Book Review: More on Richard M. Nixon

July 2, 2015

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President Richard M. Nixon–America’s Most Tortured President

In May, to start the final broadcast of David Letterman’s late-night show, a dimly familiar yellow-tinged 1970s video began to play. “My fellow Americans,” Gerald Ford intoned, “our long national nightmare is over.” In specially recorded messages, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama then recited the famous line, which Ford had first spoken just after the disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House, the only president ever to resign. No one in the Letterman bit mentioned Nixon’s name, but his specter — as it so often does in our political culture — hovered over the whole thing.

Being NixonHard though it may be to recall, for a time during the 1990s Richard Nixon seemed bound for rehabilitation. He had spent his last years romancing the pundit class, fashioning an image as a sage. Historians, digging into his administration’s domestic record, developed a ­man-bites-dog story line that pronounced him a Great Society liberal. And as the flood of Watergate memoirs dried up, kooky conspiracy theories flourished, some exonerating Tricky Dick from a key part in the 1972 burglary and cover-up that brought him down.

Now we’ve come full circle. The release of White House tapes and documents since Nixon’s death in 1994 has rendered the pro-Nixon historiography of yesteryear a musty artifact. Washington ­pseudoscandals have come and gone, clarifying anew how breathtaking Watergate was. And this summer brings two major new Nixon books — Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” — neither of which offers much that’s novel but which together reaffirm the old (and new) consensus. These well-researched efforts remind us, fundamentally, that Nixon himself led the criminal conspiracy at the heart of his presidency, the revelation of which forever tarnished the White House in the public mind.

Both authors are highly accomplished journalists. Weiner, a former New York Times national security reporter, is decidedly hostile to Nixon, structuring his account of the presidency around a litany of transgressions related to Watergate and the Vietnam War. Thomas, a prolific author and veteran Newsweek editor, aims for a more fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective or flattering ­counterexample. Weiner makes more fruitful use of primary sources, while Thomas has a surer command of the secondary literature. Whether you prefer the edgier Weiner or the judicious Thomas may depend on whether you like your political history fizzy or still, spicy or mild, extra crispy or original recipe.

Dozens of splendid works on Nixon already exist, of course. My short list would include Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Stanley I. Kutler’s “The Wars of Watergate” (all still in print). Yet there remains no authoritative cradle-to-grave biography. Stephen E. Ambrose banged out a solid, breezily written trilogy, but his wanton acts of plagiarism and the posthumous revelation that he fabricated interviews with Dwight Eisenhower have rendered his work unusable. Tom Wicker and Herbert S. Parmet each tried to fill the Nixon biography void, but they produced gargantuan tomes without touching key parts of his presidency. Roger Morris wrote a magisterial, if slightly conspiratorial, first installment of a planned multivolume work, but its thousand-plus pages reached only to the end of 1952. The other volumes never appeared.

Thomas’s “Being Nixon” aspires to be the go-to one-volume life. The author guides us from Nixon’s boyhood and eventful early career through the war-making, peace-making and policy-making of his presidency, to his post-resignation comeback bid. But it’s no knock on Thomas’s storytelling powers to conclude, on finishing his study, that a satisfying one-volume biography probably just can’t be written. The sheer yardage that one has to traverse simply defies easy narration.

Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable. But for much of the book he pin balls from one topic to the next. A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.

Fathoming the murky psychological depths of our most tortured president also presents a challenge. To his credit, Thomas treats Nixon as a human being, not a cartoon. Always on the lookout for the good deed or the sympathetic angle, he stresses not the familiar hatreds and well-known vindictiveness but Nixon’s shyness, his devotion to family, his sentimentality: “Being Nixon” opens with a meditation on Nixon’s love of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he is later shown listening happily to recordings of “Carousel” and “The King and I.

Empathy is admirable and even necessary in a historian, but Thomas’s fulsome charity obscures the rage, paranoia and chilling amorality that propelled Nixon to the peak of power and brought on the Watergate nightmare. In some places Thomas relies uncritically on dubious sources, like a 1993 Nixon hagiography by the conservative British politician Jonathan Aitken. At other times, his ­evenhandedness yields misleading understatement and ludicrous litotes. “Nixon was not completely free of prejudice,” he writes of this racist, anti-Semitic churl. “Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse,” another sentence begins. He starts the book’s last paragraph, “Nixon was no saint,” before ending with the claim that Nixon tried “to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”

This peroration is unpersuasive, not least because Thomas himself show­cases so many scenes of Nixon rolling up his sleeves to break the law. “Being Nixon” doesn’t neglect the notorious train of abuses — from Henry Kissinger’s illegal wiretaps to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate special prosecutor — that amounted to the worst constitutional crisis of the century. On the contrary, Thomas’s account gets exciting precisely when it hits Watergate and the obligatory discussions of wage and price controls and the office of consumer affairs recede. His gentle judgments thus ring false.

If “Being Nixon” struggles to encompass Nixon’s whole life, “One Man Against the World” zeros in on the Vietnam War and Watergate, with other Cold War dramas — China, détente, Chile, the Yom Kippur War — also getting attention. This focused approach avoids the pitfalls of sprawl. Weiner’s barrage of information, however, devolves into a charmless inventory. Intent on reeling off facts, he provides little scene setting, few character sketches and a dearth of political or historical context. And where Thomas suffers from a surfeit of empathy, Weiner displays too little.

Weiner’s staccato typewriter prose, with its one-sentence paragraphs and bullet judgments, also contrasts with Thomas’s inoffensive, glossy lyricism. On whether Nixon should be considered a liberal, for example, Thomas writes (correctly, in my view): “He was not, but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes.” He then dilates dutifully on such topics as the environment and welfare reform. Nixon’s onetime assistant budget chief, James Schlesinger, is quoted saying that the president even reviewed the details of fiscal policy.

Weiner, on the other hand, states emphatically that Nixon “cared little about domestic affairs: least ofNixon One Man Against the World all housing, health, education, welfare and civil rights” — all true enough — and his narrative skirts those issues almost entirely. Yet he goes on to assert that “getting rid of things was the heart of Nixon’s domestic policy — especially tearing down the structures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” I know of no historians today who would endorse that claim. Nixon did in fact preside over a welter of new liberal programs, but mainly because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, public opinion was demanding activist government and the president had bigger priorities than fighting those battles.

Differences also arise in the two biographers’ takes on the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon mounted to stop the North Vietnamese forces from hiding across the border. Weiner emphasizes the president’s deceit in concealing the operation from the American people and in having the military issue false reports about it. And he concludes ominously, in the last sentence of one chapter, “The bombing of a neutral nation arguably violated the laws of war.”

Widening the war into Cambodia fueled tensions at home, and the concealment of the operation typified Nixon’s furtive diplomatic style. But it’s noteworthy that Congress dropped the Cambodia incursion from the charges of impeachment it drafted in 1974, and Weiner is compelled to include the deflating adverb “arguably” for a reason. As Thomas explains in his more balanced account, “The North Vietnamese controlled Cambodia’s bordering territory,” and “‘hot pursuit’ into neutral territory is an old military doctrine.”

Weiner’s book is valuable insofar as it adds details to confirm what we knew about Nixon’s desperate Vietnam gambits and his central role in directing the Watergate cover-up. For example, he unearths an incriminating May 1973 tape of Nixon talking to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, about memos from the previous summer that had been delivered by Vernon Walters of the C.I.A.; those documents described the president’s illegal effort to have the agency shut down the F.B.I.’s burgeoning probe of the Watergate break-in on the bogus grounds that it would compromise national security. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon says of releasing Walters’s notes. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the C.I.A.”

Weiner has clearly logged time in primary sources — C.I.A. files, Nixon’s tapes, oral histories, the State Department documents collected in “Foreign Relations of the United States” — and he serves up delightful nuggets of information. He discovers, for instance, that Nixon included a sentence in his first inauguration speech, “Our lines of communication will be open,” at the suggestion of the Soviet intelligence operative Boris Sedov, as a signal to Moscow. Unfortunately, Weiner exaggerates the import of this diplomatic wink, calling it “the K.G.B.’s proposal to ghostwrite a passage of the inaugural address.” Here and elsewhere, hyperbole undercuts his reliability.

Throughout the book, and in his public appearances promoting it, Weiner inflates his own contributions, sometimes leaving the impression that he first uncovered the information he cites. In truth, this volume adds less to our knowledge than two other recent books: Ken Hughes’s “Chasing Shadows,” about Nixon’s efforts during the 1968 election to keep the South Vietnamese from agreeing to Lyndon Johnson’s peace proposals, and John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which uses hundreds of original tape transcriptions to illuminate the purpose of the 1972 Watergate break-in and the depth of Nixon’s knowledge of his aides’ obstruction of ­justice.

