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

Karen Armstrong Latest Book

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.

Congratulations, President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kala of Republik Indonesia


October 20, 2014

Congratulations, Republik Indonesia

MY COMMENT: Congratulations to my Indonesian friends, associates and the people of Indonesia, Malaysia’s good friend, on the occasion of the inauguration of your President and Vice President today.

Joko and JusufPresident Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla of Republik Indonesia

Despite some controversies during the last Presidential election, Indonesia has shown that it is a viable democratic state and a worthy leader of the ASEAN community.

To new President and Vice President I extend my warm wishes and congratulations on their inauguration. Not to be forgotten, we must say a big thank you to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for ensuring that his country remains a democracy and for promoting excellent relations with my own country. The outgoing President worked well with our Prime Minister. The good relations we enjoy today with Indonesia under SBY will continue in strength with the Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla administration in Jakarta.

There will be occasional glitches and strains, no doubt, but none seriousZahrain_Mohamed_Hashim enough to strain bilateral relations severely. I am in touch with our Ambassador Dato’ Seri Zahrain Hashim who has been working hard to improve relations with the Indonesian media and civil society since he began his tour of duty. His efforts are already bearing fruit and may he continue in an activist fashion to promote mutual understanding via dialogue and constructive engagement with opinion makers, religious leaders, and civil society activists, and think tanks and academia.

We can look forward to a further strengthening of bilateral relations under President Joko Widodo. Together, and with Malaysia in the United Nations Security Council, Indonesia in partnership with Malaysia as the ASEAN Chair in 2015 can be a positive influence on the strategic direction of ASEAN. The new President’s choice of Foreign Minister is critical though, since Foreign Minister Dr. Marty Natalegawa did a yeoman’s job of putting Indonesia’s imprint on Southeast Asia’s politics and political economy.

There are many challenges ahead for the new President, of course but one can be optimistic (certainly I am) that the new President, ably assisted by the experienced and business friendly Vice President Kalla will bring promises of a better future for the Indonesian people. Our relations with the government and people of Indonesia cannot be taken for granted. It takes a lot of effort to nip those glitches and strains in the bud.–Din Merican

The new President of Indonesia faces many challenges

by Dr. Farish M. Noor@www.nst.com.my

farish-a-noorTHE inauguration of President-Elect Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and his vice-presidential partner, Jusuf Kalla, today marks a turning point in Indonesia’s history, as a politician with a humble civilian background and with no connections to the established elite of the country assumes the most powerful office in that country. Much is at stake in this event, as are the expectations that have been laid before the Jokowi-Kalla establishment.

Having kept his cards close to his chest all along, Jokowi was reluctant to divulge the names of the members of the cabinet, said to comprise 18 technocrats and 16 seasoned politicians, though it is widely known that much political bargaining had gone into deciding the final line-up.

This new government will face a People’s Representatives Assembly (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or DPR) that is dominated by the opposition, and it is widely expected that many of the reforms that the new government will try to push through will be stalled on the debating floor.

Sec Gen-PPPEven then, last-minute developments may turn the tide in favour of the Jokowi-Kalla pairing. Last week, the United Development Party (PPP) went through one of its internal convulsions when the party assembly decided to make Mohammad Romahurmuziy (left) its new chairman, replacing Suryadharma Ali.

The PPP, at present, happens to be one of the parties that is part of the dominant Prabowo Subianto-led Red and White coalition, which currently stands to dominate the DPR. But at the PPP assembly, the winning faction signaled that there was now the possibility that the party might abandon the opposition coalition and jump to the Jokowi-Kalla pact instead.

Even if this were to happen, it would still not be enough to tip the balance in the President’s favour, and it is likely that the stalemate will continue unless, and until, another bigger party jumps across the political divide as well.

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As things stand, we are likely to see a beleaguered presidency that will have to fight for every step it takes towards the ambitious reform package that it wishes to push through on a range of issues that span the public domain, from maritime policy, border issues, Indonesia’s role in the ASEAN region to tackling the problem of logistics and communication in that vast archipelago of a country.

