South Africa’s Foreign Policy: Engaging Cambodia, ASEAN and the World

July 15, 2015

KH-Cambodia-UniversityDistinguished Lecture @The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh-July 2, 2015

South Africa’s Foreign Policy: Engaging Cambodia, ASEAN the World

by HE Ambassador Ms. Robina P. Marks

South Africa-Freedom 1994

We defend the rights of people who are marginalized, excluded or stigmatized on any of these grounds whether it is in the African union or the united nations. We believe that we all have the right to live a life that is free from discrimination, sexism, or religious prosecution. But most of all, we believe that a nation that does not learn from its mistakes is doomed to repeat them again and again. And this is the message  that we share with the world wherever we are.–Ambassador Ms. Robina. P. Marks

It gives me great pleasure to address you on this event, the first of its kind, where we’ve partnered with this university to share with you the foreign policy objectives of my own country, South Africa.

We at the Embassy of South Africa are proud to be associated with The University of Cambodia that has for years produced responsible citizens who continue to play various leadership roles in society. I am also pleased to see that the motto of this university is ‘in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom’. It is therefore more than appropriate that I address you here today, in your pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, about my country, South Africa.

I have 4 countries that I am responsible for-Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. But Cambodia is the country that is closest to my heart, because we share difficult memories of the past. Both of our countries have seen wideSouth African Ambassador scale atrocities and human rights abuses; but both of our countries have also worked hard to reconcile with the past so as to focus on building our countries in a way that will enable it to create a better life for its entire people.

You might know that South Africa was isolated, and rightfully so, from the rest of the world for many, many years because of a system that the White minority rule imposed on the indigenous people of South Africa a system that was called Apartheid. This system was meant to segregate people on the basis of the colour of their skin.

And in this terrible system, whites and blacks were not able to live in the same neighborhood, marry, or go to the same schools and places of worship. It was an offense to do any of these things, and Black people had to carry a pass-an identity card-that indicated who they were and where they belonged. And so all of us were classified on the basis of the colour of our skins, shape of our noses, texture of our hair.

This system also meant that the best jobs were reserved for white people, and the most menial jobs for black people. Black people were also not allowed to vote in the country of their birth, and so you had the peculiar situation that 5 million people, out of a population of about 40 million, made decisions for the whole country. The apartheid government was also very repressive system, and so many of us who protested against apartheid were imprisoned, banned, or died under mysterious circumstances. In fact, the cause of death for many black anti-apartheid prisoners were often cited as accidental cause of death, and that they slipped on a bar of soap while they were in the shower, or that they fell from a high building. But we knew what the truth was. And with the help of the international community, we were able to end apartheid, and start our transition into a new democracy that is non-racial and non-sexist. In fact our constitution is considered to be one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, because we have made human rights and socio-economic rights the basis of our constitution, we had our first democratic elections in 1994, and Nelson Mandela was the first black President of the new South Africa

Nelson Mandela Quote

We consider Nelson Mandela to have been the father of our nation-and his legacy to us is his commitment to turn away from the anger and bitterness of the past to allow for peace and reconciliation. The world joined us in mourning the death of this great man in 2013, and his funeral was attended by the highest number of heads of state ever recorded for a funeral. We also convened a memorial service here in Phnom Penh, and I was extremely touched by the way in which many ordinary people came up to me and told me that his ideas and his life had also inspired him.

But there are other things that you may not know about us. Ours is a country of close to 50 million people, we have 11 official languages and we are also known as the rainbow nation. A rainbow nation, because of the diversity of our cultural backgrounds, and we come in all colours of the rainbow! We are located at the Southernmost tip of Africa, and we are also called the Cradle of Humankind, because it was in South Africa  that the oldest remains of a human being were discovered. But we are also a country of inventors-we performed the world’s first heart transplant and more recently, also the world’s first penile transplant. We have one of the oldest mountains in the world, known as Table Mountain, which was declared one of the seven wonders of the world. We have the oldest wine industry after Europe, and our wines are highly sought after-we also have the world’s longest wine route and the highest bungee jump in the world.