In 1994, during the height of the revisionism, one pro-Nixon scholar crowed that as time went on, Nixon would come to be known first for his social programs, next for his diplomacy and only incidentally for the orgy of lawlessness that had otherwise defined his reputation. Among the other verdicts that these two notable books offer — for all their sundry virtues and forgivable flaws — is the unmistakable conclusion that those revisionists were completely wrong.

The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
369 pp. Henry Holt & Company.

A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Illustrated. 619 pp. Random House. $35.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and the forthcoming “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

June 21, 2015

Introducing Philosopher Susan Neiman and hear her talk on the subject of Moral Clarity.

Susan Neiman was born in 1955; she studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Today she is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Professor Neiman received critical acclaim for her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, published in 2002. This magnum opus was alternative in many ways, let me underscore two of them. First, it took the theme of evil as a lens for understanding the history of philosophy, and thus broke away from the traditional approach to modern philosophy as divided into rationalist or empiricist responses to the problem of knowledge. Second, the book was alternative in emphasizing the importance of narrative interest in working with the history of philosophy.

Neiman’s skills as a storyteller of the philosopher’s struggle for meaning are impressive, and support her claim to write for both professional philosophers and those who are not. The added value of that ‘storytelling’ approach is not only that philosophy thus becomes accessible to a wide audience. Neiman also shows that we cannot live without philosophy: the fundamental question whether and how we can make sense of the world has to be conquered by every individual herself.

This tireless engagement with the public at large, was one of the reasons why the jury considered Susan Neiman an outstanding candidate of the International Spinoza Award. That remarkable quality of her work is well illustrated in Neiman’s essay about the book of Job, which is the final essay in a collection published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and publishing house Boom, for this special occasion. (The collection’s title is Afgezien van de feiten.)

In her next book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, published in 2008, Neiman applies her fundamentally Kantian insights to the political agenda of this century. Neiman positions herself on the political left, but the book is critical of both the right and the left, and it is boldly ambitious in this endeavor. As Neiman formulates it herself, her book on Moral Clarity ‘aims to offer a twenty-first-century framework for an Enlightenment standpoint that no twentieth-century political direction succeeded in making its own.’ Neiman’s goal is, first, ‘to take back the Enlightenment from the claims that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future.’ In doing so, she retrieves values – happiness, reason, reverence and hope – (values) that were fundamental to Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, but also offer a moral vocabulary for today.

In very simple words appealing to many people who are engaged in politics, she explains why the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is the most important distinction we have to draw, and why we have to draw it carefully and thoughtfully. Let me quote: ‘For we are indeed torn. We want a worldview that doesn’t blink when confronted with reality, that doesn’t wish away what it doesn’t wish to see. This is not pragmatics but pride: grown-up men and women look the world in its face. At the same time, we want a view that allows us not merely to resign ourselves to the reality that’s shaping us, but to play a role in shaping it. And most of us want to do so neither with weapons nor with soft power, but with the real power that the ideas of Enlightenment once possessed.’ (p. 90).

In reconnecting with the Enlightenment, Neiman also offers an answer to the problem of fundamentalism and religious terrorism, which she sees as fueled, in part, by the desire for transcendence. A cynical response, which interprets fundamentalism as merely reflecting a need for certainty, will not be able to answer it. ‘It will not work if we don’t understand that the longing for transcendence is a longing for freedom as least as much as it is a longing for certainty. (…) Immanuel Kant’s work can be used, according to Neiman, to provide a metaphysics capable of meeting our needs both for truth and for freedom.’ (p. 117-118).

Whether or not one agrees with this diagnostic – I, for one, agree with it, but you may discuss it – the jury of the International Spinoza Award highly values this drive to understand a key challenge of our time through the philosophical resources we do have at our disposal, and to formulate credible answers embedded in robust philosophical thinking. The role of ideas, ideologies and ideals is indeed crucial in politics.

In one of the essays published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and Boom, Susan Neiman revisits Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. She concludes as follows: ‘While new revelations about Eichmann do not undermine Arendt’s core claim that evil intentions are not necessary for evil action, they do suggest how important it is to think more seriously about the role ideologies play in intention. Eichmann was not a bureaucrat, but neither was he a sadist nor a psychopath, or even in an ordinary sense corrupt; rather, he organized mass murder in service of an ideology to which he was completely devoted.’

According to Neiman, the standard liberal reaction – so much for ideologies, let’s focus on self-interest – will not carry us through the 21st century, if only because few people can live on bread alone. The jury couldn’t agree more.

In her most recent book (Why Grow Up?), Susan Neiman returns to the question what it means to grow up. Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge. Courage is needed to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us. We must learn the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, without ever giving up on either one. Thus, Neiman challenges the thrust of many of our educational debates today, with their single-minded focus on skills needed here-and-now in contemporary labour markets. The fundamental educational question is: ‘How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?’ We look forward to hear more about this in Susan Neiman’s lecture today.

Sunday Book Review

‘Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

by A. O. SCOTT (June 15, 2015)

LOOKING-YOUNGA great deal of modern popular culture — including just about everything pertaining to what French savants like to call le nouvel âge d’or de la comédie américaine — runs on the disavowal of maturity. The ideal consumer is a mirror image of a familiar comic archetype: a man-child sitting in his parents’ basement with his video games and his “Star Wars” figurines; a postgraduate girl and her pals treating the world as their playground. Baby boomers pursue perpetual youth into retirement. Gen-Xers hold fast to their skateboards, their Pixies T-shirts and their Beastie Boys CDs. Nobody wants to be an adult anymore, and every so often someone writes an article blaming Hollywood, attachment parenting, global capitalism or the welfare state for this catastrophe. I’ve written one or two of those myself. It’s not a bad racket, and since I’m intimately acquainted, on a professional basis, with the cinematic oeuvre of Adam Sandler, I qualify as something of an expert.

In the annals of anti-infantile cultural complaint, Susan Neiman’s new book, “Why Grow Up?,” is both Susan Neimanexemplary and unusual. An American-born philosopher who lives in Berlin, Neiman has a pundit’s fondness for the sweeping generalization and the carefully hedged argumentative claim. “I’m not suggesting that we do without the web entirely,” she writes in one of her periodic reflections on life in the digital age, “just that we refuse to let it rule.” Elsewhere she observes that “if you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal,” a ­hypothesis I for one am eager to test.

But the present and its technological lures and discontents, thankfully, are not really her concern, any more than the jeremiad is her chosen form; she comes across as a patient pedagogue rather than an angry scold. She sprinkles in a few musical references — to Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones — and occasional nods to unspecified “studies.” In spite of these, “Why Grow Up?” isn’t an exercise in pop-culture polemics or pop-sociological cherry-picking. It’s a case for philosophy of an admirably old-fashioned kind. Neiman is less interested in “The Catcher in the Rye” than in “The Critique of Pure Reason,” and more apt to cite Hannah ­Arendt than Lena Dunham.

Nor, in spite of its subtitle, is her book a critique of contemporary mores. The “infantile age” she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. “Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,” she writes, “and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs” than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way. Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, “the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.”

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s “Emile” supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development.

Rousseau and Kant are Neiman’s main characters, and she conveys a vivid sense of their contrasting personalities in addition to providing an accessible survey of their relevant ideas. The Geneva-born Rousseau traveled across Europe on foot, fathering and abandoning at least five children. Kant rarely left his native Königsberg and never married. Between them, they mapped out what Neiman takes to be the essential predicament of maturity, namely the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be.

NY times book reviewIn infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the “is” and the “ought.” Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, “requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.” It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.

When she sticks close to her favorite philosophers in describing this state, Neiman provides a useful and engaging tutorial, much as she did in her earlier book “Evil in Modern Thought.” But when she ventures into the concrete domains of the “is” — offering practical advice and polemical warnings — “Why Grow Up?” turns a bit fuzzy. The introduction and the last two of the book’s four chapters wander through meadows of half-baked observation, trading rigorous Kantianism for the nostrums of tote-bag liberalism. Neiman believes in the virtues of travel, in limiting time on the Internet, in good government and progressive education. She doesn’t like mass tourism, advertising or authoritarian politics. She wants you to think for yourself.

And who could argue? But the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking, in its genuinely subversive defense of philosophy in an age besotted by data. You don’t have to read Kant to be a grown-up, but it couldn’t hurt.

Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age
by Susan Neiman

A. O. Scott is a chief film critic at The Times. His book, “Better Living Through Criticism,” will be published in early 2016.

Related coverage:

Meghan Daum reviews “The Prime of Life,” by Steven Mintz

Heather Havrilesky reviews “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

A version of this review appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Why Grow Up?.

