government of Malaysia – by continuing to press this case beyond the bounds of reason, let alone the bounds of justice – has used the courts to short-circuit the political process.”
John L Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University.
His recent books are “The Future of Islam and (with I Kalin) “Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century.”
John O Voll is Professor of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
It is good to remind all our politicians especially those who are in power of their primary duty. For that I chose this message from President Ronald Reagan of the United States. Duty to King and Country. Where in that tagline does it say that personal and sectarian interest comes first? May I also remind religious bodies like MAIS, JAIS, JAWI and the Kedah-born Minister of Religion, Jamil Khir Bin Baharom that they should not act with impunity against those who dare to speak their minds against mindless orthodoxy. Leave Anwar Ibrahim, Adam Adli, Azmi Sharom, Kassim Ahmad, Rosli Dahlan, Sisters in Islam, Islamic Renaissance Front and others alone. –Din Merican
Defending our Fundamental Liberties: The case of MAIS Outlawing Sisters In Islam (SIS)
by Din Merican
On October 17, 2014, I wrote about the need to create a defence fund for Kassim Ahmad. Please READ :here
To me, the inhumane arrest, the abduction from Kedah to Kuala Lumpur and the unlawful charging of Malay Intellectual, Kassim Ahmad, is a sign of the erosion of our democratic principles; the erosion of Rule of Law; and worse still, the erosion of Justice when the civil courts turn a blind eye to the unlawful things being done by the religious authorities.
Of late, the civil Courts seem to abdicate their constitutional duty to check on the religious authorities by conveniently saying that the civil courts cannot interfere with the jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts.
The civil High Courts which are vested with judicial powers in the Federation seemed intimidated by the religious authorities. Is there something happening between the A-GC and the Judiciary that we should know? Judges like Dato Zaleha Yusof who had previously chided JAWI and JAIS are suddenly replaced by hard-line conservative judges to handle Judicial Review cases.
Challenge Kassim Ahmad intellectually
Before I digress, when I appealed that Malaysians should contribute to a fund to defend Kassim Ahmad, I stated that this fund is not exclusive to Kassim Ahmad but also for other similar persecutions that endanger our liberty and freedom; to secure a guarantee of our fundamental liberties.
I am happy to inform you that the fund has raised RM14,982.00. We should applaud the Malaysians who contributed. But I should also inform Malaysians that fighting legal battles with the authorities involve huge sums of money. In that sense, RM14,982 over two weeks is a paltry sum. It is not even enough to pay for the disbursements incurred for Kassim Ahmad, not to mention to pay the professional fees, which lawyers like Rosli Dahlan, Malik Imtiaz, Nizam Bashir , Fahro Azat and other like minded Muslim lawyers are prepared to waive.
Are Rosli Dahlan Malik Imtiaz, Nizam Bashir et.al deviationists ?
In other words, while these lawyers are providing their services Free of Charge, we Malaysians are not doing our part. We do nothing to fight for what we believe in. We are just deluding ourselves when we say that we love this country whereas we can’t even raise RM100,000 in that short time to fight for what we believe in. we want to behave, then this country is going down a very slippery slope…fast!
So, Malaysians, come forth and contribute because recent events have shown that there is clear and present danger that more ominous things will come our way if we are lackadaisical about the ideals that we cherish. This country is going down the slippery road very fast because we do not care enough for those who are being persecuted for dissent (reasoned discourse).
I used the Kassim Ahmad’s case merely to illustrate the surreptitious incursions by our religious authorities who can outlaw freedom of thought and ideas by a simple stroke of passing religious edicts called Fatwas which, when gazetted, suddenly become part of the laws of this country.
We all know that there are only 3 branches of government i.e. the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. We also know that making the laws of this country is the power of the Legislature whether Parliament or the State Assemblies. We also know that when the Executive misapplies the law, the Judiciary will keep them in check as it is the last bastion of justice. That is what we know and that is what we think those who govern us should know too.
Yet, what we didn’t know is that the religious authorities in this country (and there are 14 of them as we have 14 states in the Federation of Malaysia) can exercise all the powers of these 3 different branches of government. And, they do it in a very unique way without following any legal sequence.
The religious authorities of this country can just pass sentence on people with different views as deviationists without notifying them or hearing them out. Then the religious authorities just pronounce this sentence as law in the form of Fatwas. Finally, all they have to do is to just arrest those people whom they have already passed sentence on by arresting them and getting a syariah court to convict them.
