Bakri Musa: Get rid of Jakim and Jawi


June 29, 2015

Bakri Musa: Get rid of Jakim and Jawi

by Dr M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Ramadan brings exuberant displays of piety among Malays, consumed as we are with personal salvation. There is however, little reflection on our salvation as a society.

The Malays are  lazy

Hellfire or the ultimate punishment for us as a society would be to be dumped into the rubbish bin of mankind, dependent on the charity of others while living in a land so blessed by Almighty. The irony, as well as the fact that others thrive in Tanah Melayu, would make the punishment that much more unbearable.

We have ruled this country for over half a century; all instruments of government are in our hands, sultans as well as prime ministers are all Malays, and the constitution is generous to us. Yet we remain in a sorry state, reduced to lamenting our fate and blaming the pendatangs.

This lamentation is heard with nauseating frequency, coming from sultans and prime ministers to pundits and kedai kopi commentators. Seizing on that, some (and not just non-Malays) gleefully trumpet their own sense of superiority or denigrate the Malay culture and character.

A former Chief Minister of Terengganu (now Deputy Minister of Education), a predominantly-Malay and oil-rich state, asked how could we who have lived here for centuries, control the government, and are in the majority feel threatened by the immigrants. The fact that he posed the question reveals how clueless he was in addressing it. Alas his is the caliber of leadership we have been cursed with.

The issue is not who is in charge rather what those charged with leading us are doing. The Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are in charge 100 percent and have no immigrants to contend with, yet their people suffer.The Chinese in Hong Kong thrived under British rule while their brethren on the mainland starved and perished under Mao’s Cultural Revolution and other “Great Leap Forward” follies. Being led by your own kind is not always a blessing.

As for immigrants, the French, Germans and Americans are much richer and in full control of their nations yet they feel imperiled by poor and unarmed Africans, Turks and Mexicans respectively.

Leaders betraying their followers’ trust or natives feeling threatened by immigrants are not unique to Malays.

UMNO Baru

In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I likened the dilemma we face today to that of the Irish of yore. The Irish then felt overwhelmed by the minority English who dominated just about every aspect of life in Ireland except of course the Catholic Church. The Church meanwhile held a tight grip on the Irish, dictating everything from what they could do in their bedrooms to the schools their children should attend.

As the church banned contraception, they had huge unruly broods, with the fathers busy rebelling or drinking. If there were ambitious Irish parents who dared send their children to the much superior English schools instead of the lousy church-run ones, they risked being excommunicated. More Irish left Ireland than stayed.

Substitute Islam for Catholicism and non-Malays for the English, and we have our current mess, except that we are not emigrating en mass. As for the Irish blight of alcohol and fecundity, we have drugs and HIV infections.

Ireland today is very different nation. The Irish are no longer emigrating and the country hosts many IT giants. Ryanair, the Dublin-based discount airline, once attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways.

We can learn much from the Irish, their recent economic setbacks notwithstanding. We can begin by choosing enlightened leaders, meaning, those who can crystallize the problems and then craft sensible solutions instead of endlessly extolling the mythical values of Ketuanan Melayu or mindlessly quoting the Holy Book.

Ireland’s transformational leader Sean Lemass began by clipping the powers of the Church. He removed schools from its control and allowed contraceptives. He lifted censorship so the Irish could read dissenting opinions and view on their television sets the world beyond their government’s propaganda.

Irish kids studied science and mathematics instead of reciting catechism. With family planning the unruly messy Irish brood was replaced by a more wholesome and manageable one.

We have our share of potential Lemasses but we do not nurture or elect them. Our leaders instead are consumed in a destructive and dysfunctional dynamics of triangulation, with one element attempting alliance with the second to neutralize the third. Earlier, Mahathir co-opted the religious to take on the third – the sultans. Today’s weakened political leadership emboldens the sultans to re-exert themselves by aligning with the ulamas. Seemingly progressive Perak’s Sultan gives free rein to his Taliban-like mufti (Harussani) while Kelantan’s is more imam than Sultan, enrapturing Malay hearts. Elsewhere Sultans could not find enough ulamas to heap royal honors.

