The Myth of Religious Violence


October 31, 2014

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.

Karen ArmstrongAs 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.

Sam Harris- We should have a conversation

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

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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.

Kemal AturturkVery 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, thatShah_of_iran 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.

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC


October 29, 2014

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

By Kean Wong, Special to the Malaysian Insider

 The White HouseThe White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had just outlined the robust prospects for Malaysia’s economy and was busy posing for photos with Malaysia’s new Ambassador to the United States Datuk Awang Adek and various Manhattan dignitaries on stage when a few visiting Malaysians and an American businessman familiar with what he called the “heyday of Mahathir’s Malaysia” opened up around the coffee stand about the challenges that needed trouncing today if the weather was to clear up in the weeks and months ahead.

Like President Obama – who considers PM Najib a close Asian confidante, andNajib and Obama according to Washington insiders, a “most reliable friend” amid an anxious region – the Prime Minister has sought comfort in foreign policy wins over the often thankless and truculent realities of domestic politics.

So the ringing global endorsement of Malaysia as a new UN Security Council member next year that handily coincides with its much-awaited chairmanship of ASEAN (after Cambodia’s recent vexed leadership) is justly deserved and celebrated, avers a veteran former Asian diplomat now at the United Nations in New York.

Razali IsmailThanks to Malaysia’s “inspired and markets-friendly” global leadership during the Mahathir years, and fondly remembered diplomats like Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Malaysia still glows on the world stage.

The country represents a “necessary and useful” example and plays an international role as a globalised, Muslim-led country at a time of fraught Western relations with the Muslim world, notes a senior American diplomat echoing a common view at Washington-based think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In the current campaign against Isis and its unravelling of Iraq and Syria, where the Obama administration has been desperately keen on stitching together a better “coalition of the willing” (Muslim) nations to combat such extremism, the Najib government is a stalwart ally.

Despite American concerns raised over the alleged use of the Sedition Act to crackdown on Malaysian dissent and an expectation that this week’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trial will turn out poorly for the opposition leader, there is a prevailing Washington agenda about terrorism, China’s rise and related trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – not necessarily in that order – that should not be derailed.

John KerrryAs a senior US State Department official explained in a briefing ahead of Secretary John Kerry’s series of bilateral meetings in Jakarta following President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, “at the top of the list (is) the international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (Isis)… we hope that the individual countries can do more and cooperate more to ensure that, in the first instance, Southeast Asia remains immune to the proselytizing efforts of Isis; and secondly, that these countries assist effectively beyond what they’ve done already to rebut the false ideology.”

“Of course, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore are also members of the TPP negotiations. That’s a topic that is likely to be touched on (in bilateral talks),” Kerry said. “Malaysia, I would flag for you, has just won a seat on the UN Security Council circa 2015 and will take over from Burma in 2015 as the next chair of ASEAN. So there’s a lot of good work to be done in the meeting with Prime Minister Najib.”

Yet it was the mixed results so far of Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and worries over the Prime Mminister’s political future that coloured the backdrop of conversations accompanying a slew of Malaysian leaders over the past month of American visits.

For one traveling Malaysian businessman, speculating about life after a Najib Prime Ministership was apparently commonplace among his peers. He was concerned that the “many good ideas and sincerity” of the Prime Minister’s team in pushing Malaysia forward could be jeopardised by the various UMNO-linked pressure groups like PERKASA and ISMA, which “did not understand” how the globalised Malaysian economy worked.

Perhaps surprisingly, his American businessman friend was more adept at working out the realpolitik, contrasting Washington’s acute polarisation of politics and culture by going through Malaysia’s possible list of successors, and echoing what some in UMNO Youth have argued is the ascendancy of leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin to break political deadlocks (and stasis).

But as another visitor remarked, where does that leave the present incumbent? With looming defeat expected at next month’s polls for the Democrats – where losing control of the US Senate means souring prospects for Obama’s domestic agenda and legacy – perhaps navigating past lame-duck leaders will be the corporate world’s biggest challenge on both sides of the globe.

Yet the bilateral relationship between Malaysia and the US has “never been better”, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, pictured in 2010greased along by a “strong” personal bond forged between the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama, explained a diplomat travelling with Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to Washington last month.