Should the impasse remain, there is the likelihood that Indonesia’s wider ambitions will be thwarted by domestic political scrapes and scuffles, instead, as the parties and coalitions battle it out to block each other’s initiatives, and in the process, delay the transformation that would be necessary for the country’s economic take-off, that is long expected.

Jokowi and Kalla

For the neighbouring countries in the ASEAN region, the prospect of an Indonesia caught in the grip of domestic political stalemate is not a positive one, what with ASEAN Economic Integration around the corner, with the ASEAN Economic Community scheduled for next year.

For all these reasons, Indonesia will remain the country to watch in our region, this year and the year to come. And the state of Indonesia’s domestic politics is bound to have a spillover effect on the polities and economies of the region.

Malaysia in the UN Security Council with high expectations


October 18, 2014

Malaysia in the UN Security Council with high expectations

by Tan Sri Hasmy Agam@www.thestar.com.my

“The challenges are high and there is much work waiting for our team, with a heavy, complex and sensitive bundle of issues to deal with.It is not simply a matter of taking our seat in the security council but being equally mindful of the high expectations, as well as the tremendous responsibility, that lies ahead for our delegates.

To meet these high expectations, it is important that both the team in New York and the support team at headquarters work together as the issues that are being dealt by the security council are now much more numerous and complex.”-Tan Sri Hasmy Agam

anifah_amanUNMY heartiest congratulations to the Government for winning a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Coun­cil. Also, warm commendations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wisma Putra) for its lobbying efforts that went into overdrive in the last several months, involving not only senior officials but also the Foreign Affairs Minister and often the Prime Minister himself.

The bid for a seat on the security council is always vigorously contested, but fortunately on this as well as the last occasion, Malaysia was the sole candidate for the Asian seat, again reflecting the country’s standing and respectability among the Asian countries.

Our fourth win for a security council seat after an absence of 15 years demonstrates the continued confidence and trust that the UN membership has in Malaysia.

When we ran for a security council seat for the 1999-2000 slot, a day before the voting, I was Hasmy Agamapproached by the Permanent Representative of a country with which we had problematic relations. He told me that while the relationship between our two countries was a difficult one on account of a particular issue that divided us, nevertheless, he had been instructed by his Government to vote for Malaysia because of “your country’s principled and consistent positions on international issues.” That was a high compliment from an unexpected quarter on the way we conducted our foreign policy and diplomacy.

This latest victory on our part is a clear reflection of the continued respect for and confidence in Malay­sia and, equally important, the expectations that Malaysia would be able to once again play its constructive role during its upcoming membership in the council.

Attention should now be focused on our role and responsibility as a member of the security council in the next two years ending December 31 2016, and what Malaysia intends to do or to initiate during its membership. The challenges are high and there is much work waiting for our team, with a heavy, complex and sensitive bundle of issues to deal with.It is not simply a matter of taking our seat in the security council but being equally mindful of the high expectations, as well as the tremendous responsibility, that lies ahead for our delegates.

To meet these high expectations, it is important that both the team in New York and the support team at headquarters work together as the issues that are being dealt by the security council are now much more numerous and complex.

In the past, the team in New York was left much to themselves, being the experts on the ground, but I would hope that this time around there would be greater coordination and sharing of ideas in terms of the issues that we should take a lead on, or initiatives that we would like to promote in the security council.

The issues that are dealt with by the security council relating to international peace and security are numerous, some of which have been on its agenda for years, if not decades. Quite a number of them are intractable issues that defy solution, and new ones keep coming before the security council.

Ban_Ki-moon and PM NajibAs a responsible security council member, Malaysia will have to deal with the issues in an objective and even-handed manner, and help ensure that the council remains united so as to be able to carry out its core function of maintaining international peace and security.

Issues of concern to the security council in the last few years include the increasingly complex and tumultuous political/security situation in West Asia or the Middle East.

As a security council member, Malaysia should have a clear and unambiguous position on each of these issues, based on a set of clear principles tempered, perhaps, by a certain amount of pragmatism based on national interests.

In the past, we had been able to follow a much-appreciated balanced approach. This has always been and will remain a big challenge to members of the security council, especially those who are concerned about their integrity and credibility.

I strongly endorse the suggestion made by Professor Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia and currently Chancellor of the Australian University, that Malaysia “should initiate efforts in the security council to push for nuclear disarmament.”