These sultans and politicians have yet to learn a crucial lesson. The Islamic tiger, once ridden, is impossible to dismount. You would be lucky if it would not take you back to its den. Meanwhile you have to endure where it wants to go, and right now it is headed for ISIS.

Only the emergence of other pillars of leadership could break this dysfunctional triangulation. A potential source would be NGOs; BERSIH’s considerable impact attests to this. Another would be for “towering” Malays to be assertive, especially those not tainted by politics, religion, or royalty. Consider that cartoonist Zunar and Poet Laureate Samad Said have more impact than the much-touted Group of 25 “eminent” Malays comprising retired senior civil servants. For a Malay to reach the top in the civil service is no achievement; it would be for a non-Malay. Thus those 25 “eminent” Malays, despite or perhaps because of their fancy royal titles, are not effective role models or catalysts for change.

Barring disruption of this destructive triangulation or the emergence of a local Lemass, there is not much hope except to pray. However, as per the oft-quoted Koranic verse, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they themselves do it (approximate translation). Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.,(pbuh) advised us that we must first tie our camel securely and only then pray it does not escape.

malaysia-women-islamThe Hoods in Malaysia like the KKK in the US

Pray we must, but first we have to get rid of JAWI, JAKIM and hordes of similar and very expensive agencies. I could tolerate them as public works programs for otherwise unemployable Malays, but those authoritarian and far-from-authoritative government-issued ulamas are intent on controlling our lives a la Irish priests of yore.

I would then divert those funds, as well as the billions in zakat so generously donated by our people, to improve our schools and universities. Make our religious schools and colleges more like those in America. Catholic schools there like California’s Bellarmine and universities like Indiana’s Notre Dame produce their share of America’ scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They also attract outstanding students and faculty from other faiths.

Had that former chief minister dispensed with his Monsoon Cup and ostentatious crystal mosque and instead used the funds to improve his schools, he would have found the answer to his question.

Remembering 1963, the Rulers, and the Constitution


June 28, 2015

Remembering 1963, the Rulers, and the Constitution

by Rama Ramanathan@www.themalaysianinsider.com

Malaysia 1963Malaysia is a miracle nation. When the Union Jack came down in 1957 and Malaya became a member of the British Commonwealth, many thought we would soon fail.

We had one of the oddest constitutions in the commonwealth. We defined “Malays” and granted them a special position. We entrenched nine Rulers and at the same time stripped them of powers. We “barred judicial review of some breaches by Parliament of the fundamental rights of citizens” (Shad S Faruqi).

We were beset by internal and external strife. There was massive poverty. Economic activity was race-based. A communist insurgency was on. Many institutions – including the Police Force – continued to be helmed by the British, who also owned vast plantations and most large corporations. Indonesia sought to subjugate us.

Yet despite predictions of failure, unlike many other nations in the commonwealth, we did not tear up our constitution. We merely made over 650 amendments to it.

Some amendments were good. For instance, a special court was established to prosecute the Rulers. Some amendments were awful. For instance, numerical limits on the sizes of electoral constituencies were removed. As a result of this our Election Commission can pretend that one is approximately equal to four. (In the 13th general election, Sabak Bernam had about 37,000 voters while Kapar had about 144,000 voters.)

TIME  Tunku Abdul RahmanOur Constitution has kept us from crashing as a nation over the past 58 years. Due to the role given to the Rulers, governing Malaysia requires more internal diplomacy than governing any other nation. The modus operandi of PERKASA, Malaysia’s crude Malay superiority group, is to interpret everything they oppose as a threat to the Rulers. That is also the politics of the two Malay political parties, UMNO and PAS. They compete to present themselves as defenders of the honour of the Rulers.

TM Tunku Ismail of JohorMalaysian Indians have caught on: a deliberate decision to adopt the modus operandi of the Malay parties is the only tenable explanation for the Police report which 46 “Indian NGOs” made last week against Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz for his “we will whack you” rejoinder to the Crown Prince of Johor when the latter criticised Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The NGOs wished to be seen as supporters of the Prince who may one day rule Johor.