Thus, in Kassim Ahmad’s case, MAWI/JAWI which are the religious authorities in Federal Territories outlawed Kassim Ahmad by decreeing that his ideas and thoughts are “sesat dan menyesatkan”. That is how they justified sending their officers to Kedah to abduct him and bring him to Kuala Lumpur to answer religious offence charges. And, soon the Syariah Court will just convict Kassim Ahmad because the civil High Court Judges will not stay JAWI from proceeding in the Syariah Court.
This practice of “outlawing” people and ideas which are different from the ideas and thoughts of the religious establishments has become more serious when recently MAIS (Majlis Agama Islam Selangor) through the Mufti of Selangor gazetted a Fatwa declaring that:
1. SIS (Sisters in Islam) and anyone else that practices Liberalism and Pluralism are deviationists;
2. All their publications are banned and can be confiscated;
3. MCMC are to censor and block their electronic media;
4. These deviationists can be compelled to corrective measures.
Literally speaking, with one stroke of the pen, the religious authorities have “outlawed” the whole SIS Board, members, employees, contributors, supporters etc. They are condemned as deviationists without being duly notified nor to explain themselves. This is a clear violation of the Federal Constitution and the UNHCR Human Rights Declaration (which Malaysia is a signatory of that charter), that no one shall be condemned without the right to be heard.
Is Marina Mahathir is a promoter of LGBT as accused by ISMA?
It is most alarming that without even specifically identifying the persons or publications, MAIS has practically declared every Muslim as potentially a deviationists. So, in effect, is MAIS also declaring that Tun Dr Mahathir and his daughter Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir (and her friends above), Dato Zaid Ibrahim and his son Ezra Zaid, academic Azmi Shahrom and anyone who supports them including the lawyers who act for them like Rosli Dahlan, Malik Imtiaz, Nizam Bashir and Fahri Azzat also as deviationists?
Have they forgotten that it was Tun Dr Mahathir who promulgated Art.121(1A) into the Federal Constitution that gave them the powers that they now wield against him? Have they forgotten that Tun Dr Mahathir established the International Islamic University from which Rosli Dahlan and Malik Imtiaz graduated and are the very lawyers accusing these religious authorities of violating the Constitution? Are they now biting the very hand that created them and those that came from within their own fold?
Dr Mahathir said Jais needed to refer to the Quran to find out how to handle such situations instead of following the interpretations of some…
The Third ban in that Fatwa is also worrisome. You now see a state Mufti directing MCMC to censor and ban internet social sites. Since when can a state Mufti have powers under the Multi Media Act to direct the MCMC to do anything? I suppose the MCMC Chairman Dato Shahril who is a Muslim can be charged by JAIS if he disregards the Mufti’s Fatwa?
The Fourth ban is very dangerous. In effect, it means that a deviationist can be detained in a corrective centre by the religious authorities until he disavows or recants his views, this is similar to being detained in prison indefinitely for contempt until the contempnor purges his contempt.
My Fellow Malaysians, I have written this short piece to wake you up to the dangers that confront us. I appeal to you to come defend your rights. If you can see what I am seeing, then you will contribute to the Defence Fund which will be used not just for Kassim Ahmad, but also for such similar causes. So, please contribute generously to:
Maybank Berhad A/C No 514011895152 Swift code: MBBEMYKL
The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.
As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century.
The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants.
Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.
The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence.The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”.
Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.
Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion.
Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion. But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.
After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive.
The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.
Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar.
When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
The Myth of Religious Violence
Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe.
The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.
It was these European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create what has been called “the myth of religious violence”. It was said that Protestants and Catholics were so inflamed by the theological passions of the Reformation that they butchered one another in senseless battles that killed 35% of the population of central Europe. Yet while there is no doubt that the participants certainly experienced these wars as a life-and-death religious struggle, this was also a conflict between two sets of state-builders: the princes of Germany and the other kings of Europe were battling against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his ambition to establish a trans-European hegemony modelled after the Ottoman empire.
If the wars of religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so. Thus Catholic France repeatedly fought the Catholic Habsburgs, who were regularly supported by some of the Protestant princes.
In the French wars of religion (1562–98) and the thirty years war, combatants crossed confessional lines so often that it was impossible to talk about solidly “Catholic” or “Protestant” populations. These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. There was as yet no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes.
People were fighting for different visions of society, but they would not, and could not, have distinguished between religious and temporal factors in these conflicts. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.
These developments required a new understanding of religion. It was provided by Martin Luther, who was the first European to propose the separation of church and state. Medieval Catholicism had been an essentially communal faith; most people experienced the sacred by living in community. But for Luther, the Christian stood alone before his God, relying only upon his Bible.