As a measure of the depth of bilateral ties, and in time for the current campaign against Isil and related security threats, Zahid was feted across Washington in long meetings with key Obama administration officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CIA Director John Brennan (where Zahid spent three hours at the Langley HQ), and Attorney-General Eric Holder.

Zahid later explained at a Malaysian Embassy dinner that our “strong ties, trust” will also help propel along the likelihood of Malaysians being granted coveted visa waivers to the US, in another sign of the strengthening “people to people” links that are a key feature of bilateral ties.

In an embassy reception marking both Hari Merdeka and Armed Forces Day, Zahid as a former Defence Minister also listed in his speech the various ongoing Pentagon-funded programmes and regional exercises where Malaysia plays a key part, that was as much a legacy of Malaysia’s anti-communist Cold War role as today’s delicate exigencies over the South China Sea.

The Minister waved away concerns over domestic politics by referring to the “national interest”; moreover, as a senior officer working for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff saw it, Malaysia’s domestic uncertainties paled by comparison to the jostling ASEAN faces in the South China Sea with China and there was “much to look forward to with Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship”.

J YunAt a discussion a few nights later at nearby American University, the visiting US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (left) also echoed the Home Minister’s celebration of our American relationship, and explained that Malaysia was on track to join the US visa waiver programme as our “5% visa refusal rate” trends down towards a 3% criterion.

While the US envoy was perhaps more circumspect than usual in deference to the Malaysian Ambassador in the audience, Yun did note American concerns over the “social, political challenges” that included vexed differences over religious issues and the ‘politicised’ TPP negotiations.

The audience chuckled along when both envoys agreed the Malaysian government faced such dilemmas in a polarised atmosphere “just like Washington”, blaming much of it on “hard to control” social media and the Internet.

Yet as the former US Ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott, points out, strongambassador-john-malott bilateral ties notwithstanding, Malaysia has been a skilled diplomatic player in an increasingly anxious region, which knows its interests may be between that of the US, China and Asean over immediate issues like the South China Sea – and the need to recalibrate responses to China as it asserts its economic weight and ambitions.

“I find it amazing the US puts so much store in the TPP with Malaysia when there are other economic and trade interests that are just are important to American companies, when American companies don’t get a fair shake because of the problems of corruption, a lack of transparency in such areas as ‘no bid contracts’,” Malott said.

Perhaps a more attractive future Malaysia shimmered into view a week later when the increasingly popular Yuna took the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium downtown. As the gaggle of so-called “hijabsters” danced, clapped and swayed in the aisles, Yuna charmed the rest of us with her mix of polished pop tunes and modest tales between songs about her experiences as a Malaysian taking on the Los Angeles music world.

In the crowd queueing for photographs and autographs afterwards, the Malaysians who turned out in force for their homegirl merged seamlessly with the wider America on display. The future seemed within grasp for now.

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Anwar Ibrahim at University of Malaya (October 27, 2014)


October 28, 2014

Anwar Ibrahim at University of Malaya

Anwar at UM

Anwar Ibrahim spoke with passion to students at the University of Malaya last night (October 27, 2014). He asked his audience, why is the government in power is so scared of a simple human being like him that they won’t allow him to speak in the campus of his alma mater. Where is academic freedom, where is academic excellence and where is our dignity as a people? He spoke of racism and disunity, corruption and abuse of power. Listen to him.–Din Merican

Listen to Rafizi Ramli, the Strategist behind the Kajang Move


October 26.2014

Listen to Rafizi Ramli, the Strategist behind the Kajang Move

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2014/10/21/crackdowns-and-economic-stagnancy-in-conversation-with-malaysian-mp-rafizi-ramli/

Mahathir-Vs-NajibMalaysian politics is on tenter hooks. On the international stage Prime Minister Najib has been widely praised for his commitment to a moderate and progressive form of Islam. But at home, this year alone, the ruling UMNO has agreed to cooperate with opposition Party Islam to introduce hudud law in Kelantan; Malaysia’s highest court has decreed that Malay-speaking Christians may not use the word Allah, even though they have done so for more than a century; a state Islamic department seized over 300 Malay-language editions of the bible then refused Attorney-General instructions to return them; and a senior minister declared that Malaysia was not a secular state.