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan

June 12, 2015

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan, Author, The Armies of God

by Yogesh Pawar

From shaping American foreign policy to manipulating local Third World conflicts, evangelical Christianity has become a powerful force that has a vast global network of modern warriors engaged in ancient — and destructive — spiritual warfare, author of The Armies Of God, Iain Buchanan says.

iain-buchanan-armiew-of-godIn his explosive new book The Armies Of God: A Study In Militant Christianity, British-born, Malaysia-based academic Iain Buchanan blows the lid off a subject that most scholars and journalists tend to shy away from: the rise of US evangelism as a force in global affairs.

His book looks at how some of the powerful evangelical outfits operate — often as US government proxies — in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and of course, India, and the disastrous effects this has had on the relationship between the Christian West and non-Christian cultures, religious communities and nations. He also unmasks the role played by the seemingly secular ‘success motivation’ industry, and its leadership gurus such as Zig Ziglar and Ken Blanchard, who are not only management experts but also conscious agents of US-style Christian evangelism.

Excerpts from an interview:

What led you to write this book?

I grew up in an agnostic family with respect for spirituality of all kinds — from animism to true Christianity. I suppose one of my strongest incentives for writing the book was to show how, in the West, inherently decent things like liberal secularism and Christian spirituality (no necessary conflict here!) are so deeply corrupted by political power and so dishonestly vaunted as marks of cultural superiority.

Not many would want to come out in the open and talk about the issues raised in your book. Was that a concern for you?

In the West, certainly, there is a reluctance to enquire too deeply into the affairs of organised Christianity — both at home and overseas. Western culture is a deeply, subliminally Christian culture, and even committed secularists have trouble avoiding Christian parameters in their arguments, and recognising the Christian capacity for wrong-doing. Among other things, this leads to a rather benign view of the behaviour of our missionaries overseas — fed partly by ignorance, and partly by a sense that the Christian mission can be equated with civilisation. And such myopia has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, as the secular West has managed to define a global order largely in its own terms, with decisive help from its Christian missionaries.  By contrast, of course, the behaviour of non-Christians (especially Muslims) is scrutinised ruthlessly, misunderstood, and demonised.

Academics who have attempted to study the work of missionaries in India have been accused of helping the right-wing Hindutva brigade. Has this been your experience too?

The glib response to this would be to say that religious extremism of any kind needs to be exposed. But it is more complex than this. There is a need to go beyond the purely religious objection to Christian missionising, and examine the global forces which define it, and which are subverting countries like India in a far more comprehensive and profound way than most people realise.

A key contention of my book is that the extremism of Christian evangelicals is no more benign than the extremism found in non-Christian religious groups. Indeed, its local impact can be hugely destructive — precisely because of its ability to draw upon a vast global network of forces (including powerful secular ones), and its ability to penetrate and shape local forces, whether they be ethnic, religious, political, or social, according to alien priorities.

You speak at length of the US’s use of Christianity for it own geopolitical designs. Is this manifestly part of US strategy worldwide?

Most Western leaders (not just Bush and Blair) will claim they are inspired by their Christian beliefs. Sometimes, as with both Reagan and George W Bush, they quote chapter and verse in support oIain Buchananf policy, although usually it is not so blatant. Certainly, deep in Washington, self-professedly Christian pressure groups (like the Fellowship Foundation and the Council for National Policy) have a highly influential membership and a powerful grip on policy.

Of course, one can debate whether US strategy is manifestly Christian in inspiration — few Americans would say it is not, although most would probably insist that such strategy is guided primarily by secular concerns.

But there is no doubt at all that US strategy makes deliberate (and somewhat cynical) use of Christian agencies in pursuit of foreign policy — and that the distinction between the religious and the secular is deliberately blurred in the process. There are over 600 US-based evangelical groups, some as big as large corporations, and between them they constitute a vast and highly organised network of global influence, purposefully targeting non-Christians, and connecting and subverting every sector of life in the process.

Most of the major evangelical corporations (like World Vision, Campus Crusade, Youth with a Mission, and Samaritan’s Purse) operate in partnership with the US government in its pursuit of foreign policy goals. World Vision, which is effectively an arm of the State Department, is perhaps the most notable example of this. There is also the benefit of a custom-built legislation, with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 providing necessary sanction to bring errant nations into line.

This means that evangelisation is an intensely secular pursuit, as well as a religious one. In turn, of course, the secular powers, whether they be departments of state or corporate businesses, find such evangelicals to be very effective partners.

Indeed, most missionaries are not obviously religious. A case in point is the Success Motivation industry.  Many of the most popular ‘leadership gurus’ — Zig Ziglar, Paul Meyer, Os Hillman, Richard DeVos, John C. Maxwell, and Ken Blanchard, for example — are not just management experts, they are also evangelical Christians and conscious agents of US-style evangelisation. Conversely, groups which, on the face of it, are primarily religious, may also serve a powerful secular agenda, such as the collection of intelligence, the grooming of political or commercial elites, or the manipulation of local conflicts.

Some accuse the church of fomenting dissent among poor tribals by exploiting them; others say the church is a liberating force. This debate has gone on for decades in India’s North-East. What is your view?

The situation of India’s tribal people, like that of tribal people elsewhere in Asia, is certainly tragic. And it may be that Christian activity offers an opportunity to escape the various forms of homegrown oppression — state and corporate abuse, Hindu contempt, and so on. But Christianity in India is a very diverse thing. There are many situations where the Christian church has taken firm root, and is deeply involved in local administration, social welfare, education, and so on. Nagaland is a case in point. There are movements for tribal welfare elsewhere which are Christian-inspired and doing excellent work.

But there are many cases, too, of evangelical missions which go into tribal areas with little respect for local realities, and with an agenda far removed from tribal welfare. In this, they may be no better and no worse than the home-grown oppressor. But there is an important difference. Such missionaries often belong to an evangelical network whose strategic purpose is defined elsewhere, and which has little loyalty to the local population, its cultures, its communities, and its welfare, let alone to the nation as a whole. This is particularly true of the new breed of US-inspired evangelicals, led by Baptists and Pentecostalist/Charismatics, who have spearheaded evangelisation over the past 50 years. It is the working of this wider, and self-consciously global, structure of behaviour which is of concern.

It is unfortunate that missions doing good work in tribal areas have their efforts tarnished by others whose approach is more opportunistic and exploitative. For the new evangelicals, distaste for paganism is just part of the equation — oppressed tribal groups are a relatively easy target to penetrate in a much wider war against non-Christians generally, and for influence in strategic (especially border) areas. In this respect, even a relatively long-established Christian presence — as in Nagaland — has utility as a strategic outpost.

These are turbulent times for India as its number of hungry and poor are growing exponentially even as the wealthy in the cities are becoming billionaires. Does this make harvesting of souls easy? Do missionaries love turbulence?

It certainly seems, sometimes, that evangelicals thrive on suffering and disaster. India’s own KP Yohannan, for example, welcomed the tsunami of 2004 as “one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share His love with people” — and he was only one of many expressing such sentiments. There is no question that many evangelicals exploit the poor and marginalised for reasons which have a lot to do with narrow theology and political self-interest, and relatively little to do with long-term practical help.

But evangelicals court the wealthy and the powerful of a society with equal passion. One of the most telling features of the new evangelism is the way it has turned Christianity into a force for protecting the rich and powerful. US Protestantism, in particular, has worked hard to undermine the impulse in the church towards social justice and reform. A measure of its success has been the defeat of Liberation Theology and the remarkable expansion of US Pentecostalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More than a quarter of all Christians now belong to Pentecostalist and Charismatic churches.

In these, as in most new evangelical churches, great attention is paid to a ‘theology’ of economics which stresses individual profit, corporate obedience, the sanctity of making money, and the power of “miracles, signs, and wonders.”  This ‘theology’ is a key part of modern imperialism: it offers something to both rich and poor, it is safely counter-revolutionary, and it ties tightly into the wider global network of more secular influences (in business, government, education, the media, the military) which underpins Western expansion.

So the evangelical church has a key role to play in a society as disparate as India’s. It is a form of social management: it gives divine sanction to the rich, it gives hope to the struggling middle class, and it cultivates discipline (and distraction) amongst the poor — and it does all this with a keen eye to the West’s self-interest. This is not to suggest that India does not have its own mechanisms for doing the same things. But such evangelisation, as a concomitant of Westernisation, is bound to strengthen as India urbanises and looks ever more Westwards.

A recent issue of the Texas-based magazine, Gospel For Asia, says: “The Indian sub-continent with one billion people, is a living example of what happens when Satan rules the entire culture… India is one vast purgatory in which millions of people …. are literally living a cosmic lie! Could Satan have devised a more perfect system for causing misery?” How and why does such propaganda work in a developed country like the US in the era of the Internet and the media?