Luther’s acute sense of human sinfulness led him, in the early 16th century, to advocate the absolute states that would not become a political reality for another hundred years. For Luther, the state’s prime duty was to restrain its wicked subjects by force, “in the same way as a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes”. The sovereign, independent state reflected this vision of the independent and sovereign individual. Luther’s view of religion, as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction, would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal.
But Luther’s response to the peasants’ war in Germany in 1525, during the early stages of the wars of religion, suggested that a secularised political theory would not necessarily be a force for peace or democracy. The peasants, who were resisting the centralising policies of the German princes – which deprived them of their traditional rights – were mercilessly slaughtered by the state. Luther believed that they had committed the cardinal sin of mixing religion and politics: suffering was their lot, and they should have turned the other cheek, and accepted the loss of their lives and property.
“A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”
Dawn of the liberal state
By the late 17th century, philosophers had devised a more urbane version of the secular ideal. For John Locke it had become self-evident that “the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable.” The separation of religion and politics – “perfectly and infinitely different from each other” – was, for Locke, written into the very nature of things. But the liberal state was a radical innovation, just as revolutionary as the market economy that was developing in the west and would shortly transform the world. Because of the violent passions it aroused, Locke insisted that the segregation of “religion” from government was “above all things necessary” for the creation of a peaceful society.
Hence Locke was adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse. Locke was a major advocate of the theory of natural human rights, originally pioneered by the Renaissance humanists and given definition in the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and property. But secularisation emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonise the New World, and it would come to exert considerable influence on the way the west viewed those it had colonised – much as in our own time, the prevailing secular ideology perceives Muslim societies that seem incapable of separating faith from politics to be irredeemably flawed.
This introduced an inconsistency, since for the Renaissance humanists there could be no question of extending these natural rights to the indigenous inhabitants of the New World. Indeed, these peoples could justly be penalised for failing to conform to European norms. In the 16th century, Alberico Gentili, a professor of civil law at Oxford, argued that land that had not been exploited agriculturally, as it was in Europe, was “empty” and that “the seizure of [such] vacant places” should be “regarded as law of nature”.
Locke agreed that the native peoples had no right to life, liberty or property. The “kings” of America, he decreed, had no legal right of ownership to their territory. He also endorsed a master’s “Absolute, arbitrary, despotical power” over a slave, which included “the power to kill him at any time”. The pioneers of secularism seemed to be falling into the same old habits as their religious predecessors.
Secularism was designed to create a peaceful world order, but the church was so intricately involved in the economic, political and cultural structures of society that the secular order could only be established with a measure of violence. In North America, where there was no entrenched aristocratic government, the disestablishment of the various churches could be accomplished with relative ease. But in France, the church could be dismantled only by an outright assault; far from being experienced as a natural and essentially normative arrangement, the separation of religion and politics could be experienced as traumatic and terrifying.
During the French revolution, one of the first acts of the new national assembly on November 2, 1789, was to confiscate all church property to pay off the national debt: secularisation involved dispossession, humiliation and marginalisation. This segued into outright violence during the September massacres of 1792, when the mob fell upon the jails of Paris and slaughtered between two and three thousand prisoners, many of them priests.
Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors: “The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women … The roads are littered with corpses.”
Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.
To die for one’s country
When Napoleon’s armies invaded Prussia in 1807, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte similarly urged his countrymen to lay down their lives for the Fatherland – a manifestation of the divine and the repository of the spiritual essence of the Volk. If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die, what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation had come to replace God. It is now considered admirable to die for your country, but not for your religion.
As the nation-state came into its own in the 19th century along with the industrial revolution, its citizens had to be bound tightly together and mobilised for industry. Modern communications enabled governments to create and propagate a national ethos, and allowed states to intrude into the lives of their citizens more than had ever been possible. Even if they spoke a different language from their rulers, subjects now belonged to the “nation,” whether they liked it or not.
John Stuart Mill regarded this forcible integration as progress; it was surely better for a Breton, “the half-savage remnant of past times”, to become a French citizen than “sulk on his own rocks”. But in the late 19th century, the British historian Lord Acton feared that the adulation of the national spirit that laid such emphasis on ethnicity, culture and language, would penalise those who did not fit the national norm: “According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.”
The Enlightenment philosophers had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with “religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past. The structural injustice of the agrarian state, however, had made it impossible to implement these ideals fully. The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities.
More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratised forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of modernity to an elite fell behind.
Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.