On a related front, since May this year around twenty sedition charges have been laid or enquiries initiated, against opposition leaders, activists, university scholars, journalists and students – notwithstanding that in July 2012 the Prime Minister promised to repeal this catch-all act, describing it as belonging to a ‘bygone era’.

The economy, meanwhile, continues to grow at around five per cent per annum, but is not matching achievements before the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. Economists warn of tougher times ahead, particularly with rising inflation and a higher cost of living. The allocation of large handouts to cushion these problems limits funds available for development.

Can the Opposition coalition, beset by its own internal and intra-party conflicts, helpRafizi turn this situation around? In this video, New Mandala co-founder Dr Nicholas Farrelly discusses the state of democracy and politics in Malaysia with People’s Justice Party Vice-President and Secretary General Mr Rafizi Ramli.

Rafizi Ramli, PRK’s Secretary-General and Vice-President, is a 37-year old politician who has gained prominence for a series of corruption exposes. He is currently under a sedition investigation for a book he has written on Anwar’s second sodomy case, and has also recently been charged under the Penal Code over a statement he made in February alleging political attempts to create racial and religious discord in Selangor.

 

US Asian Foreign Policy


October 26, 2014

US Asian Foreign Policy

by Dr. Munir Majid@www.the star.com.my

“US foreign policy in Asia, therefore, has to be delicate and sensitive enough to adjust to what can be described without exaggeration as seismic economic change. On the one hand, it should not be drawn too deeply into exclusively political-security manifestations despite China’s unacceptable belligerent and assertive actions. On the other, America must adjust to Asia’s economic rise.”–Dr. Munir Majid

Tan_Sri_Dr_Munir_MajidTHE United States is a global power. Asia the largest continent on earth. The Asian economies of the proposed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) alone now constitute 30% of global output, with consistently the highest growth rates and holding the largest reserves in the world.

It is not likely the United States would have missed Asia in the conduct of its foreign policy in pursuit of its interests. The interminable discussion, particularly among academics, on the US pivot or rebalance to Asia, following President Barack Obama’s use of the former term, can be overdone. It can result in the wood being missed for the trees.

That discussion, furthermore, leads to concentration on the military and security aspects of US foreign policy in Asia. US policy-makers lend their weight to this, with statements such as those by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in 2010 or previous Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2012.

Clinton had said freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes were vital to US interests in the region. Panetta said that in the rebalance, US naval forces in the Pacific would be increased to 60% from the present 50%.

All this was said in relation to China, in the context of disputes the rising Asian power has with a number of states in the East China Sea and South China Sea. It did not take a leap of imagination to leave the impression the new emphasis of US foreign policy in Asia is primarily political-security in nature – and is intended to contain China as it became more assertive in the sea disputes.

A number of reasons has conventionally been offered for China’s greater assertiveness. It is a rising power; these things historically happen. On the other hand the US is a declining power; often a parallel is drawn with the conflict between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC which ended the latter’s domination of ancient Greece.

It is also asserted that there has been a loss of central control in China of the country’s bureaucratic political structures which allowed the fisheries department, for instance, to go ahead of the foreign ministry in asserting the sea claims. Unlikely as it may sound, this is not impossible especially as another reason offered is not mutually exclusive: the desire, at China’s centre, to shore up legitimacy at home at a time of increasing domestic stress, such as contending with the social consequences of slowdown in GDP growth from 10% to 7.5%.

All these reasons are not implausible, although I would add ASEAN’s desultory approach in pursuing the code of conduct under the terms of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002 until the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012 between China and the Philippines, and the failure of foreign ministers from the regional grouping to agree on a joint communique for the first time in that same year, gave Beijing time and space to fashion that greater assertiveness whatever its leitmotif.

In the context of US foreign policy in Asia, the China Question has become predominant again as it was all those years ago in regard to recognition of the communist regime, its representation of China at the United Nations and final establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

The objective of balancing, if not containment of, China cannot become the sole reason for the United States’ greater involvement in Asia. It delivers a political-security good which most countries in the region secretly desire, but it cannot become the sum total of US foreign policy in Asia.