We are the recipient of three Nobel Peace awards, for Nelson Mandela, FW De Klerk and Chief Albert Luthuli. Ours is also a country that has some of the largest mineral deposits in the world- gold, diamonds, platinum to name just a few. In fact the largest diamond ever discovered was found in SA, and today it is part of the Queen Elizabeth’s throne! We are home to one of the largest national game parks in the world, where you can experience our wildlife-lions, cheetahs, the African elephant and tigers. In fact, Kruger National Park is twice the size of Switzerland! You might also know that we hosted one of the most successful FIFA World Cup in SA in 2010, and we attract many tourists.

world, but that we are all united in one important sense-that we are dependent and connected to each other as people, but also countries to ensure that we build and contribute to a better life for all of our people. And that it is only through cooperation that we are able to build our countries, and therefore build a better world for current and future generations.

This is also the basis for our presence here in Cambodia. Like you, the textile industry and tourism are strong pillars of our economy. We also share with you the World Bank’s assessment that you represent an attractive investment destination, with sound macroeconomic policies in place, supported by steady economic growth. And so there’s a lot that we can do to learn and grow with each other.

This also explains why, at the centre of our foreign policy is the concept of fostering people to people relations with Cambodia, with common interests as a testimony of the global community in which we live in.

Our Foreign Relations Policy instructs us to pursue the vision of an African Continent, which is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united, and which contributes to a world that is just and equitable. We are committed to promoting South Africa’s national interests and values, the African Renaissance and the creation of a better world for all.

South Africa’s relations with Africa and the world are driven by our commitment that peace and stability are critical for us to deal with our key challenges of fighting unemployment, poverty and inequality. We pursue peaceful means of resolving conflicts whenever we are given an opportunity to do so. In this regard we are driven by our experience and pain of apartheid discrimination which denied peace to the majority of the country’s citizens.

We continue to nurture our historical relations with countries whose foreign policies were concerned with the human rights and dignity of our people at a time which supported us in ending apartheid. It is partly this orientation which drives what many see as a ‘look to the East and South’ slant in our foreign relations. Our relationship with Asia is an important one to us, and one that continues to grow. We see Asia, the tiger, and Africa, the lion, as the last two frontiers of economic growth, and we have a lot to offer each other. It therefore makes sense to us that our trading patterns have also shifted-today; China is our largest trading partner, followed by Japan, the US, the UK and Germany. The old orientation to Europe has shifted to Asia, who, like Africa, has weathered the financial crises very well.

Our Foreign Policy is also articulated in our commitment to focus our international relations and cooperation towards building a better Africa and a better world. Politically and economically, we are the largest and most significant economy in Africa, and are also the only African country that serves on the G20. We also currently chair the G77 plus China, and we have served twice in the UN Security Council. We are also the first country to voluntarily dismantle our nuclear program. Sa is respected as a credible, impartial partner in many countries who are going through a reconciliation and nation building process, because it is important for us to share our lessons and best practices. So that is just a brief background on South Africa.


Our foreign policy is based on an African concept called UBUNTU, which means, ‘I am, because you are’. Using this concept is a reminder to us that we live in a multi polar worfd

Allow me to share with you our immediate and long term priorities as we seek to operationalize our stated vision and commitment towards building a better Africa and a better world.

Africa and African Union

Our economic and political efforts as a country, while also recognizing the internal challenges we face as a country, are deployed with the recognition that we are first an African country and that we should support all efforts aimed at the attainment of prosperity to Africa. We cannot talk about the realization of prosperity in Africa without peace and stability. It is South Africa’s stated intention, working together with other African countries, regional organisations and the African Union, that there should be no African child who cannot realize their dreams because of circumstances of war or insecurity in their country. As such, we aim to be part of the African countries that positively strengthen the African institutions so that we can reach the targets outlined in the Agenda 2063 framework document. Of course, your equivalent for the African Union is the ASEAN, and we continue to cooperate with each other. This relationship goes back all the way to the historic Bandung Conference in 1955, which was the first time that Africa and Asia came together to seek cooperation with each other. Therefore the spirit of Bandung is still with us today as we seek partnerships.

Enhancement of our strategic partnerships

We actively continue establishing geostrategic partnerships through strengthening South-South relations while also advancing strategic relations with the formations of the North. With the changing global trends, it is important for South Africa to diversify its relations particularly with other emerging economies in order to open up new ways of finding sustainable solutions to global challenges.