I’ve been thinking about our constitution because Malaysia’s Islamist party, PAS, is trying to get Parliament to give the state government of Kelantan the right to legislate on matters which are currently the sole prerogative of the federal government.

Our government has responded to PAS by offering to support Kelantan’s desire if PAS agrees to get into bed with UMNO, Malaysia’s hegemonic Malay-Muslim party.

Four citizens have responded to our government by filing an injunction in court to prevent the tabling of Kelantan’s desire in Parliament. The four citizens have caused the parliamentary tabling of Kelantan’s desire to be put on hold until the court hears and rules on their argument that a fundamental change cannot be proposed without first obtaining the consent of the people.

The citizens’ injunction reminded me of another injunction, filed 52 years ago. In 1963 the state government of Kelantan filed an injunction to stop the federal government from forming the Federation of Malaysia by bringing in Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak as new members.

The basis of Kelantan’s argument was that fundamental changes were being proposed without first obtaining the consent of Kelantan. (The term “basic structure” was not used at that time.) The changes did seem fundamental. The three “new members” would not be equal partners with the prior members. Sabah and Sarawak would have disproportionately large representation in Parliament, would have the right to impose domestic immigration controls and would have the right to impose taxes beyond what the prior members had.

Islam would not have ceremonial pre-eminence in Sabah and Sarawak. (In the interest of brevity I omit Singapore’s privileges.) PAS/Kelantan raised the issue before the court as a challenge of state power by the Federal government. One of their five arguments was, “Constitutional convention dictates that consultation with Rulers of individual states was required before substantial changes can be made to the Constitution” (Johan S Sabaruddin).

The court had to act rapidly, as Kelantan began the action on September 10, 1963, a mere six days before Malaysia day. The court ruled against Kelantan. Malaysia was not aborted. The decision was clear. The Rulers need not be consulted. The people were sovereign, through Parliament. The constitution triumphed. The miracle continued.

The 1963 constitution should be the lens through which we look at the challenges of governing Malaysia, exploitation of patronage and attempts to thwart federalism.

UMNO Uses Whistleblower’s Arrest to Defend 1MDB


June 28, 2015

UMNO Uses Whistleblower’s Arrest to Defend 1MDB

by John Berthelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/umno-use-whistleblower-arrest-defend-1mdb/

Xavier Justo

Malaysia’s political establishment is using the arrest of Xavier Justo in Thailand to try derail questions over the ill-starred 1Malaysia Development Bhd Fund that go far beyond whether the whistle-blowing Swiss national did or did not steal and doctor documents and pass them to Sarawak Report, a critical blog run by a British reporter.

The United Malays National Organization has mounted a full-court attack on Sarawak Report and the Malaysian financial publication The Edge, threatening to crack down on The Edge’s printing license and driving a campaign through allied bloggers, the UMNO-owned New Straits Times and other media.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak himself threatened action against Sarawak Report, which responded angrily that there was no wrongdoing. At the same time, there appears to be a move to tie Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian former premier and 1MDB’s fiercest critic, to allegations that the case against 1MDB has been doctored. 

For months, 1MDB has been under significant pressure both from the political opposition and some members of Najib’s own UMNO to come up with answers over what has become of RMB42 billion [US$11.3 billion] in liabilities the state-funded investment company has accrued since it came into being six years ago. Some sources in Kuala Lumpur say as much as RMB25 billion may be unrecoverable. Najib and company officials have been scrambling to find funds to meet regular interest payments, some of which have been deferred, apparently for lack of funds to meet them.

Thais Nab Justo in Koh Samui

Justo was arrested by Thai police in the presence of reporters and photographers from the UMNO-owned New Straits Times to record the event and print a front-page story accusing the “heavily tattooed Justo” of a long series of sins including theft and attempting to blackmail officials of PetroSaudi International, a controversial oil exploration firm closely connected to 1Malaysia Development Bhd, whose problems are said to threaten Malaysia’s entire financial structure. 