The drama of the sea disputes has obscured the good reason for US’ greater interest in Asia which is primarily economic, the region’s dynamism which has moved the centre of global economic gravity eastwards to the Asia Pacific. While the political-security interest may secure economic benefits, it can also spoil their achievement if relations between US and China are possessed by such a concern alone.

What has been happening in Asia is that both US and China are driving each other into positions which are antagonistic and not cooperative. Leaving aside military chest-thumping and bellicose diplomatic language, they are also trying to exclude, or at least marginalise the other, in the organisation of Asia-Pacific regional economic cooperation.

The RCEP (negotiation for which involves Asean and six Asia-Pacific states) does not include the United States. China has not been invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Vietnam, for instance, is a negotiating partner which would not pass the same pre-qualification as China if the US had some such objective test. It is realpolitik – and the compliment is returned with the RCEP.

Other Asian states are being forced into making a choice between the two constructs, whether they are members, or potential members, of both. Even if it is argued the two groupings will ultimately coalesce, the burning issue is the standards and style of trade and investment relations which differ, with the TPP particularly bearing heavy American imprint.

The US has done well in signalling its economic interest in Asia with the rebalance, often considered as the second pillar of the pivot to Asia. Understandably, having been at the centre of the international economic system that had driven Asian growth, it now wants, as a long-established Pacific nation, to share in further regional prosperity – by still being at that centre and by entrenching as well as by strengthening the rules of economic conduct.

Asian restoration

The latter gives rise to problems in the pursuit of US foreign policy objectives in Asia. It is a new Asia the US is dealing with, not the Asia of yore when the American writ was overwhelming.

It is a more confident Asia. Indeed the whole sweep of the change in the centre of economic gravity is something of an Asian restoration. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund ranked China’s economy as the world’s biggest in purchasing power parity terms. American predominance in at most the last century is over. The Chinese economy which was the biggest in many more hundreds of years is now back.

The Economist observed: “The brief interlude in which America overshadowed it (China) is now over.”

Asia has also looked on as the American capitalist system came close to meltdown in the 2008 crisis because of many excesses embedded in the rules of the economic game. Rules and forms of crisis management which America taught Asia never to entertain were employed to save the economy. There have not been contrition and enough humility afterwards.

Indeed it would seem to Asia some of those rules are being strengthened with a vengeance in American trade and investment proposals, such as to be found in the TPP, particularly in respect of corporate rights against the state. Have not any lessons been learned both from recent economic experience and from the historic rise of Asia in the desire – perfectly understandably – to further Americans interests?

Yet the system America offers is still the best to achieve optimal economic outcomes. But it has to be substantially adjusted to avoid considerable social and political cost, and to reflect that other countries, especially in Asia, have grown up and grown big.

US foreign policy in Asia, therefore, has to be delicate and sensitive enough to adjust Barack Obamato what can be described without exaggeration as seismic economic change. On the one hand, it should not be drawn too deeply into exclusively political-security manifestations despite China’s unacceptable belligerent and assertive actions. On the other, America must adjust to Asia’s economic rise.

Schemes of trilateral or quadrilateral alliances, even of a “soft” kind, involving the United States, Japan, India and/or Australia, are provocative. While it is always stated by the advocates they are not against China, this is what Beijing reasonably feels. At the very least they isolate China. Alliances have a history of bringing about precisely the outcomes they purportedly want to avoid.

CHINA-RUSSIA-UN-DIPLOMACYChina for its part should not continue to be a stick in the mud, carping and complaining, self-righteous in proclaiming always that others are in the wrong, never Beijing. Whereas China’s actions in the South China Sea particularly have been bullying and abominable. Its sovereignty over areas it claims is not God-given. It is disputed. Other states have rights. It cannot go about behaving in the vein that might is right. It must recognise international laws and the friendships it eschews.

Actually, both America and China must give substance to the new type of great power relationship which was identified in the Obama-Xi Jinping meeting in Sunnylands, California in June last year. As Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in March this year the US must articulate its own vision for the evolving international order that is acceptable to both countries.

On the other hand, China should not expect to replicate principles of that kind of relationship which it had first forged with Russia in the mid-1990s. That model would not fit. Russia is not the United States. As the status quo global power and the revisionist rising regional power due weight must be recognised in each other. A very difficult process no doubt but neither should be in denial of the other’s position and a creative relationship can be forged without recourse to tired old foreign policy constructs.