There are two important points here. First, we must not assume that the ‘developed’ West is free from willful ignorance. Indeed, willful ignorance is often a very useful weapon. We need enemies, and, as religious people, we need demons. The utility of Islamophobia is a case in point.  Besides, there’s a useful role for such bigotry within the system: as a foil for the liberal powerful to prove their liberal credentials.

But such attitudes are nothing new, of course. Christians have waged such ‘spiritual warfare’ against their enemies for centuries, and with the same kind of language. What is new is the vastly increased facility, offered by the electronic media, for fighting such a war. And this is the second point.

New technology is spreading, and hardening, such bigotry. Since the mid-1960s, the evangelical movement has systematically computerised its entire global operation, creating huge databases of information on its non-Christian enemies, centralising administration, and linking some 500 million ‘Christian computers’ worldwide for the purposes of fighting ‘spiritual warfare’ against non-believers in strategic places. And ‘spiritual warfare’, for the evangelical Christian movement, is not just a matter of prayers and metaphor: it is also, very decisively, a matter of ‘virtuous’ troops, tanks, and drones.

Book Review: Joe Stiglitz’s The Great Divide

One Man Against the 1%

For the past 50 years, liberals have gotten almost exactly the policies they’ve wanted. So why are they still complaining?

by Brian Wesbury

Along with Greece and Detroit, the modern liberal economic argument has gone completely bankrupt. That’s what Joseph E. Stiglitz proves in “The Great Divide.”

_piketty_krugman_stiglitz_wagnerThe book, which is a compilation of articles written over the past seven years by the former World Bank chief economist, is built on three major themes. First, it blames the financial crisis of 2008 on President George W. Bush, bankers, deregulation and inequality. Second, it laments the great income divide in America.

Mr. Stiglitz describes himself as a “comrade in arms” with contemporary Marxist economist Thomas Piketty, while making the argument that contemporary democracy is “closer to a system of one dollar one vote than to one person one vote.” Third, Mr. Stiglitz thinks that if he could just run the world, all would be well.

“In my [Oct. 17, 2008] Time article,” he writes, “I put forward a simple agenda [to fix the crisis]. Regrettably, what was done reflected more the interests and perspectives of the banks and the 1 percent than it did the agenda I laid forth.” Mr. Stiglitz proposed a five-step plan: recapitalize banks; increase bank regulation; stop foreclosures; boost stimulus spending; and create a new global financial-markets regulator. This agenda, he argues, was stymied by “the role of special interests in our politics.” The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailed out shareholders—not homeowners. The stimulus was too small. And regulation didn’t go far enough.

Mr. Stiglitz claims that he saw the crisis coming, and in a general sense this is true. One of the pieces in this book was originally published in Vanity Fair in December 2007. Titled “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush,” the piece argued that the financial problems already evident in sub prime loans were caused by tax cuts for the wealthy, deficits, low interest rates and the war in Iraq. Later in the book, Mr. Stiglitz also blames Alan Greenspan, ratings agencies, regulators, mortgage originators and, for good measure, Ronald Reagan.

Some fiscal conservatives may find a little common ground with Mr. Stiglitz’s analysis—at least his 2007 analysis. Low interest rates were a problem. But conservatives didn’t like TARP because it implicitly admitted that the government was needed to save the economy. Mr. Stiglitz and other liberal economists argue that TARP was aimed at the wrong target—the 1%—while the 99% were left to manage on their own.Some fiscal conservatives may find a little common ground with Mr. Stiglitz’s analysis—at least his 2007 analysis. Low interest rates were a problem. But conservatives didn’t like TARP because it implicitly admitted that the government was needed to save the economy. Mr. Stiglitz and other liberal economists argue that TARP was aimed at the wrong target—the 1%—while the 99% were left to manage on their own.

Joe Stiglitz's Great DivideThe reality, however, is that the financial crisis was not caused by inequality or by banks. It was caused when the government used Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, under the banner of equality, to encourage subprime lending to promote home ownership. Then the government allowed a very strict mark-to-market accounting rule to be enforced, turning a fire into an inferno. The crisis would have never spun out of control if government had avoided overly strict mark-to-market accounting rules.

Mr. Stiglitz acknowledges that global inequality has narrowed in recent decades, but he says that “American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulation on the financial sector.”

He contrasts this with the decades after World War II, when the U.S. “grew at its fastest pace, and the country grew together.” But now, he says, “the American dream is a myth.” The 1% are sailing along, while the rest are drowning. Like advisers to FDR who believed the Soviet Union had found the secret to growth through central planning, Mr. Stiglitz holds up China as a role model, praising the country’s top-down economic management. Yet the truth is that embracing Western-style free markets and adopting technologies invented in the U.S.—not central planning—have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.

A running theme of the book is that the American dream is dead because policy makers have failed to implement truly liberal policies. But for the past 50 years, liberals have gotten almost exactly what they wanted. Between 1950 and 1965, government spending outside of defense was just 7.8% of GDP.

Liberals weren’t happy with that, so they proposed to make America a “Great Society” by creating the modern welfare state along with Medicare and Medicaid. After five decades of growth in these redistribution programs, non defense government spending is now 16.8% of GDP. In other words: Core, prosperity-sharing government spending has more than doubled, while military spending has fallen from 9.5% of GDP to less than 3.5%.

Liberals have shaped the tax code to their preference as well. In 1979 the top 1% paid 14.2% of all federal taxes. In 2011 that share had risen to 24%. The lowest quintile paid just 0.6% of all federal taxes in 2011, down from 2.1% in 1979. Following the expiration of the temporary Bush tax cuts in 2012, and the new surcharges in ObamaCare, this dichotomy has widened.

Mr. Stiglitz constantly refers to income inequality without adjusting for taxes and transfers. But this is misleading. A 2014 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study showed that the lowest quintile of income earners saw their market income grow just 16% between 1979 and 2011, while the highest quintile experienced a 77% increase. But after adjusting for taxes and transfers, the CBO found that the lowest quintile, which receives about a third of its income from transfers, saw an increase in income of 72%, while the top quintile had a gain of 87%. In other words, liberal policies of tax and redistribute have created a much more level playing field than liberals will admit.

Liberals are like the dog that finally caught the car. Now what will they do? If Mr. Stiglitz is indicative, they will gripe about the wealthy, argue that their ideas of redistribution weren’t tried hard enough and blame self-interest for hampering real progress. Conservatives said that our current fiscal path would be bad for the economy; liberals insisted that it would be good. The fact that Mr. Stiglitz is still complaining would seem to be proof that liberals were wrong.

Mr. Wesbury is chief economist at First Trust Advisors LP in Wheaton, Ill.

Reagan: The Life by H.W.Brands

June 7, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

Reagan: The Life by H.W.Brands

Kassim Ahmad –The Long Agony of a Public Intellectual

June 3, 2015

Kassim Ahmad –The Long Agony of a Public Intellectual

Kassim Ahmad in Kulim, KedahNote: I must thank Conrad, my journey man in intellectual discourse, for drawing my attention to an outstanding article in three parts on  (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad by academician Dr. Clive Kessler.  This article is a comprehensive account of the trials and tribulations of Kedah’s most prominent public intellectual and my senior at the University of Malaya  whose legal battle with JAKIM I covered in this blog last year (2014).

Dr Kessler’s is an inspiring and at the same time a moving story of a Malaysian who is never afraid to speak his mind on matters relating on politics, Islam, freedom and justice. (Dr.) Kassim is a stout and uncompromising defender of the right to dissent and the pursuit of unencumbered scholarship.  Dr. Kessler, the scholar who is himself  a public intellectual of repute, said in his conclusion :

Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance… As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas…Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.

In my humble opinion, my friend and fellow Kedahan, now 80+ years,  embodies the spirit of the great Ulysses  as depicted in the last two stanzas of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem which go like this:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate , but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I know that (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad (I affectionately call  him Pak Kassim) will strive, find and not yield. For him it is a journey of struggle and toil in search the truth. Here is a story of a humble and God respecting man of true grit and unshakeable convictions. –Din Merican

A Tribute to (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad

by Dr Clive Kessler

Part 1  A Seminar on “Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad””

The long, one might say lifelong, agony of Kassim Ahmad continues. The latest episode in this saga of official harassment is now being played out in the courts.

The continuing 2014 episode: A Seminar in Putrajaya

C KesslerEarlier this year, in February, Kassim Ahmad gave a talk, presumably at the invitation of Tun Dr. Mahathir himself, at the former Prime Minister’s Perdana Leadership Foundation Headquarters at the national capital, Putrajaya.