Our participation in formations such as G20, BRICS, IBSA, G-77 and others is guided by our desire for a World that is fair and equitable. With our BRICS partners we are forging ahead creating credible institutions, such as the New Development Bank.  Europe and North America also remain South Africa’s strategic regions and we are encouraged to see that in both regions there is widespread recovery following the crippling economic crisis that started in Europe.

Our structured bilateral relations with both countries of the South and the North also provide us with a platform to engage in sustainable partnerships for development, including through the promotion of trade and investment; the establishment of joint projects for infrastructure development; and the sharing of technical skills that can help upscale delivery to our stated five national priority areas.

Creation of a fair Global Governance system

One of the foundations of South Africa’s foreign policy is our firm belief in multilateralism and collective solutions for shared challenges. Former President Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. While this was in reference to our struggle against apartheid regime, this saying also provides an instructive lesson for the current global governance structures. These remain imbalanced and not reflective of the current global realities.

With reference to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), we remain resolute in our call for the reform of this important institution that is tasked with global security matters. In fact, many of the agenda items of the UN Security Council deals with issues and yet we are not one of the permanent members.

The current composition of this institution makes it difficult for the UNSC to respond to global crises in a responsible manner. We belief that the 70th anniversary of the U.N. this year provides an opportunity to make a meaningful progress on the reform the UNSC. We shall not rest until this important institution and others are reformed because we believe that transforming these is not only good for the institutions themselves, but will also provide testimony to the stated principle of sovereign nations participating in foreign relations as equal partners.

South Africa is of the view that multilateral cooperation is more relevant than ever before in seeking lasting solutions to global problems. That is why we will continue to ensure that the voice of the South is heard in such fora as G20, while also enhancing our constructive engagement with partners on such issues relating to an equitable global trade regime as well as on issues of global climate change.

The world has an immense capacity to resolve global problems through cooperative means. South Africa’s membership of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) also provides an opportunity for us to advance this position. It is our view that non-governmental organizations have an important strategic role to play in international relations as they contribute the type of skills and practical experience that are valuable to resolving global challenges.

Strengthening South Africa’s participation in Economic Diplomacy

Economic Diplomacy has become the central pillar of relations among nations and as a country we are forging ahead utilizing the resources we already have while also developing new skills in this area. We aspire for a South Africa that continues to attract international trade and investments which will enable us to participate in the on-going initiatives aimed at positioning Africa as a major economic continent. One of the key objectives is to expand Africa’s industrial base.

In conclusion

We have been able to turn away from our painful history of apartheid to a country that respects the human rights of everyone, irrespective of their sexual orientation, race, gender, physical ability or religion. We respect our cultural diversity, because we believe that that is what makes us stronger as a nation.

We defend the rights of people who are marginalized, excluded or stigmatized on any of these grounds whether it is in the African union or the united nations. We believe that we all have the right to live a life that is free from discrimination, sexism, or religious prosecution. But most of all, we believe that a nation that does not learn from its mistakes is doomed to repeat them again and again. And this is the message  that we share with the world wherever we are.

Killing the European Project

July 13, 2015

 Killing the European Project

by Paul Krugman–The Conscience of a Liberal

Suppose you consider Tsipras an incompetent twerp. Suppose you dearly want to see Syriza out of power. Suppose, even, that you welcome the prospect of pushing those annoying Greeks out of the euro.

PM of Greece

Even if all of that is true, this Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.

Can anything pull Europe back from the brink? Word is that Mario Draghi is trying to reintroduce some sanity, that Hollande is finally showing a bit of the pushback against German morality-play economics that he so signally failed to supply in the past. But much of the damage has already been done. Who will ever trust Germany’s good intentions after this?

In a way, the economics have almost become secondary. But still, let’s be clear: what we’ve learned these past couple of weeks is that being a member of the eurozone means that the creditors can destroy your economy if you step out of line. This has no bearing at all on the underlying economics of austerity. It’s as true as ever that imposing harsh austerity without debt relief is a doomed policy no matter how willing the country is to accept suffering. And this in turn means that even a complete Greek capitulation would be a dead end.