Evans made this suggestion in response to a question by Bernama, at the end of a recent Forum on Nu­­clear Non-Proliferation and Disarma­ment held at the Institute of Diplo­macy and Foreign Relations.

Other equally important initiatives that could be taken up include those relating to regional peace and security, international terrorism, the situation in Palestine and the very pertinent issue of safety of civil aviation in the light of the recent tragedies that had befallen us.

It would be good if the ministry would provide opportunities for others outside of the diplomatic profession to contribute ideas in terms of the issues to be taken up, as well as strategies and approaches to be adopted.

A lot of work needs to be done in initiating anything new in the security council so as to ensure the all-important consensus, without which it would not be possible to initiate anything, given the differing national and regional interests and positions of members of the council, aside from the vested interests of the veto-wielding permanent members.

My former colleagues in the ministry, who dealt mostly with bilateral issues, used to argue very strongly that bilateral relations were the bread-and-butter of diplomacy.But in the globalised world we live in today, and as foreign policy is as extension of domestic policy, multilateral diplomacy and bilateral diplomacy are becoming intrinsically linked.

Multilateralism has evolved and has taken centrestage on many issues. Indeed, many issues that are handled at the multilateral level have become increasingly important elements of bilateral diplomacy.

There should be a good balance between the two, one reinforcing the other in the pursuit of our overall national interests. Hence the importance of developing specialised skills among our officers so that we would be in a position to play an increasingly active, even leadership role, on certain important issues at the multilateral level so that from time to time, and on issues of vital interest to the nation, the Malaysian tiger could roar out again as in the past, even as we pursue a path of moderation in the international arena.

Tan Sri Hasmy Agam is a former diplomat who served as a member of the Malaysian Delegation to the United Nations Security Council in 1989-90 and 1999-2000. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Without Bureaucratic Cobwebs, ASEAN cooperation can now move forward


October 10, 2014

Without Bureaucratic Cobwebs, ASEAN cooperation can now move forward

by Tunku A. Aziz@www.nst.com.my

tunku-azizWHEN ASEAN came into being on August 8, 1967, it was largely driven by considerations of peace and security among neighbours in a troubled region. We Malaysians had just emerged, with scars to show, from Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi”. There were admittedly serious concerns about countries in Southeast Asia being drawn inexorably into the Communist orbit, but Malaysia refused to be stampeded into embracing the “Domino Theory”.

Although the Malayan Communist Party-inspired insurgency was far from over, we were confident that we were in effective control of our country’s security and with the right mix of poverty eradication and industrial development policies, we could manage our own affairs without unwelcome United States intervention.

Malaysians were with their elected government. Embracing the US would have been the kiss of death for us, an emerging nation in search of a role and an identity. We had to develop our own home- grown model for regional cooperation.

We created ASEAN, then made up of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, in the confident expectation that it offered the best hope for our vision of a conflict-free region. However, ASEAN’s founding fathers, in envisioning their grand design, had not given sufficient thought to the role that their civil servants would be playing in policy formulation and implementation. The passage towards some semblance of unity of purpose was excruciatingly slow. ASEAN official inertia had to be experienced to be believed.

The private sector in ASEAN wanted to move at a much faster rate and felt that the civil servants were not only dragging their feet but were being totally obstructive. The ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) were quick to see the business potential presented by a regional market of more than 250 million people, and took to the new opportunities like duck to water, only to find that the bureaucrats had forgotten to fill up the pond.

Several industry-based working groups were formed and important trade links were made with the US and European Union chambers of commerce and industry. I remember a trip to Washington DC in the ‘70s by the ASEAN CCI and being received in the White House where a meeting with US officials and senior business leaders was arranged in the Franklin Room.

US Vice-President Walter Mondale was to host the meeting but he had to be called away on urgent state business. We were going all out to promote ASEAN to the American business community, but soon realised that we were so far ahead of the ASEAN governments that we were put in an embarrassing position. We cajoled, huffing and puffing, but to no avail. We were stuck in a bureaucratic maze.