ASEAN_logo_1ASEAN too has a role beyond tedious repetition of the ASEAN platform being the basis of regional cooperation and security. That platform will float away if there was not a stronger foreign policy positioning – particularly on the South China Sea disputes. There is some belated effort on the code of conduct but to always work from the technical and official position on these issues upwards without clear leadership at the top is disappointing to say the least. How many times have Asean leaders focused for more than half an hour on the South China Sea issues? There has to be deep concentrated effort.

The fear of failure cannot rule the day. If ASEAN states cannot take on at least one major foreign policy position in their region, how could they expect the US and China to negotiate on the more daunting evolving international order?

The states of Asia as a whole, of course, must also play the responsible part of grown-up countries to ensure their new found prosperity and outstanding economic prospect are not upset by stupid swagger and assertive expression. They must remember they still have some way to go. Future prospect is not current reality.

And, as the present global superpower, the US has a complex role quite unlike the situation in the past when its word was law. It is a different world. Therefore it cannot be the same America.

 

Day of Final Reckoning has come for Anwar Ibrahim


October 26, 2014

Day of Final Reckoning has come for Anwar Ibrahim

by Jocelyn Tan@www.thestar.com.my

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is approaching another critical moment in his career as the apex court readies to hear his sodomy case appeal. But there is a different mood in his party this time around.

DSAI2IT had been raining cats and dogs since dusk and, for a while, it seemed like the first leg of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s roadshow would be washed out. But the rain tapered off after 9pm and then it was showtime. It was only natural that Anwar picked Permatang Pauh to begin his ceramah series as he approaches judgment day for the sodomy trial.

This once sleepy enclave in Seberang Prai was where it all began for him and the people of Permatang Pauh have stood by him through all his ups and downs.But the last few months have not been an up period for Anwar. His reputation is at its lowest ebb in years, ruined by the Kajang Move fiasco. A strategy his advisers thought would propel him forward had instead sent him crashing down.

This Prime Minister aspirant had once walked on water but his aura has been dented and the signs were all there that night – a rather passive atmosphere and a crowd of barely 1,500 despite the presence of some big guns.

Rakyat Hakim Negara CampaignIt was a muted start to his “Rakyat Hakim Negara” campaign, a clarion call to the people to be the judge in this final stage of his sodomy trial. It is his way of subjecting the trial to the court of public opinion rather than the court of law.Blame it on the rain but it is undeniable that there has been some sort of shift in voter sentiment about politics and issues.

Anwar is a political virtuoso and he can smell it in the air. But the thing about Anwar is his ability to control his emotions. He is still an incomparable orator, the soaring rhetoric is still there, and he came down from the stage and spoke standing on the steps so as to bridge the gap with his audience.

Even his attempt to remind them of the black eye incident was presented as a joke: “I don’t want to be shocked again… suddenly ba-da-boom… a black eye.” It was only towards the final part that he assumed a more serious note, saying that he is mentally prepared for the worst on October 28 and 29, when the Federal Court will hear and decide on his final appeal against the sodomy charges.

One year ago, at the height of his popularity, he would have urged the crowd to come out to protest and they would have done so. But he can sense the change and, this time, he asked for their prayers.

A news portal described the Permatang Pauh ceramah as Anwar’s “farewell speech”. There is a sense of doom and gloom about the coming week. Many in PKR are thinking the worst case scenario – they think Anwar will be found guilty rather than innocent. They have always maintained that this is a political trial aimed at stopping the party and to deprive Pakatan Rakyat of a prime minister candidate.

Kit SiangThe stakes, said a Penang lawyer, are very high this time. If Anwar is found guilty, his political life will end there and then.“There is no one with his skills to hold the three political animals (PKR, DAP and PAS) in one cage. Whether you like him or not, there is only one Anwar. No one can replace him,” said the lawyer.If Anwar is not there, PAS and DAP will separate like oil and water.

PKR leaders are working to organise a protest rally at the Palace of Justice where the federal judges will preside.The new Youth chief, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, is under pressure to pull off a big rally but he is said to be struggling because the party is quite badly divided after the PKR election earlier this year. For instance, when Nik Nazmi called a press conference to announce the arrangements for the rally, only two Youth leaders turned up alongside him.