“This shocking story had the country talking,” according to the New Straits Times. “Who is Xavier Andre Justo? How could such a sorry figure have ignited a major Malaysian political storm? What motivated this man, so disconnected from the nation of Malaysia, to launch such a callous attack on our people without a thought for the consequences? The answer appears to be cold, hard cash. Greed can be a route to riches, but it can also be a dangerous road to ruin, as Xavier Justo is learning the hard way. Now, he finds himself in a Thai jail awaiting prosecution on charges of attempting to blackmail and extort money from his former employers; with further charges to follow in the United Kingdom and Switzerland.”

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi threatened to take action against Sarawak Report and The Edge, a leading financial and investment news publication, both of which for months have been breaking embarrassing stories on the parlous state of 1MDB’s finances and on the connections between flamboyant young financier Low Taek Jho and Najib. Jho Low, as he is known, and Najib were instrumental in establishing 1MDB in 2009. Najib remains as the fund’s chief financial advisor.

 Home Minister’s Threat

Zahid charged that The Edge and Sarawak Report had been “spinning the facts” over the state of 1MDB’s finances. The government is armed with colonial-era legislation under the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act to attempt to deny licenses to what it deems to be offending publications.  With Sarawak Report headquartered in the UK, however, Zahid’s threat remains an empty one.

Justo, who left PetroSaudi several years ago, somehow got back into the company’s computers to download 3 million emails that allege damaging information on the transactions with 1MDB and a company closely connected to Jho Low, as he is known.

There have been attempts to tie Justo’s revelations to Mahathir.  In a report by Malaysia Today, a blog also operated from the UK, Raja Petra Kamarudin said he had been told Sufi Yusof, Mahathir’s secretary, had made “a number of trips to Thailand over the past year to meet [Justo] and the Thai authorities are trying to establish this through immigration records.”

If the Thai authorities manage to establish that some of the documents and e-mails were, in fact doctored, Raja Petra wrote, “and that Sufi did make a few trips to Thailand to meet [Justo] and was aware of, or was a party to, this fraud, it is not going to look good for Dr Mahathir.

A Furious Brown  Answers

Clare Rewcastle Brown, the UK-based blogger who publishes the Sarawak Report, fired back with a furious 1,600 word riposte in which she threatened to sue for libel and defended on a case by case basis the documents that PetroSaudi officials alleged were doctored.

“Sarawak Report will be demanding satisfaction over these false allegations of ‘tampering,’” she wrote. “We suggest these misrepresentations are added to the list of potentially criminal activities by PetroSaudi, whose false charges on this point currently number amongst the allegations that have landed [Justo] in a jail in Bangkok.”

The blog, Brown said, “has closely researched the extremely serious and libelous allegations, which claim documents relating to our coverage of the PetroSaudi 1MDB joint venture were ‘tampered’ and ‘distorted’ in order to ‘creatively alter’ the truth. We can now prove that these allegations are demonstrably untrue, by examining the evidence on which they were based.

So, she wrote, “our message to those who have accused us is check your facts before you sound off your accusations and start to worry about libel suits, if you have defamed us or an innocent man who is now in jail. We can confirm that there is zero evidence brought forward so far to substantiate the claims of ‘distortion’ made over the past 48 hours by the New Straits Times and taken up by certain media, bloggers and UMNO politicians.”

Indeed, she charged, “the little evidence that has been provided by these parties can be shown to confirm the exact opposite, which is that there has been no tampering of documents. Even so, people who could also have made the very same checks have falsely alleged that Sarawak Report and the Edge newspaper lied and deliberately misled readers with ‘distorted’ information about 1MDB’s missing billions.”

The New Straits Times, she said, never bothered to substantiate “grave and libelous charges” by showing their readers the actual evidence.

“As Sarawak Report pointed out yesterday, we corroborate our claims, so why can’t they? The reason turns out to be that it is startlingly easy to show that the claim is completely untrue.”