The subject was a restatement of Kassim Ahmad’s well-known and long-standing views: about the primacy of the Quran itself to Islam; its direct accessibility to intelligent interpretation by reasonable Muslims of good faith; the mystification and distortion of the original Quranic message that Kassim (not uniquely) holds has taken place as a result of the often arcane, esoteric, sophistic and exclusionary interpretive efforts of the officially credentialled ulama —— and the consequent emergence within Islam of a powerful clerical elite and a doctrinally dubious, even illicit, clericalism.

Dubious and illicit, since the emergence of such a caste or “estate” of religious “experts” asserting a monopoly upon legitimate exegetic entitlement and religious truth arguably puts in doubt, even question, the core Islamic principle that there may and shall be no intermediaries between the believer and the  Almighty.

Reports of the Perdana Foundation event appeared in the usual media outlets, including Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and The Malay Mail Online.

A powerful response was not long in coming. Officers of the federal religious department JAKIMkassim ahmad1 (or Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia), a division within the Prime Minister’s Department, but not one that is conspicuous for its support for Prime Minister Najib’s “Movement of Global Moderates” initiative!) came to Kassim’s home in Kulim, Kedah in the dark of night, demanded and then made a forcible entry, arrested Kassim and removed him to their own jurisdiction, very far from Kulim, to interrogate him.

That they did, to a physically frail man of over 80 years of age, at considerable length. Kassim, through his lawyers, is contesting their action.On a variety of grounds.

These involve questions of the relation of state and federal jurisdiction, of the relation between the Common Law or civil and Syari’ah law traditions and their implementing bureaucratic authorities and instrumentalities, and also fundamental constitutional questions about the rights of individuals.

The courts, so far, have been prepared to treat questions of disputed jurisdiction. But so long at those matters are being sorted out, they are reluctant to open up and enter into deliberating upon the basic constitutional questions: the wider question of the fundamental rights of citizens in matters of belief, conscience and speech.

As the matter is now publicly understood, Kassim Ahmad faces at least three charges. These in effect involve causing offence to Islam, of questioning and opposing the status and standing of the ulama as duly authorised officials of Islam and as exclusive and definitive arbiters of correct Islamic practice, and also —— a little mysteriously —— what is referred to as one further indictment that remains sealed and must for the meantime remain confidential (though one assumes that its nature and terms must be known to the accused himself, Kassim Ahmad).

What can this be and mean? Only one thing, it would appear. Or so one must surmise. Namely, that a further charge has been prepared against Kassim, on the basis of the specific and substantive views that he expressed.

A charge either of making himself an apostate (murtad) or else of placing himself outside the bounds of proper belief, of kufr —— of an explicit adherence to and the knowing promotion of infidel beliefs and convictions. Those who have prepared this further, still undisclosed charge are in that case probably acting upon the view that it is improper to say or suggest that another Muslim is in effect a kafir (heretic) or murtad (apostate) before such a charge is proven. So it must remain confidential.

This shows some decent sensibility. But there is more to the matter than that.Holding that already prepared charge in readiness, in reserve, would also have the effect of exerting enormous pressure upon the accused to accept some sort of “plea bargain”: to agree, on the two open counts, to a charge of offending Islam and the ulama as a state-organised collective entity —— as the bureaucratic custodians of “correctly understood Islam”, or simply “religious officialdom” —— in order to avoid being formally declared and branded as a heretic and apostate.

With others such a stratagem might work. But not, I expect, with Kassim.Frail though he may be physically, he is a man of enormous will and determination. He is stubborn, meaning by nature and character unyielding in upholding his own pride and dignity. It is hard to see Kassim ever consenting to such a deal.

Meanwhile, as the matter proceeds through the courts, all mention of Kassim’s lecture earlier this year has been removed and expunged from the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s elegant official website.

Who is Kassim Ahmad?

Kassim Ahmad arrested by JAKIMHardly anybody these days knows, or any more remembers, who Kassim Ahmad is. Press reports on his official travails and difficulties always repeat the same lazy typification: bekas aktvis sosial, “former social activist”. The man is much more than that, and deserves to be known and acknowledged, even honoured, for who he is and what he has done.

Born in 1933, Kassim Ahmad began his “public” life and career as a student activist at the old University of Malaya in Singapore, where in the 1950s he was one of the young “progressives” who called for a revision and opening up of the existing, derivatively colonial curriculum.

But he was not merely a campus activist.He was also a scholar of prodigious talent and ability.For example, when I was working in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the evolution of Kelantan political society in the nineteenth century, I found much that was of value to me in Kassim Ahmad’s MA thesis. This was a critical annotated edition of the Sha’er Musoh Kelantan [= “Epic of the Kelantan War”] that Kassim had submitted in 1961.

That was the beginning. From there Kassim went on to become a lecturer in Malay Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. But always the activist, the engaged thinker, and as a man rooted in the culture of the Alam Melayu or wider Malay world and its evolving political dynamics, Kassim found the idea of the expansion of Malaysia into the new Federation of Malaysia questionable —— and said so, emphatically.

He was soon branded as a Sukarnoist, an apologist for Indonesian Konfrontasi, or “Confrontation” against Malaysia, and identified as an enemy to the nation and a threat to national security.

He returned to Malaysia, and though the pool of talented and qualified people was not large, he was considered unacceptable for a university appointment. For while he was found work, by old friends, as a research officer at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, where he produced an elegant, meticulously edited and prepared edition of the Hikayat Hang Tuah.

But for him, literature was not just dead words on a page. He became one of the central protagonists in one of the great literary debates and cultural polemics of the 1960s: over the question whether Hang Tuah, who, out of conventional loyalty, had been ready to kill his friend Hang Jebat because of the ill-founded envy of the ruler, was still to be treated as a model for emulation by modern, progressive young Malays —— or whether Hang Jebat, with his doomed personal loyalty to his best friend, was more worthy of admiration.

The question became the subject at the time of a learned article in the famous Dutch academic journal, the so-called Bijdragen voor de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde [Transactions in Linguistic, Geographical and Ethnographic Knowledge], produced by the Royal Dutch Institute in Leiden. Under the heading of “The Rise and Fall of a National Hero”, the noted Professor P. E. de Josselin de Jong traced the eclipse, on a course charted by Kassim Ahmad, of Hang Tuah’s reputation in those important debates and polemics.

During a large part of the 1960s and 1970s Kassim pursued a modest livelihood as a school-Kassim Ahmadteacher. But his life, as a man of ideas and commitment and action, was centred upon, and within, the old Parti Raykat or (at times) Parti Sosialis Rakyat, with all its internal controversies about doctrine and ideology, direction and strategy.

That remained the case until, in the great round-up of those deemed a radical threat to the nation after the death of Tun Razak, Kassim was detained under the notorious ISA: Internal Security Act.

Of the many who were detained at the time, few, it seems, took it harder, and found the experience more corrosive of their former confidence, than Kassim. Others were, by nature, more flexible, and so could accommodate better to the humiliating conditions. Not Kassim.

He was too proud to be flexible, and too much the master of his own mind and thinking to be able to pretend that he thought what he did not. He has written of those years in his prison memoir Universiti Kedua/A Second University (both Malay and English-language editions, 1983).

During his detention, Kassim became seriously interested in Islam, Islamic thought and intellectual history, Islamic philosophy, and the explicit and also implied or “immanent” social and cultural theory offered by Islam. He wrote a book on the subject: Teori Sosial Moden Islam, Fajar Bakti, 1984.

This was followed, in a course of developments that is traced below in the essay entitled “Milestones”, by two more specific works in this area: Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula [= Hadith: A Revaluation], 1986 and Hadis: Jawapan Kepada Pengkritik [= Hadith: A Reply to My Critics], 1992.

Kassim’s detention came to an end with the accession of Dr. Mahathir to the prime ministership.This was no special favour. Few people these days recall the great optimism, enthusiasm and sense of reforming zeal, and the hope of opening up long-blocked possibilities, that accompanied Dr. Mahathir’s assumption of national leadership.

As part of that “new liberating spirit”, Dr. Mahathir released a very large number of ISA political detainees. But, among them, it might be said —— in a way that will later become clear in “Milestones” —— that there was a special affinity or congruence between the ideas of Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad.

Kassim Ahmad's BookBoth were strong believers in the idea that Muslims, all Muslims who could do so, had the obligation to educate themselves, both generally and in matters of religion. That all who did so had the right, the ability and also the duty —— once they had begun to educate and emancipate themselves as Muslims —— to decide many religious matters for themselves. By thinking things through for themselves.