The internal split was further aggravated when 90% of the appointed party posts Rafiziwere given to those aligned to Kajang Move architect Rafizi Ramli. The onus is now on Nik Nazmi and Rafizi, who is the new Secretary-General, to get a mammoth crowd to show everyone that Anwar is still loved and needed.  This is their first major assignment and all eyes are going to be on whether they can bring the party out on the big day.

Lack of support

But supporters of former Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim will not be turning out in big numbers. They are still bitter about the way their man was pushed off the stage.

Neither will all of Azmin Ali’s supporters come out in full force. They are still fed-up at the way the group around Istana Segambut, the term for the powerful Anwar family, tried to undermine Azmin during the party polls and how they had tried to block his ascent to the Selangor Menteri Besar post.

But Khalid’s former special officer Khairul Anuar Ahmad Zainudin will be there. “People are still nursing their wounds. It is not easy to forget the election – flying chairs, people punching each other. It has affected the mood. But I’m going because Anwar is still the best person to fight Barisan Nasional,” said Khairul who is also the PJU division chief.

A former Youth branch chief who was less enthusiastic said: “I will go if I wake up early.” It is little wonder that Anwar had wanted his wife to be Selangor Menteri Besar. If that had happened, the Selangor administration would likely have been involved in one way or another in focusing on the Anwar cause.

Azmin AliAzmin has indicated that he will be there to show his support. The new Menteri Besar said he had never missed important court dates for Anwar and he does not intend to make an exception now.But a lot of the passion, the fire and even the anger have been replaced by political fatigue.

The centre of gravity in PKR has started to shift to Azmin. Many in the party can see that he has what it takes for the complex job of Menteri Besar.The transition from Khalid to Azmin has been smoother than many had dared hope for. Azmin has shown leadership and ability, and that has helped the coalition pull back from the brink of the political crisis.

Many people, especially the intelligentsia, feel let down by Anwar. The Kajang Move was a tipping point for the thinking class. They had put so much hope on him but he fluffed it. First, he made a sitting assemblyman resign so that he could contest a by-election. Then he put his wife as the candidate. Next, he pushed down a sitting Mentri Besar and tried to put his wife as the next Mentri Besar.

“People have been able to relook and rethink their views about the party and the man. They had to take a hard look at whether they have looked up to the wrong man to be the next PM,” said the above lawyer.

But there is still a lot of sympathy for him and his family.“It is not that people wish him ill but I don’t see them pouring into the streets again,” said Rita Sim of the CENSE think-tank.

Support AnwarThe big numbers at Pakatan rallies have often come from PAS supporters and that has thinned off (?). The Arab Spring inspired many Muslims but the outcome has left a bad taste in their mouth. The Egypt protests brought down an unpopular dictator but it resulted in unrest and instability and the void has been filled by another strongman. Likewise, the Hong Kong protests have drawn mixed reaction from Chinese Malaysians.

The reality is that the average Malaysian is currently more concerned about rice-bowl issues than politics.A great deal of Anwar’s clout back when he was hit with the second sodomy charges was the way the leading ulama in PAS rallied to his cause. They defended him at ceramah, at Friday lectures and in their conversations with friends and family.

The ulama support carried tremendous moral weight for the average Malay. But the Hadi3ulama from PAS seem to have disappeared. They are more concerned about implementing hudud in Kelantan and commenting on issues like petting dogs and beer guzzling.

Life, as they like to say, has its cycles. At the start of the sodomy issue in 2008, the most vilified man was Anwar’s accuser, the sweet-faced Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Today, six years later, Saiful has grown up. He got married last year and in July, he became the father of a cute baby boy.

He is now a handsome 30-year-old, the dimpled smile is still there and he looks like a natural father from the way he holds and carries his infant son. There is also the romantic in him going by his Facebook posting of him and his wife, Sue Megat Deraman, holding hands over a candlelight dinner on their wedding anniversary.

Saiful has kept a low profile through the years. He looks contented and happy although he is probably as nervous and anxious about the impending court verdict as the man he accused of sodomising him.Saiful’s life today is poles apart from that of his former boss Anwar.But their lives will be impacted again whichever way the court decides next week.