Islamic Pluralists Must Show Their Face


June 28, 2015

Islamic Pluralists Must Show Their Face

by Ramin Jahanbegloo

The legacy of tolerant Muslims like Abdul Ghaffar Khan may be of help to all of us today in the task of overcoming clashes of ignorance and intolerance between Islam and the West.

http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000022487

Gandhi and ghaffar_KhanGandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan

The outrageous murder of innocent citizens in France by militant Muslims left everyone around the world, including the vast majority of followers of Islam, with a number of questions. Among these, the most fundamental coming from the non-Muslims: Is Islam incompatible with free thinking?

Let us not hide behind the conveniently general opinion that Islam is a religion of violence and the only way to save the West is to put an extreme pressure on Muslims living in Europe and North America. This path does not lead to any solution and is perceived only as a new form of intolerance and barbarity.

Frankly, Islam is like Janus: it has two faces. There is the tolerant, peaceful face, and there is the intolerant, violent face. The two Janus faces of Islam are unavoidable, (as in any other religion), especially at a time when huge transformations are occurring on an unprecedented global scale. There was a time when Muslim philosophers and theologians felt that if Muslims were eager to solve problems they should return to the Koran and Sunnah. This approach is no doubt something good, but it does have its problems.

Returning to the Koran and Sunnah is not easy and does not guarantee that all radical Islamists would put an end to their violence and to their monolithic interpretation of religious texts.The central question addressed to Islamists in particular, and to the Muslim world in general, is to know the ways in which they can come to terms with their own civilizing process because being a Muslim is more and more a lived experience in today’s world. Islamic terrorism, or Islamism, is meant to express a radical mode of de-civilization even though its actors have claimed to be the closest to Islamic civilization.

However, the radical actors of the Muslim world, in destroying the troublesome symbols of free thinking, are destroying their own cultural vitality and dynamism. In truth, their Islamist culture of death has resulted in a death of Islamic culture. Radical Muslims have intensified the unresolved tension between Islamism and Islamic civilization.

gamal-al-banna-L-1Gamal Al-Banna

However, the radical actors of the Muslim world, in destroying the troublesome symbols of free thinking, are destroying their own cultural vitality and dynamism. In truth, their Islamist culture of death has resulted in a death of Islamic culture. Radical Muslims have intensified the unresolved tension between Islamism and Islamic civilization.

As a result of this, Muslims who argue for a civilizational Islam as opposed to an ideological Islam seem to be expelled from the arena on the charge that they are not “Muslim enough.” Voices within the Muslim community, which insist that Islam should have nothing to do with hatred, terrorism and mass murder find themselves marginalized. The representatives of a civilizational Islam are not seen to be confident enough to raise their voices or step out of the comfort of their ivory towers and into the Muslim public spheres.

Today, the vulnerabilities of the Muslims around the world are such that radical and violent slogans are far more evocative than the moderate and nonviolent ones. If Muslims want to continue to turn to Islam as a source of personal and communal identity as well as moral guidance they need to move beyond the constant blame game. They must instead seek to revitalize elements of Islamic philosophy, science and art in a new dialogical partnership with members of other spiritual traditions — and with the actual conditions that surround us in today’s world.

Winning Hearts and Minds

The language of hatred and violence in the Muslim community needs to be replaced by a “heart and mind” engagement and cooperation among Muslims and with the other cultures. Therefore, the urgent task for Islamic pluralists is to lift the shadow of violence from the Islamic culture and recall Muslims to their traditions as an empathetic civilization that feels another’s sorrow and does not need an enemy for its sustenance.

By doing so, they would be able not only to strengthen cross-cultural goodwill against the dangerous rise of Islamophobia in Europe and North America, but also to shape the awareness of the Muslim community in the direction of the historical figures of nonviolence in Islam. That is not to say that Islamist extremism is not an issue for peace and dialogue among cultures in today’s world. But most of the cruelties in the world, including those against Muslims, are sustained in the name of a reductionist view of humanity.

This process of degradation and reduction is notably founded on the presumption that to be a Tariq Ramadanhuman being means to belong to a religious division like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or Buddhism. However, the unquestioning acceptance of religious or cultural identities as the unique modes of representation of the concepts of humanity and civilization can, of course, be not only a source of belligerent distortion, but also a negation of the essential features of human commonality.