Both were, in that sense, de facto “protestants” in a religious tradition that had not experienced a fully developed protestant challenge or “reformation”. Both believe in the sovereignty of the intellect and conscience of the educated Muslim of good faith. Both felt and said that Muslims of this radically individualistic intellectual orientation did not really need the ulama, or any self-protecting clerical “estate”, to tell them what or how to think or to resolve all difficult religious questions for them. Both took the view that, once the ulama as a group had come into being and consolidated their own position, their interests and outlook often became those of the exclusive social group of which they were members —— and not necessarily the proper or correct or best-advised outlook for Islam as a whole, for Muslims generally.

Both became, in that sense, in some measure “anti-clericalist Muslims”: Muslims for whom the ulama, with their often casuistic reasoning and ways, were not always, or perhaps ever, the best exemplars or defenders of Islam. Nor even, for the both of them, were the ulama always right. Often they were not. And their fallibility had to be kept in kind, both men held, especially when the ulama called for near automatic deference and unquestioning assent.

That said, Dr. Mahathir had a full, varied and richly diverse life, especially after 1981. In a world of power. The powerless Kassim’s life after his release from detention in 1981 was more bounded and closely focused, largely upon his religious ideas.He promoted those ideas, sometimes with Dr. Mahathir’s encouragement and support, and was also made to suffer for them.

So, while one may liken both Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad to Islamic “protestants”, their fates have been very different. In his own passionate “witnessing” of his beliefs, in his public struggle to promote, uphold and defend them, Kassim has been turned into a modern-day Malaysian al-Hallaj.

Thinks, says MahathirThe great thinker al-Hallaj was hounded for years and in the end (in 922CE/309AH) gruesomely put to death for his commitment to the idea “ana al-haqq”: meaning, not as the punitive conservatives interpret it “I am the truth” or God incarnate (in some quasi-Christian fashion), but rather, “the truth is within me, it is to be found within my own thinking self, my own free mind”.

Let us hope that Kassim’s public career concludes not cruelly, as did al-Hallaj’s, but with the belated and overdue bestowal of some generous part of the recognition and honour that he is owed, that his contributions have amply earned for him.

 Part 2: Milestones

I have been following the tribulations of Kassim Ahmad for some time now .Ever since I came as a Visiting Professor to UKM: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in late 1985 and was told of some remarkable but disquieting recent developments there.

The university, upon the recommendation of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (some of whose members had long been sympathetic to the man and his ideas), had been persuaded to award Kassim an honorary doctorate. (It is on that basis that he is often referred to as Dr. Kassim Ahmad.)

But it had been a fraught event.His academic sponsors at UKM had also wanted to hold a public seminar to discuss Kassim’s ideas about and proposals for a “revaluation of the hadith”: the often casual sayings that in the Sunnah are attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and which have subsequently been routinely invoked in developing Islamic law, to clarify and amplify the meaning of the Quran.

But, after much action and counteraction, intervention and counter-intervention, the seminar had to be cancelled —- though Kassim was allowed to speak at the ceremony at which his doctorate was conferred.

He elaborated briefly upon the Latin Poet Horace’s and then Kant’s idea, or slogan, Sapere aude! Dare to know. Use your mind! Think!

Kassim Ahmad's BookI first wrote about the confrontation at UKM over Kassim’s proposed hadith revaluation seminar in a paper for a Conference on Malay Civilization held in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1980s.

In it, and long before the idea of “culture wars” has been made popular as a conservative catch-cry in the USA, I drew upon Bismarck’s struggles for political domination in late nineteenth century Germany to characterise what had gone on at UKM, and was beginning to occur throughout Malaysia, as a Kulturkampf: as a war of and about and within culture, as a deep conflict about national cultural form and identity and direction under the impact of the new, post-1970s neo-traditionalist (and clericalist) Islamisation.

Later I returned to the subject, in an essay (ironically!) entitled “Milestones”. The remainder of this series about Kassim Ahmad and his fate consists largely of the text of that essay, in its revised form of about 2007.

“Milestones”? The name is an ironic reference to the work of the emblematic Islamist thinker and martyr-figure Syed Qutb, Ma’alim fi’l-Tariq [= Signposts or Milestones along the Road].

Towards desecularisation: a notable milestone along the way

There are milestones along the road, but we do not always heed them adequately in the course of our journey. We are speeding along, to where we don’t at time much care, so long as we are, or seem to be, making “good progress” …

I have written elsewhere about Malaysia’s “long march to desecularisation”, about the half-century-long struggle, ever since merdeka in 1957, to negate the expectations and reverse the achievement of those who designed the so-called Merdeka Constitution of 1957.

That constitution rested upon the assumption that the country was launched on an evolutionary trajectory towards becoming a largely secular, modern and democratic society, since this was the destination to which those engaging with modernity (and what other basis for national politics might there possibly be?) were headed.

The conviction informing the political negotiations and constitution-making that were the basis for the country’s independence was that its interests, and those of its culturally diverse and religiously pluralistic people, would be best served —— and indeed might only be safeguarded —— by such a course of national evolution.

This was the underlying basis of the not unreasonable hopes then held that the new nation would make “good progress” and thereby make good the promise of “progress” itself. Yet things were not to prove so simple.

The undoing of those “progressivist” assumptions and, more deeply, of popular confidence in their apparent obviousness, “naturalness” and seeming inevitability, has been the work of several political generations: those of the 1957-1969 “liberal era”, especially the leaders of PAS with their then “trinitarian” emphasis on the safeguarding of “religion, people and homeland” and, with them, the distinctive identity and political future of the nation’s core Malay people; of the early NEP champions of the 1970s who sought to undercut and co-opt PAS support by adopting the presuppositions of PAS’s critique of the pre-1970s UMNO as the basis for a new UMNO and national politics;  of the new, and often decidedly “shari’ah-minded” Islamists emerging from ABIM in the 1970s and asserting themselves within and through PAS from the 1980s; of those involved, on both sides of the barricades, of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s ambitious but in many ways ungrounded modernist or anticlericalist “counter-Islamisation” of the 1990s; and of the new generation Malay Islamists, essentially children of the NEP, many of whom came to political maturity in the context of the post-1997 Reformasi upheavals and who have since become the pioneers of a “new generation” of distinctively middle-class and professional Islamic activists.

This shift, not simply of political direction but in the basic underlying assumptions about national Author Kassim Ahmadpolitics and its possibilities, has been the outcome of what has been a central, perhaps even dominant, dynamic of post-independence politics: the fifty-year “Islamisation policy auction”, in which (until it joined the Pakatan Rakyat anti-UMNO-BN opposition coalition) PAS always, and with great tactical acuity, sought to target UMNO ambivalences and weaknesses in its policy towards Islam and so to portray, even highlight, them as evidence of UMNO “insincerity” and “hypocrisy” in matters Islamic.

In response, the UMNO always scrambled to cover up and catch up, to ensure that it was not “left behind” floundering in PAS’s wake, so that it might appear not less but only differently committed to a politics (what it held was, unlike PAS’s, a feasible politics) of Malaysian Islamisation.

But whenever the UMNO seemed to have closed the gap, and often as the electoral cycle was about to enter a new round or was ready to move to new ground, PAS would simply “raise the stakes”, so to speak, by suddenly (and usually quite decisively) making explicit what, to that stage, had been only a tacit component or implicit basis of its Islamist political agenda.

With that, the UMNO would again be left grasping politically at thin air as Islamic parity with PAS again escaped its hands. It would find itself holding to, trusting in, and committed to “marketing” a “religious product” that was not only less substantial than PAS’s but also less compelling, since its appeared to have been fashioned out of cornered expediency and desperate opportunism rather than genuine conviction.

The UMNO always claimed —— as it sought to minimise the political and ideological gap, to neutralise its religious disadvantage —— that it wanted basically the same things that PAS was seeking and, to great and enthusiastic popular acclaim, trumpeting, but that it believed in proceeding (and believed it more effective to proceed) gradually and by indirect measures rather than openly, explicitly, and by the most direct route and confronting means.

Its stance often resembled that of St. Augustine who, as he began to reconsider his ways, famously pleaded for chastity “but not quite yet” —— gradualist, patiently incremental, and often given to reluctance and foot-dragging. UMNO, like PAS, wanted an Islamised state and Islamised law —— but not just yet, not quite so fast!

It was a politics in which the UMNO could never catch up, because even when it matched the measures PAS had been urging, it could never promote them, and therefore itself on that basis, with the same conviction, plausibility and apparent Islamic authenticity.

Not merely a reluctant and unenthusiastic Islamiser, UMNO was often left looking hypocritical and, much worse, seemingly lacking in any understanding of the difference between commitment and hypocrisy —— a major, even disabling, disadvantage within an Islamic framework of moral and political discourse that so prizes sincerity and roundly deplores expedient “lip-service” lacking in support from  heart and hands. He who is suspected, and widely regarded as guilty, of hypocrisy can never successfully plead his own sincerity.