Yet this toleration was only skin-deep, and as Lord Acton had predicted, an intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the achilles heel of the nation-state. Indeed, the ethnic minority would replace the heretic (who had usually been protesting against the social order) as the object of resentment in the new nation-state.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment in the United States, instructed his secretary of war in 1807 that Native Americans were “backward peoples” who must either be “exterminated” or driven “beyond our reach” to the other side of the Mississippi “with the beasts of the forest”. The following year, Napoleon issued the “infamous decrees”, ordering the Jews of France to take French names, privatise their faith, and ensure that at least one in three marriages per family was with a gentile.
Increasingly, as national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would come to be seen as rootless and cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of antisemitism in Europe, which undoubtedly drew upon centuries of Christian prejudice, but gave it a scientific rationale, claiming that Jews did not fit the biological and genetic profile of the Volk, and should be eliminated from the body politic as modern medicine cut out a cancer.
When secularisation was implemented in the developing world, it was experienced as a profound disruption – just as it had originally been in Europe. Because it usually came with colonial rule, it was seen as a foreign import and rejected as profoundly unnatural. In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life.
What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.
Very often modernising rulers have embodied secularism at its very worst and have made it unpalatable to their subjects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic of Turkey in 1918, is often admired in the west as an enlightened Muslim leader, but for many in the Middle East he epitomised the cruelty of secular nationalism.
He hated Islam, describing it as a “putrefied corpse”, and suppressed it in Turkey by outlawing the Sufi orders and seizing their properties, closing down the madrasas and appropriating their income. He also abolished the beloved institution of the caliphate, which had long been a dead-letter politically but which symbolised a link with the Prophet. For groups such as al-Qaida and Isis, reversing this decision has become a paramount goal.
Ataturk also continued the policy of ethnic cleansing that had been initiated by the last Ottoman sultans; in an attempt to control the rising commercial classes, they systematically deported the Armenian and Greek-speaking Christians, who comprised 90% of the bourgeoisie. The Young Turks, who seized power in 1909, espoused the antireligious positivism associated with August Comte and were also determined to create a purely Turkic state.
During the first world war, approximately one million Armenians were slaughtered in the first genocide of the 20th century: men and youths were killed where they stood, while women, children and the elderly were driven into the desert where they were raped, shot, starved, poisoned, suffocated or burned to death.
Clearly inspired by the new scientific racism, Mehmet Resid, known as the “execution governor”, regarded the Armenians as “dangerous microbes” in “the bosom of the Fatherland”. Ataturk completed this racial purge. For centuries Muslims and Christians had lived together on both sides of the Aegean; Ataturk partitioned the region, deporting Greek Christians living in what is now Turkey to Greece, while Turkish-speaking Muslims in Greece were sent the other way.
The Fundamentalist Reaction
Secularising rulers such as Ataturk often wanted their countries to look modern, that is, European. In Iran in 1928, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the laws of uniformity of dress: his soldiers tore off women’s veils with bayonets and ripped them to pieces in the street. In 1935, the police were ordered to open fire on a crowd who had staged a peaceful demonstration against the dress laws in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Policies like this made veiling, which has no Qur’anic endorsement, an emblem of Islamic authenticity in many parts of the Muslim world.
Following the example of the French, Egyptian rulers secularised by disempowering and impoverishing the clergy. Modernisation had begun in the Ottoman period under the governor Muhammad Ali, who starved the Islamic clergy financially, taking away their tax-exempt status, confiscating the religiously endowed properties that were their principal source of income, and systematically robbing them of any shred of power. When the reforming army officer Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952, he changed tack and turned the clergy into state officials.
For centuries, they had acted as a protective bulwark between the people and the systemic violence of the state. Now Egyptians came to despise them as government lackeys. This policy would ultimately backfire, because it deprived the general population of learned guidance that was aware of the complexity of the Islamic tradition. Self-appointed freelancers, whose knowledge of Islam was limited, would step into the breach, often to disastrous effect.
If some Muslims today fight shy of secularism, it is not because they have been brainwashed by their faith but because they have often experienced efforts at secularisation in a particularly virulent form. Many regard the west’s devotion to the separation of religion and politics as incompatible with admired western ideals such as democracy and freedom. In 1992, a military coup in Algeria ousted a president who had promised democratic reforms, and imprisoned the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which seemed certain to gain a majority in the forthcoming elections.
Had the democratic process been thwarted in such an unconstitutional manner in Iran or Pakistan, there would have been worldwide outrage. But because an Islamic government had been blocked by the coup, there was jubilation in some quarters of the western press – as if this undemocratic action had instead made Algeria safe for democracy. In rather the same way, there was an almost audible sigh of relief in the west when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt last year. But there has been less attention to the violence of the secular military dictatorship that has replaced it, which has exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak regime.
After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms.
Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs.
There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain. •
• Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is published today by Bodley Head.