For human solidarity to be able to fulfill its potential, it must indeed take root in a world, all of whose members — or at least a great majority– share the same values. Certainly, there is no human solidarity without mutual respect and mutual commitment among human beings. It is often the search for negotiation, where each side makes concessions to the other, which paves the way to managing social, political and cultural tensions in our world. However, neither Islamist extremism nor Islamophobia are modes of negotiation and acceptance of the other. Empathy and negotiation, unlike revenge and resentment, are not only forms of living next to the other but also renouncing violence against the other.

This is why cultures of intolerance grant virtually no room for dialogue because it implies two partners who are equally free to claim what they think to be true and right. The relevant question does not concern what we should believe, but what we should do about our beliefs. This was the task accomplished by great historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s profound belief in the truth and effectiveness of non-violence came from the depths of personal experience of his Muslim faith.

He said: “You see that the world is going toward destruction and violence. And the specialty of violence is to create hatred among people and to create fear. I am a believer in non-violence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until non-violence is practiced, because non-violence is love and it stirs courage in people.”

The legacy of tolerant Muslims like Abdul Ghaffar Khan may be of help to all of us today in the task of overcoming clashes of ignorance and intolerance between Islam and the West.

The original article was published on The Huffington Post, on January 20, 2015

Photo: Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan


Janus-Faced Political Islam


June 28, 2015

Janus-Faced Political Islam

by Charles Hirschkind

http://www.merip.org/mer/mer205/what-political-islam

Janus Faced Political IslamOver the last few decades, Islam has become a central point of reference for a wide range of political activities, arguments and opposition movements. The term “political Islam” has been adopted by many scholars in order to identify this seemingly unprecedented irruption of Islamic religion into the secular domain of politics and thus to distinguish these practices from the forms of personal piety, belief and ritual conventionally subsumed in Western scholarship under the unmarked category “Islam.”

In the brief comments that follow, I suggest why we might need to rethink this basic framework.The claim that contemporary Muslim activities are putting Islam to use for political purposes seems, at least in some instances, to be warranted. Political parties such as Hizb al-‘Amal in Egypt or the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria that base their appeal on their Islamic credentials appear to exemplify this instrumental relation to religion.

Yet a problem remains, even in such seemingly obvious examples: In what way does the distinction between the political and nonpolitical domains of social life hold today? Many scholars have argued that “political Islam” involves an illegitimate extension of the Islamic tradition outside of the properly religious domain it has historically occupied. Few, however, have explored this trend in relation to the contemporaneous expansion of state power and concern into vast domains of social life previously outside its purview — including that of religion.

As we know, through this ongoing process central to modern nation building, such institutions as education, worship, social welfare and family have been incorporated to varying degrees within the regulatory apparatuses of the modernizing state. Whether in entering into business contracts, selling wares on the street, disciplining children, adding a room to a house, in all births, marriages, deaths — at each juncture the state is present as overseer or guarantor, defining limits, procedures and necessary preconditions.

As a consequence, modern politics and the forms of power it deploys have become a condition for the practice of many personal activities. As for religion, to the extent that the institutions enabling the cultivation of religious virtue become subsumed within (and transformed by) legal and administrative structures linked to the state, the (traditional) project of preserving those virtues will necessarily be “political” if it is to succeed. Within both public and private school in Egypt, for example, the curriculum is mandated by the state: those wishing to promote or maintain Islamic pedagogical practices necessarily have to engage political power.

This does not mean that all forms of contemporary Islamic activism involve trying to “capture the state.” The vast majority of these movements involve preaching and other da‘wa (missionary) activities, alms giving, providing medical care, mosque building, publishing and generally promoting what is considered in the society to be public virtue through community action. Nonetheless, these activities engage the domain we call the political both in the sense that they are subject to restrictions imposed by the state (such as licensing), and in so much as they must often compete with state or state-supported institutions (pedagogic, confessional, medical) promoting Western models of family, worship, leisure and social responsibility. The success of even a conservative project to preserve a traditional form of personal piety will depend on its ability to engage with the legal, bureaucratic, disciplinary and technological resources of modern power that shape contemporary societies.