We were running out of patience and the inevitable clash was not long coming. On Dec 12, 1979, some 12 years after the formation of ASEAN, 250 top ASEAN business leaders from all the national chambers met in Singapore. This was the opportunity I needed as chairman of the ASEAN CCI Working Group on Industrial Complementation to read the riot act.

Let The Straits Times of Singapore of December 13 echo my disappointment. Under the headline, “ASEAN civil servants rapped — ‘Too rigid an attitude towards cooperation”, it reported:

“Malaysian business leader, Tunku Abdul Aziz, yesterday lashed out at civil servants of Asean for their rigid, uncompromising and hopelessly impractical attitude towards closer regional cooperation.

Tunku Abdul Aziz said: “I have detected of late evidence of disenchantment and disquiet within the private sector with the way in which the question of economic and industrial cooperation is being handled by the economic ministers through their Committee on Industry, Minerals and Energy (Coime).

“A measure of the general euphoria prevailing throughout the ASEAN private sector is that until a few months ago, most of us were satisfied that Coime understood its role and was prepared to exercise its power and authority in a way that would satisfy private sector aspirations.

“What we did not know, of course, was that this body of hardened bureaucrats, sitting collectively in splendid isolation and insulated from the reality of a real world, was no more ready to deal with its appointed task than the Ayatollah is ready to grant the Shah of Iran the freedom of the city of Teheran.”

Questioning the effectiveness of the guidelines laid down by ASEAN civil servants on industrial complementation of regional projects, Tunku Aziz said:

“In spite of the usual pious declarations of selfless devotion to economic cooperation, these guidelines must be seen for what they are. They are rigid and uncompromising and are so obviously intended to protect the national position at all costs.

“These guidelines are a blight on the concept of regional cooperation. It is not surprising that we are beginning to wonder whether our governments are intellectually ready to cope with the rather special demands of a concept that requires a high degree of political will.

“Let us hope the governments of ASEAN will recognise the importance of private sector participation and involvement at all levels of policy formulation so that what emerges is a concerted effort distilled from the best available talents from both the government and the private sector.”

The Business Times Malaysia in its editorial, “ASEAN — useful plain speaking”, said that: “It needed to be said, sooner rather than later. But no one did until Wednesday when Tunku Abdul Aziz, in his capacity as Chairman of the ASEAN CCI’s Working Group on Industrial Complementation, hit out at the official Committee on Industry, Minerals and Energy in which rests the responsibility for reviewing ideas for reviewing ideas in these fields.”

The Asian Wall Street Journal waded in to support my “blast”, reporting my attack on the official guidelines that “are intended to regulate and control rather than promote and encourage private sector participation in and contribution to economic cooperation. These guidelines are a blight on the concept of regional cooperation”.

The tenor of my speech took ASEAN ministers and their bureaucrats by complete surprise, but it had the desired effect. Governments understood our position better and helped to remove much of the cobweb that had befuddled their collective mind.

Today, ASEAN is jogging along nicely and thriving. Successive regional leaders, 4th PM of Malaysiaparticularly Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, can take pride in nurturing ASEAN to become a regional force for good.

ASEAN has been well-served by many distinguished secretaries-general, but in my considered opinion, the best ever was undoubtedly Dr Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, the quiet and thoughtful man of diplomacy, the United Nations Secretary-General we never had because he was in the wrong party and the government of Thailand did not support his candidature for that high office — a great loss to the world.

The ASEAN bureaucrats of my time very nearly scuttled the vision and hopes of millions of Southeast Asians for their rightful place in the larger global scheme of things. Mercifully, in spite of them, ASEAN has arrived.

Book Review: ‘Worthy Fights,’ by Leon E. Panetta


October 10, 2014

On Actions Taken, or Not

‘Worthy Fights,’ by Leon E. Panetta

by Michiko Kakutani (10-06-14)

Southeast Asia: The Bright Spark


October 8, 2014

Southeast Asia: The Bright Spark in a Gloomy World

by W. Scott Thompson@www.nst.com.my

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Bright Spark in a Gloomy World

“AROUND the world in 80 days”, or even eight days, might not be a happy trip in 2014. Start with my country: the current issue of political journal Foreign Affairs has a cover saying “See America: Land Of Decay And Dysfunction”. Head south and it’s hard to find success stories. Argentina is in a financial mess, Venezuela is moving back into the hands of the Army and Mexico is all about drugs.