Can Greece pull off a successful exit? Will Germany try to block a recovery? (Sorry, but that’s the kind of thing we must now ask.)

The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it.

Malaysia’s Najib Razak fights for political life

July 6, 2015

Malaysia’s Najib Razak fights for political life amid 1MDB claims

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak faces a struggle for survival amid growing fallout from allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars were channeled from a state development fund into his personal bank accounts.

rosmah-pink-handbagMore Needed than Just Prayer (Doa)

Investigators of the escalating scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad have passed the country’s Attorney-General evidence relating to transfers totaling almost $700m shortly before the last elections.

Mr Najib has denied taking money for personal gain and has denounced the accusations as “a concerted campaign of political sabotage to topple a democratically elected Prime Minister”.

The Financial Times has not been able to independently verify the allegations. They have added to turmoil in Malaysian politics at a time when Mr Najib’s United Malays National Organisation faces a grave challenge to its near six-decade hegemony.

Analysts say the claims, reported on Friday by the Wall Street Journal and the Sarawak Report website, are potentially fatal for Mr Najib’s career. They appear to make the first direct link between the premier and the long-running scandal over how 1MDB racked up debts of more than $11bn.

Professor James Chin, Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said the fresh claims showed how Mr Najib “can’t seem to shake off the scandal” of the 1MDB affair.

“If indeed the money is in an account bearing his name and he is the owner of the account, he’s toast,” Prof Chin said. “We will get to the truth soon, because the amount is large, and most governments around the world have strict reporting systems for large financial transactions.”

The Attorney-General said at the weekend that he had received documents relating to the latest allegations about 1MDB, which was the subject of four separate official investigations. The fund had denied it had given money to Mr Razak and — like him — had claimed it was the victim of a plot.

The most serious of the latest claims against Mr Najib is that two transfers totaling US$681m were made via a series of companies linked to 1MDB to an account in his name just before the tight 2013 parliamentary elections.

The opposition won the popular vote in those polls, but the design of the electoral system meant the United Malays National Organisation ended up with most seats.

If indeed the money is in an account bearing [Najib Razak’s] name and he is the owner of the account, he’s toas.t– James Chin, Director of the Asia Institute at Tasmania University

Mr Najib set up 1MDB in 2009 and chairs its advisory board, but the fund has come under increasing scrutiny over its investments and financial dealings, particularly with some prominent Gulf companies.

Mahathir Lawan NajibThe pressure on the Prime Minister has grown further because Mahathir Mohamad, the influential former premier of more than 20 years, has called on his successor to step down over the fund’s activities. Two opposition parties have also called for Mr Najib to stand aside pending an investigation into the latest claims.

Next Steps for U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation

east-west-center-asia-pacific-bulletinNumber 316 | July 1, 2015

July 2, 2015


Next Steps for U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation

by James E. Platte

On June 15, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se signed a new agreement on civil nuclear cooperation (a so-called “123 Agreement”) between the two countries, and U.S. President Barack Obama submitted the proposed 123 Agreement to the U.S. Congress the next day. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee will have 30 days to review the agreement, and then the whole Congress will have 60 days for review. The proposed 123 Agreement will enter into force unless Congress enacts a joint resolution opposing the agreement, and the South Korean Ministry of Government Legislation also will review the proposed agreement.

The new 123 Agreement comes after several years of difficult negotiations and represents a step forward for bilateral nuclear cooperation, but this does not mark the end of negotiations and debates between Washington and Seoul in the civil nuclear energy field. South Korea and the United States have a long, robust history of civil nuclear cooperation, going back to the Atoms for Peace program and the initial 123 Agreement in 1956. Since then, the United States has played an integral role in the development of South Korea’s civil nuclear industry, which now comprises 24 operational reactors that generate about 30 percent of South Korea’s electricity.

South Korea has become virtually self-sufficient in nuclear reactor design, construction, and operation but still relies on U.S. firms for some nuclear fuel and engineering services. In addition, South Korea and the United States cooperate on numerous bilateral and multilateral nuclear research and development projects. All of this cooperation is facilitated by the 123 Agreement. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires that a 123 Agreement be in place for the United States to cooperate with international partners on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Given the importance of nuclear power to the South Korean economy, maintaining civil nuclear cooperation with the United States is vital for Seoul. Yet, negotiations on the new agreement were difficult and lasted nearly five years.