This argument diverges from the common one that Islam fuses religion and politics, din wa dawla, in a way incompatible with Western analytical categories. It is worth noting, however, that this frequently heard claim does not deny the fact that Muslim thinkers draw distinctions between din and dawla, only that the specific domains designated by these terms, and the structure of their interrelations do not mirror the situation in Europe in regard to European states and the Church. Moreover, this leaves aside the fact that the division between religious and political domains even in Western societies has always been far more porous than was previously assumed, as much recent work has made clear. [1]

Indeed, as Tocqueville long ago observed, Protestant Christianity plays an extremely important role in US politics in setting the moral boundaries and concerns within which political discussion unfolds, and hence can be considered the premiere political institution in some sense. I do not refer here to the lobbying efforts of church groups and other religious advocacy associations, but rather to the way a pervasive Christianity has been to varying degrees a constitutive element of Western political institutions.

What is clear, in any case, is that greater recognition must be given to the way Western concepts (religion, political, secular, temporal) reflect specific historical developments, and cannot be applied as a set of universal categories or natural domains.

Lastly, although discussions of political motivation or class interest should continue to be important parts of accounts of contemporary Islam, they are not necessarily germane to a description of every problem the analyst poses. Statements like the following have too long been de rigueur in accounts of the Islamic sahwa (awakening): “Marginalized male elites experience socioeconomic disparities as cultural loss, and they are drawn to participate in fundamentalist cadres in order to militate against nationalist structures that they deplore as un-Islamic because they are, above all, ineffective.” [2]

Such analyses reduce the movements to an expression of the socioeconomic conditions which gave rise to them. The “marginalized male elites” speak nothing new to us, as their arguments and projects, once properly translated into the language of political economy, seem entirely familiar. Lost, in other words, is any sense of the specificity of the claims and reasoning of the actors. This is brushed aside as we reiterate what we already know about the universal operation of socioeconomic disparities.

Grasping such complexity will require a much more subtle approach than one grounded in a simple distinction between (modern) political goals and (traditional) religious ones. Terms such as “political Islam” are inadequate here as they frame our inquiries around a posited distortion or corruption of properly religious practice.

In this way, the disruptive intrusions or outright destruction enacted upon society by the modernizing state never even figure in the analysis. In contrast, the various attempts of religious people to respond to that disruption are rendered suspect, with almost no attempt to distinguish those instances where such a critical stance is warranted from those where it is not. It is not surprising, in this light, that militant violence and public intolerance have become the central issues of so many studies of al-sahwa al-islamiyya (Islamic awakening), while the extensive coercion and torture practiced by governments get relegated to a footnote.

Author’s Note: I wish to thank Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Hussein Agrama, Steve Niva and Lisa Hajjar for their comments and suggestions on this brief article. Its shortcomings are my responsibility alone.

Endnotes

[1] See William Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
[2] Bruce Lawrence, The Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), p. 226.

The Economist: Politics and the Puritanical


June 28, 2015

http://www.economist.com/node/21656189/print

Salafism

Politics and the Puritanical

Islam’s most conservative adherents are finding that politics is hard. But it beats the alternative

Nader-BakkarWERE it not for his bushy beard and trim moustache, Nader Bakkar (above) could be mistaken for one of Egypt’s secular liberal politicians. The young spokesman for the Nour party is tolerant, reasonable and smart—he is about to begin a fellowship at Harvard. “We are reformers, not revolutionaries,” Mr Bakkar says of his party. “Compromise is not a bad word.” But his facial hair conveys a different message. Mr Bakkar and his party adhere to the ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam known as Salafism.

In the West that brand is most associated with extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), whose members are sometimes called Salafist-jihadists; or the intolerance of Saudi Arabia, where adherents are called Wahhabis. The Saudis have used their oil wealth to spread the influence of Salafism across the Muslim world, funding Wahhabi-inspired mosques and madrassas—and, at times, extremist groups. As a result, some think Salafism is the fastest-growing Islamic movement.