This has been the fate, in all its various successive incarnations, of the UMNO’s Islamic politics. It is the problem that the UMNO, with a conspicuous lack of success, has been wrestling with as long as anyone can remember.

The UKM confrontation

Kassim AhmadAlong the long journey towards the desecularisation, or undoing and reversing the assumption of the seeming “naturalness” of the secularisation, of Malaysian society there were, I imagine, quite a number of significant milestones. One of them occurred in late 1985 when the noted Malay writer, controversialist and critic Kassim Ahmad, at the time when he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), proposed to offer a seminar or series of lectures on the question of “Revaluing the Hadith”.

I arrived as an academic visitor at UKM a little later and heard much at the time about what had happened. Kassim proposed to look historically at the hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, as part of the sunnah or record of his sayings and doings that can be employed as sources for interpreting, clarifying or elaborating Islamic law), at the wider hadith literature, and at their status as a source of law —— and in that way to encourage a historically informed critical understanding of the nature and growth of Islamic law, culture and society.

His plan, as it was explained to me, had been not only to look at the hadith themselves as products of time and circumstance; after all, the traditional hadith scholarship which he intended to review and contest did just that. This was the method and methodology of hadith studies in Islamic historical jurisprudence as practised by Muslim scholars, the ulama.

Kassim intended further to consider, in a modern historically and sociologically informed way that went beyond and even challenged the approach of the ulama to these questions, how the hadith became a source of law, a basis of shari’ah and fiqh; and, beyond that, to examine how a form of legal reasoning, scholarship and culture had emerged from the study of hadith and their evaluation as the exclusive expertise —— one might even say as an intellectual monopoly —— of in effect a clerical “class” or specialised “estate” in Islamic society and civilization, the ulama, with their own special concerns, approach and interests (interests based within, but which might routinely differ from, those of the ummah as a whole).

There is, of course, nothing terribly radical per se in any such “historicising” intention or project; it is the approach of modern historical scholarship itself including research into Islamic civilization by noted Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. But there was a concern, even fear, among some at UKM and beyond of Kassim’s individual nature and reputation as a “fiery radical”; more, there was a concern among those who consider themselves the modern-day successors and inheritors of the classical ulama (and, ultimately, of the Prophet Muhammad himself, since they asserted that the ulama are the pewaris Nabi) that others outside their circles —— people lacking their own special and custom-hallowed expertise, and also invoking new kinds of expert knowledge of possibly dubious standing and appropriateness —— might intrude into this field.

They feared, it seems, being personally exposed and challenged; they feared, no less genuinely, Kassim Ahmadthat new forms of scholarship of dubious propriety might be deployed to impugn and undermine their own standing and thereby that of traditional Islamic scholarship itself; and, as always happens when the ulama and their clericalist allies are challenged, they feared —— both self-interestedly and on grounds of protecting the “general good” as they understand it —— the “confusion” that might be created among the believing multitudes if their own authority were to be questioned.

The consequence that they sincerely fear, from such questioning and from any opening the debate to new participants commanding new forms of knowledge, is that orthodox and conventional religious scholarship —— which has hitherto been able to set its own terms for all the debates and controversies in which its exponents agree to engage —— will be contextualised, even “relativised” and marginalised, should its custodians, the ulama, choose or consent to become involved in these new kinds of disputation; and that, in their eyes at least, the status of Islam itself will consequently be endangered.

So, while, in modern economic theory, the idea of the “invisible hand” enables people to argue that they can serve, and may best and indeed can only serve, others by serving their own self-interest, the ulama work by a different or opposite logic: one that impels them to want to defend Islam with unimpeachable sincerity and the purest of altruism but which, while they are doing so, enables them, with that same compelling sincerity and the authority that it bestows, to protect, as part of that general and overwhelmingly desirable objective, their own special position within Islam and their privileges of religious status, including the rights of authoritative intellectual monopoly grounded in it.

To make a long story short, members of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at UKM, with someKassim Ahmad's Hang TuahDr powerful outside backing, protested against the holding of Kassim Ahmad’s seminar and lectures and demanded their cancellation. The ensuing dispute rose up through and from the university to the Ministry and ultimately to Cabinet, where the then Minister for Education (and later Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) defended, and persuaded the government to uphold, the right of the university and its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to hold such scholarly discussions, seminars and lectures, even if the subject or the occurrence was distasteful to the leadership of the Faculty of Islamic Studies.

But victory was not so easily assured. Those who wished to block the event had a final card to play. That of state, not federal, authority, and of royal prerogative. The mosque at UKM, its management committee and its surrounding parish do not fall, it was suggested, within the normal “grid” of local religious administration under the UMNO-led state government but under the personal authority, as royal head of the Islamic religion in his state, of the Sultan of Selangor. An appeal was made to the palace bureaucracy of the Sultan who upheld the complaints of those opposed to Kassim Ahmad, his seminar and lectures and his wider intellectual agenda. The event was cancelled, the seminar and lectures were never held.

The upshot was that Kassim Ahmad then wrote a book on the revaluation of the hadith, quite a well-written, serious and plausible effort in many ways: a book of some novelty and with a hint of “scandal” in the Malaysian context, and certainly a more impressive scholarly exercise that much of what is published by the majority of Malaysian academics in the various fields of “humane studies” and by the nation’s most prominent religious scholars, but hardly of any great originality or unorthodoxy in the wider world of Islamic legal scholarship or the modern historical study of Islamic civilization.

At that point the debate fell silent for a while. Kassim was awarded his honorary doctorate anyway and he went on to publish his book, his first book as things turned out, on the hadith issue. Always one to take a strong position, especially when under attack, he then made what proved a damaging move.

In his eagerness to assert that the Quran makes sense by itself, and can do so to everyday believers so long as they use their reason and good sense (and so, by implication, don’t need the added resource of the hadith as a guide or basis for interpretation, or the intermediary assistance and authority of the ulama to “know and show” how to use the hadith to make sense of the divine message of the Quran), Kassim became an enthusiastic follower of one Rashad Khalifa: an Egyptian computer engineer who had taken up residence in Tucson, Arizona in the USA where he also served as imam in a local mosque.

Rashad Khalifa claimed to have used computers to show that the Quran is constructed around an invariable but hitherto unrecognised structure based on the number 19. If this were so it was a discovery with amazing implications.

It would have shown that “the miracle of the Quran” [mu’jizat al-Qur’an] was an even greater miracle than anybody had previously suspected or ever been able to imagine. It would have provided proof of an unprecedented and perhaps irrefutable kind of the foundational Muslim claim that the Quran as it had come down to today’s believers and now exists is not only perfect in its origins but also perfect, perfectly uncorrupted and preserved, in its human transmission over the centuries since Allah launched it, via the Archangel Gabriel and through the Prophet Muhammad, into human history.

And it would have shown that, with foresight of truly staggering implications, Allah had placed or encoded in the Quran itself a hidden, embedded, arcane key that could only be detected, after they had in due course been humanly discovered and invented, by modern computers; and which, yet further, by becoming detectable in this way, was now accessible to all Muslims of good conscience and reason and modern intellect but which was not accessible to the ulama, locked away as they long were and still are in their traditional world of classical Quranic and hadith scholarship and its familiar techniques and narrow intellectual horizons.

So much for the ulama, then.Rashad Khalifa’s work showed, or so its devotees such as Kassim Ahmad maintained, that the ulama had not only been “overtaken by history” and modern scholarship but were now —— and had been demonstrably made by Rashad Khalifa’s work —— “objectively irrelevant”. Who needed them any more? They had no legitimate role, and if they ever had then certainly no longer; the claims on which such a role were conventionally based had been exploded …

The problems that soon followed were twofold. First, some telling criticisms of Rashad Khalifa’s work, approach and conclusions were made by computer-literate scholars who wanted to affirm more orthodox opinion and to back those whose position within the ummah of the Muslim faithful whom orthodox opinion sustained and upheld. Second, awestruck by the far-reaching implications of his own ideas and apparent discoveries, Rashad Khalifa began to believe some things about himself and his role and status in Islamic history that verged upon, even succumbed to, the heretical.

Angered by these implications, a devout Muslim of orthodox commitments and loyalty approached Rashad Khalifa in his mosque and stabbed him. With his death his astounding ideas lost not only their great proponent and publicist but also much of their remaining credibility. With that the debate in Malaysia too fell silent, for a while.

Part 3: “Milestones”

An Evening at IKIM

But, despite the collapse of Rashad Khalifa’s position and the ignominious murder of its author, it was not quite the end of the matter.