For Europe, the biggest joke is that only Belgium has escaped the financial crisis, mostly because it has no real government and no prime minister during the key years. You can’t blame Germany for being thrifty and resenting to pay for the high life in Greece, Italy and Spain over the last 20 years. A compromise has yet to be found between the northern proponents of austerity and those believing that more consumer spending will get the southern countries out of their doldrums. Unemployment rates at 25 per cent don’t make for easy governance.

Africa is a mixed bag. Even the leading stars in growth, like Ghana, are in financial trouble. Fighting continues in Congo, extremists continue to move south and even if overall, Africa has an average growth rate better than most of the world, it’s too small a part to change things — CNN attempts to show the bright side, notwithstanding.

Let’s just skip the Middle East; it’s a disaster zone and it’s too early to say whether the Islamic State can be stopped — though it has to be. Suffice to say that if IS takes control of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, the best scenario indicates it would take a year or two to evict them. As usual, Iran is a shadow player and in the end, will be the most important one to stabilise the region.

In South Asia, India’s new Prime Minister has made it big at the United Nations, but it’s an open question whether he can really can open up the Indian economy for the rapid growth on which success depends. Let’s not even mention Pakistan.

All the talk about China centres on Hong Kong and what the demonstrations portend. But I would pay more attention to western China, where the Islamic Uighurs are a far bigger headache for the Politburo.

Jokowi WidodoCome to Southeast Asia and you might start smiling. Discussion is dominated by the old forces of the Indonesian military under the leadership of General Prabowo Subianto, in voting out all the moves of decentralisation that have achieved so much since 1999. President-elect Widodo will be sworn into office on October 20; he does not command a majority in Parliament but he hasn’t even begun to use presidential patronage to block Probowo’s attempts to turn the clock back. I wouldn’t bet against the new President’s powers of persuasion and presidential suasion. On balance, we should be very optimistic about Indonesia.

Now, go around the region and just about everything is moving, if slowly, in the right Thailand Democracy Protestdirection. That is, if you see the Thai coup d’état as a necessary evil that will restart the political system without the cost of long-term death to democracy that former PM Thaksin Shinawatra represents. The political establishment has regained control and let’s not forget the 60 years of transformation that the coalition has provided. Next to China, no sizeable state has grown so fast.

Malaysia provides one of the world’s best examples of a tricky balanmalaysia-truly-asia-girls11cing act in providing stability in a multi-ethnic state. It is basically because it is a strong state; even its critics must admit the remarkable success of its leaders. It is gaining ground in the middle income division of the world’s states. The economic model says that countries well-endowed with natural resources are the first ones to fail, relying too heavily on what they can get out of the ground or grow on trees. But it secured independence with strong leaders who changed all that. This is quite an oversimplification, but the bottom line is a big success story.

The PhilippinesNow, welcome to the Philippines, home of, in my experience, the world’s happiest people. Its growth rate is closing the gap with China. Critics say the rich elite is getting more than its fair share, yet, studies of wealth division show the Philippines with not much different a Gini coefficient of wealth distribution than the other countries in the region.

And if nothing else, everybody is benefiting from investments in infrastructure. Bulldozers and backhoes are everywhere, widening roads to population centres, and providing jobs for the best of the young professionals in the all but ubiquitous call centres. President Benigno Aquino III has managed two thirds of his six-year term without an agenda, but he always says the right things and leaves no taint of corruption — leaving aside consideration of some of his associates whom he’s too nice to fire.

Everyone in the region is worried about China’s claim to much territorial waters of littoral states in the South China Sea. My guess is the new President of China is too smart to let its navy push too far. Anyway, if you came from Mars and could live anywhere, you certainly wouldn’t choose Russia or China, most of Africa, and so many other places with deeply rooted problems.

Well, this is a bit subjective for me, having chosen Southeast Asia 50 years ago as a research area that was on the go — and when the world was my oyster and I could live anywhere. I’m glad I chose Bali, the Philippines, and the capital cities of Thailand and Malaysia.