In 2013, the two sides even approved a two-year extension of the previous 123 Agreement, which was set to expire in 2014, in order to give them more time to work out a deal. The major sticking point in the negotiations was over uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which have the ability to produce fissile materials either for civilian nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons.

The previous 123 Agreement was signed in 1974 and prohibited South Korea from enriching or reprocessing. Two other developments around that same time entrenched U.S. nuclear cooperation policy toward South Korea. First, the Indian nuclear test in 1974 changed U.S. nonproliferation policy in general, shifting from promoting reprocessing abroad to staunchly opposing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Second, Washington found out about then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee’s clandestine nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s and applied significant diplomatic pressure to stop that program. The U.S. government has consistently opposed granting South Korea consent to enrich or reprocess ever since.

Seoul pushed hard to gain that consent from Washington in the new 123 Agreement for several reasons. First, South Korea wants reprocessing technology in order to manage the country’s growing stocks of spent nuclear fuel. All spent fuel currently is kept on-site at reactors in temporary storage facilities, but some of these facilities may soon reach capacity, as early as 2016 according to one estimate, which would cause reactors to shut down. An interim solution is needed to alleviate this situation, but South Korea sees a type of reprocessing called pyroprocessing as a long-term solution to spent fuel management.

Siting radioactive waste storage facilities has been difficult in densely populated South Korea, but Seoul believes that pyroprocessing could significantly reduce the volume of waste and necessary storage time. Second, Seoul wants enrichment technology to support its nuclear reactor export business. South Korea won a $20 billion contract in 2009 to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates and is looking to secure contracts in other countries, too. Because South Korea has no enrichment capability, the UAE contracted with North American and European companies to source natural uranium and supply enriched uranium for Korean companies to fabricate into fuel. Third, Seoul desires to be viewed on an equal footing as the other major nuclear technology suppliers, especially Japan, to which the United States granted consent for enrichment and reprocessing in 1987.

Despite a strong diplomatic push by Seoul, the new 123 Agreement does not give South Korea advanced consent for enrichment or reprocessing, at least not yet. The new 123 Agreement facilitates the continuation of a ten-year Joint Fuel Cycle Study (JFCS) between South Korea and the United States that was launched in 2011. The stated purpose of the JFCS is to assess the “…technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability…” of technologies related to reprocessing and spent fuel management. A separate Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement governs the transfer of technologies during the course of the JFCS, and the new 123 Agreement establishes a High-Level Bilateral Commission (HLBC) to enhance cooperation and address issues related to spent fuel management, fuel supply, and nuclear security.

Taken together, these agreements and mechanisms formed since 2011 significantly upgrade U.S.-South Korea civil nuclear cooperation, and they provide South Korea with formal channels to conduct research on reprocessing technologies and request consent for using these technologies in their civilian nuclear industry. They also set up times in the future that likely will see U.S. and South Korean negotiators once again discussing enrichment and reprocessing.

In 2018, the U.S.-Japan 123 Agreement, with advanced consent for Japan’s reprocessing program, is set to automatically renew unless either party calls for renegotiation, which appears unlikely, and this could be a time when Seoul asks, through the HLBC, why they also do not have advanced consent.

Three years later at the scheduled conclusion of the JFCS in 2021, Seoul may request permission to use the reprocessing technologies developed during the course of the study. The next foreseeable milestone is in 2032, when the new 123 Agreement requires the two parties to consult on whether to pursue an extension. Other developments, such as particularly acute spent fuel storage problems or more reactor export deals for South Korea, may also spur new talks over enrichment and reprocessing. Thus, the new 123 Agreement is a step forward for U.S.-South Korea civil nuclear cooperation, but the bigger steps regarding enrichment and reprocessing for South Korea remain yet to be taken.

About the Author: James E. Platte, PhD is an Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC and a non-resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He can be reached at

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Janus-Faced Political Islam

June 28, 2015

Janus-Faced Political Islam

by Charles Hirschkind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Economist: Politics and the Puritanical

June 28, 2015


Politics and the Puritanical

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

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

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

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

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

Rise and fall of the activists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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