Several years later, some time in the early 1990s, Kassim Ahmad received some high-level encouragement to open up once more the debate about hadith and, by implication, the role, including the special position and claims to special authority, of the ulama as a group or “clerical estate” in Islam generally and specifically in modernising Muslim societies such as Malaysia.

The congruence or “fit” between these ideas, if they were sustainable, and those of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir is obvious. Dr. Mahathir’s core initiative was to emphasise Islam, modernisation, and, as part of the same overall cultural complex or “package”, modern understandings of Islam. If the resistance to him and his, and the UMNO’s, religious “project” came from the religious traditionalists and their allies, deeply entrenched not only within PAS but also the UMNO itself, then an argument that might decisively defeat and delegitimise that clericalist opposition was, it seems, worth considering.

Anything that would put his traditionalist and traditionalising Islamist adversaries on the defensive, and possibly seize the political initiative from them, was worth a try. So the hadith controversy had, was allowed, a brief second life.

At a political moment when these issues were very much in the air, and prominent in the minds ofkassim-ahmad on Hadis some leading Malaysians, it was decided that the hadith question with its related, and to some very troubling, implications about “the special position of the ulama in Islam” might have a another hearing: not the trench and guerrilla warfare of the original UKM confrontation but something more dignified and also controlled —— from above, rather than by unruly dissenting academics.

Accordingly it was arranged that a public forum would be held under impeccable auspices, and that it would be taped for later broadcasting, in edited form, via national television on RTM1’s long-running and very popular Thursday evening religious programme Forum Perdana Hal Ehwal Islam.

The event itself was staged in the elegant public auditorium of the then quite newly established and salubriously housed government entity IKIM: Institut Kefahaman Islam or Institute of Islamic Understanding.

A so-called “think-tank”, it was yet another of those handsomely funded institutions that Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir created to develop an alternative Islamic agenda and project a rival Islamic worldview to those of PAS and the clericalist traditionalists —— but which in the end, because they were placed under the leadership of people who simply did not understand with sufficient cultural and historical depth what the task and challenge facing them were, never had any possibility of addressing them successfully.

The people placed in charge of these wondrous new creations were simply intellectually inadequate to the challenge they faced, they lacked the deeply grounded knowledge even to grasp what was involved, let alone take on that challenge and see the task through to successful completion.

They never knew and understood what they had to know and understand if they were to accomplish, or even plausibly begin, the historic task that was expected of them, So, in the end, these institutions, including the Islamic University [UIA/IIU] and others too, fell by default into other hands. They ended up being “gifted” by Dr. Mahathir’s government as resources to the very forces that their creation had been intended to oppose and contest.

Yet these were early days for IKIM and for Dr. Mahathir’s hopes of it. The forum was organised. Kassim Ahmad had the chance to state his case, as did two notable and knowledgeable opponents. After their presentations and some direct exchanges, amounting to a tough and quite hostile cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad by his critics, the forum was opened up, in accordance with the Forum Perdana Islam format, to questions and comments from the floor.

Eventually I took the opportunity to make a point. I decided to refer to and then quote some lines from the work of the great Pakistani-Canadian Islamic scholar, the late Professor Fazlur Rahman who, perhaps more than any other individual in the twentieth century, had sought, with some considerable success, to bridge, as a pious Muslim, the worlds of classical Islamic scholarship and the modern academic study of the Islamic tradition.

By doing so I sought, after the torrid cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad, to restate the same position in different words, now with the backing, prestige and authority, grounded within the Islamic tradition, of a truly great scholar and moral leader.

I referred to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s Islamic Methodology in History (1965) and then to his Islam and Modernity:  Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (1982).

These are two landmark studies —— milestones, one might even say, or perhaps better, benchmarks —— of Islamic modernism and modernist Islam at their highest point. In the latter work, Fazlur Rahman remarks that the

“proliferation of hadiths resulted in the cessation of an orderly growth in legal thought in particular and in religious thought in general” [26]; as a result, “it came to pass that a vibrant and revolutionary religious document like the Qur’an was buried under the debris of grammar and rhetoric. Ironically, the Qur’an was never taught by itself, most probably through the fear that a meaningful study of the Qur’an by itself might upset the status quo, not only educational and theological, but social as well” [36].

 To help, or rather begin, addressing the problems created by this proliferation of often dubious hadith and the effect that a long traditions of sophistic hadith scholarship had had for the study of the Qur’an itself, Prof. Fazlur averred that

“the first essential step … is for the Muslim to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam [141]. To do so, “we must make a thorough study, a historically systematic study, of the development of Islamic disciplines. This has to be primarily a critical study that will show us … the career of Islam at the hands of Muslims … the need for a critical study of our intellectual Islamic past is ever more urgent because, owing to a peculiar psychological complex we have developed vis-à-vis the West, we have come to defend that past as though it were our God.  Our sensitivities to the various parts or aspects of this past, of course, differ, although almost all of it has become generally sacred to us. The greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam” [147].

“A historical critique of theological developments in Islam,” Prof. Fazlur added, “is the first step towards a reconstruction of Islamic theology [151]. This critique … should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the world view of the Qur’an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way to a new theology” [151-152].

 Having alluded generally to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s career and ideas, I cited explicitly his words that “the greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam.” I then posed the question to the more outspoken of Kassim Ahmad’s two critical interlocutors on the Forum Perdana panel how he responded, in this present context, to Prof. Fazlur’s principled and informed position.

When challenged to address himself to these words from Fazlur Rahman (which in essence, if far more diplomatically, stated a position similar to that of Kassim Ahmad), Dr. Othman al-Muhammady responded very precisely that, in his view, “Fazlur Rahman had been a great man in the history of Islam, but his aqidah [the integrity of his faith] was questionable and his influence had been damaging and remained dangerous”.


It remains only to note three things. First, that Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was one of the featured speakers, perhaps the central speaker, at the Muslim Professional Forum’s symposium in September 2005 that targeted “Liberal Islam:  A Clear and Present Danger”.

Second, that, with those legally resonant words in that subtitle, the symposium was branding modernist Muslims and the proponents of Islamic modernism as promoters of sedition and treason.

And third, that at the same time when Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was acting as the guiding spirit and prime mover of the onslaught upon liberal Islam as “a clear and present danger”, he was appointed to serve as a Commissioner of Suhakam, the official, statutory Malaysian Human Rights Commission of the government of Malaysia.

What are people, including those of the Fazlur Rahman intellectual “lineage” and scholarly tradition in Islam, to make of this bizarre appointment and the thinking behind it? Who knows? Many may simply remark, in a formula of conventional piety, “WaAllahu’alam …”, that only God truly knows, knows the truth. The Truth is ever with Allah.

Here on earth, meanwhile, one may suggest that the brutal verdict which Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was happy to place upon Fazlur Rahman —— against the integrity and grounding of his faith, and scorning his influence upon and place in modern Islamic intellectual history —— offers a very telling insight into the meanness, the vindictive nature, of the emblematic leaders of the “new Islamism” when they find themselves cornered and effectively challenged.

Meanwhile, though the Truth may be with God alone, as mere humans those of that modernist tradition may and should endeavour —— since it is a truly wondrous and wonderful part of their fitrah or divinely created human ontology —— to use in good faith their human power of reason, always, of course, in well-guided ways.

What does well-guided mean? The question is whether people may, in good faith and reason, seek out and seek to combine wisdom from a variety of sources. Or whether, when matters are contested —— which is when they truly matter —— there is one sole and unique source of guidance to which believers must turn and whose admonitions, almost always of a restrictive nature and intention, all must accept as authoritative: the guidance ever so insistently proffered by the exclusivist and exclusionary clericalist monopoly.

Which choice people should make is not for me to say. I simply note that the choice is theirs and that it is there. Of those who would deny that fact, and seek to deny others that choice, one may simply, and legitimately, ask that they clarify their motives and intended agenda.


For the record, Dr. Othman al-Muhammady died in early 2013. But his ideas and influence are far from dead. Very recently I saw in the Malay press a column praising him and his work that was written by Senator Dato Dr. Mashitah Ibrahim, an Islamic International University doctoral graduate in Islamic Studies who is a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. In the context of delivering her praise, she noted that a book honouring Dr. Othman al-Muhammady and his work has recently been launched by the Deputy Prime Minister (“Inteligensia Muslim kontemporari,” Sinar Harian, 1 August 2014).[1]

And meanwhile, as Kassim Ahmad is dragged out of his house and into police stations in the dark morning hours and dragged through the courts, it is clear that even in the year 2014 his story is not yet over. So long as he lives, as his will lives, I dare say, he will not let it end.

Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance.

As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas.

Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.