It is also growing more diverse. All Salafists take a fundamentalist approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-salaf al-salih, the “pious forefathers”—right down to their facial hair. They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). Salafist scholars, though, are far from homogeneous, expressing different views on everything from apostasy to activism. Most notably, many Salafists now engage in politics despite a tradition of quiescence. But with little to show for their efforts, they must decide whether to push on, withdraw or pursue politics by other means, such as war or terrorism.

Prior to the Arab spring some Salafists had been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s main Islamist movement, with a long tradition of political activism. But most Salafists shunned politics. The movement is often broken down into three categories. The most infamous are the jihadists, who are but a tiny minority. The most numerous are the purists (or quietists), who believe that politics undercuts the sovereignty of God and is therefore best avoided. Like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, most bend a knee to Muslim heads of state, no matter how awful, in order to avoid creating fitna, or chaos.

Rise and fall of the activists

Activist Salafists, those involved in politics, make up the third group. Their number swelled in the aftermath of the Arab spring, when the boundaries between politics and religion blurred, writes Jacob Olidort of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank. “Giving definition and structure to the changing events became a question of necessity rather than choice, especially as Salafists faced pressure from media and other Islamist groups to comment on these events.”

Relatively few Salafists participated in the protests, but some saw opportunity in the opening they created, arguing that sharia could now be enacted via politics. Encouraged by their brethren in Kuwait, where political Salafism was already well-established, Egypt’s Salafists took advantage. The Nour party, which grew out of the Salafist Call, the country’s main Salafist organisation based in Alexandria, won over 20% of the seats in parliament in the country’s first free election. It then ensured that the country’s new constitution (now abandoned) had an Islamist tint.

At the same time, the stature of the purists fell owing to their support for the old guard and their opposition to the protests. Saudi Arabia’s top clerics issued a decree stating that “reform should not be by demonstrations and other means and methods that give rise to unrest and divide the community.” In a lecture in 2011 Ali al-Halabi, a prominent Jordanian cleric, said the protests were “far from the law of God” and motivated by materialism. But at the time, the purists were often ignored. They now feel vindicated. “The countries of the Arab spring did not gain anything but destruction, corruption and the loss of security,” says Mr Halabi.

In Egypt the Salafists’ conservative influence contributed to the fall of Muhammad Morsi, the president and a Muslim Brother. The Nour party’s decision to support his removal and the coup of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi alienated many of its former supporters. But it also made it unlikely that the Salafists would suffer a fate like that of the Brotherhood, which Mr Sisi has crushed. “The party has reinforced the idea among quietists that you have to sell out or make deals with the devil in order to be in politics,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The purists can also find support for their rejection of political engagement in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring. Many activist Salafists invested their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Nahda party, which came first in Tunisia’s elections in 2011. Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, even claims to be a Salafist himself. But while the party has embraced conservative Muslims, it has also taken steps to curb their influence. Its decision to renounce sharia as the main source of legislation in its draft constitution left Salafists outraged, as did its promise not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol and interest payments. Unhappy with the secular direction of the country, and with little voice in politics, many Salafists have turned to protests and violence, at home and abroad.

The perceived failure of political engagement by Salafists risks benefiting the jihadists. Tunisia is now the largest source of foreign fighters for IS. The group has also attracted large numbers from other countries where Salafists have little political sway, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco—but not so many from Kuwait, where they still have a strong voice. Governments nervous that the militants may turn on them have enlisted the help of Salafist leaders. Some see the purists as a counter to jihadism, due to their inward-looking focus. Morocco has tried to bring more Salafists into the political fold. Abdelkarim Chadli, a prominent Salafist convicted of terrorism in 2003, recently joined the Democratic and Social Movement, a regime-friendly political party, and vowed to bring other Salafists with him.

Salafists, though, may no longer see the point of political engagement. “Many people say we betrayed the revolution, that we approve of the regime and authority,” admits Mr Bakkar. He sees his party’s survival as its main accomplishment. But activist Salafists have made little progress towards their goal of creating an Islamic state. The appeal of IS across much of the Middle East is that it has done just that.