Will Malaysia and Philippines” tilt to China undermine ASEAN? Trissia Wijaya writes there are signs for optimism.
In the wake of a series of unprecedented statements from Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Rodrigo Duterte, many are casting doubt over whether ASEAN really does matter to its member countries.
The tilt of Malaysia and the Philippines towards China have reinforced the perception of China’s expanding influence in the region, stirring fresh concerns that Beijing will erode ASEAN and draw the organisation closer to its orbit.
Under Duterte’s administration, Manila’s approach towards China has changed dramatically, from previously fractious to now almost-kowtowing. Only a step behind Duterte, Malaysia has followed in embracing China, with Najib even calling himself a “true friend” of China and inking a naval deal that takes their relationship to “new heights”.
In light of these recent mind-boggling performances, it’s legitimate to ask whether this show of engaging China is the beginning of the end for ASEAN’s legitimacy in the region, particularly since Manila is about to take up the 2017 ASEAN chairmanship.
These changing regional dynamics and relationships set up a future with two foreseeable scenarios for ASEAN.
In the first scenario, ASEAN is imminently faced with a crisis of legitimacy and purpose. Although China’s chequebook diplomacy helps to fund regional infrastructure development, it could come at a price of fundamentally altering the power balance in ASEAN’s engagement with China
In the realm of realpolitik, Malaysia and Philippines’ shifts away from the US towards China may perhaps not be aberrant behaviour, as leaders generally assess the cost and benefits of their decisions. For both Duterte and Najib, the US pivot to Asia has been coupled with increasingly-troubled relationships with the superpower through the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia and the role of the US military presence in the Philippines.
Hence, mending fences with Beijing is less risky than holding onto long-standing maritime disputes against it. China issuing a “no-strings-attached chequebook” would indirectly support Najib in maintaining his grip on power amid the 1MDB crisis, and would allow Duterte to keep fuelling his war on drugs unchecked.
An old Chinese saying talks of “one bed, different dreams”. Throughout the years of ASEAN, despite each nation’s different dreams, members have at least slept in the same bed. Creating a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and engagement with China through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) during the early 1990s are some of ASEAN’s successes in its attempt to guide China to agree to a multilateral framework. When the South China Sea dispute became a principal agenda item for the first time at the 1997 ARF annual meeting, ASEAN’s confidence-building measures thawed China-ASEAN state relations. ASEAN successfully procuring China’s active participation in the ARF eventually resulted in the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which reiterated Beijing’s commitment to prevent further escalation of tensions.
However, during the past few years, the inability of ASEAN to resolve maritime disputes has been challenging the “one bed” concept. The region is potentially about to be drawn closer to China, led on a rope to Beijing’s bed. In such a scenario, ASEAN is powerless, and the regional dynamic would be transformed into something akin to an imperial tributary system.
Nonetheless, with Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory in mind, there remains room for optimism.
In the second foreseeable future for ASEAN, Duterte and Najib’s China lovefest could in fact strengthen ASEAN legitimacy. The pragmatic approach of Duterte could potentially lead to an important thawing of China-ASEAN relations. An ASEAN foreign policy independent from the US, a possible outcome of Trump’s isolationalist approach to the region, would be initially detrimental to balancing China’s assertiveness. However, as the next chair of ASEAN, this frees Manila to potentially bring China back on track – to the “bed of ASEAN” – in a manner similar to the early years of ARF, where ASEAN took the role of “policeman” in monitoring Beijing’s moves in the region.
Duterte and Najib’s engagement approach towards China could put pressure on that country to undertake a more benevolent policy approach to the region. China’s policy-making process has been traditionally reactive to the US’ presence at their doorstep. Despite years of criticism over China’s hostile expansionism, particularly in the case of the South China Sea, China would always defend their policy as a necessary defensive measure against an aggressive US presence. If Duterte and Najib are genuine about opposing US interference in the region, China’s assertive and expansionist policy has no legs to stand on, and ASEAN will understandably expect a shift in China’s policy dynamic.
Trump’s extraordinary victory may soon end the US’s rebalancing policy and downgrade the US presence in the Asian region. Thus, since China is likely to feel less contained, it may become more open to entertaining ASEAN’s dispute settlement mechanisms.
D.J. Trump will unbalance Asia
All in all, although ASEAN’s future remains a puzzle, Duterte and Najib’s developing relationships with China need not erode the legitimacy of the regional organisation as long as they play based on rules, where engagement is not “the end”, but the “process” to ensure China is still in the game. ASEAN’s engagement of China must be underscored by confidence that the member states’ tilts towards China are not simply about pursuing ‘interdependence’ at all costs. Instead, these tilts should be seen as ways to create cooperative relations, strengthen a rules-based process, and find new areas of agreement.
Trissia Wijaya is a MEXT¹s scholar at the Graduate School of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Her research interests primarily lie in international relations in the Asia-Pacific and foreign policy.
Instead of setting up a task force to investigate Sarawak Report, the whistleblower website’s editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown has challenged Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi to probe the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) instead.
This was because the FBI was investigating the very same thing she had been reporting on.
“I find it very strange that the deputy prime minister and the Umno party wished to somehow vilify and attack me… for revealing something that has now been corroborated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies the world over.
“So why doesn’t Mr (Zahid) Hamidi decide to have a special task force to take on the FBI, why doesn’t he criticise the banks who have admitted that there are malfeasance that took place with respect to 1MDB money?
“Why not just take on the force of law and order in other countries, who have identified the crime known as 1MDB,” asked Rewcastle-Brown.
She also challenged Zahid to interview her. “Please do come and interview me. I would be very happy to give you my full mindful about why I am doing what I am doing,” she said.
Invited as speaker at anti-graft conference
Rewcastle-Brown said this in a video recording made at the sidelines of the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) which is taking place in Panama City.
She was among three speakers at the IACC session titled “Investigations on Money Laundering” last Friday, where she spoke on 1MDB.
On Saturday, Zahid told the UMNO General Assembly that a special task force had been set up to probe local organisations, including the Malaysia-focused but London-based whistleblower website.
Zahid claimed that the organisations have allegedly received foreign funding and is under the sway of foreign powers who want to see the present BN-led Malaysian government fall through non-democratic means.
Overseas, 1MDB-linked banks and officials are being investigated by several foreign jurisdictions over alleged complicity in money laundering and embezzlement involving the state fund, which Sarawak Report frequently reported on.
However, Malaysian authorities have dismissed problems with 1MDB as being only consigned to management weaknesses and denied reports of monies being laundered out of the company, accusing the website of trying to destabilise Malaysia and its economy with such news.
Rewcastle-Brown has denied being complicit in any conspiracy to fabricate news to attack the Malaysian government.
In speaking out forcefully about “genocide” in Myanmar, Malaysia’s Prime Minister may have opened a Pandora’s box.
By Theophilus Kwek
Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility.At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.–Kwek
Southeast Asia’s Rohingya refugees, and those campaigning on their behalf, were dealt a mixed blessing on Sunday when Najib Razak, the beleaguered Prime Minister of Malaysia, delivered a strong rebuke to Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi following the past month’s military-led crackdown on the Muslim minority in Rakhine state. Addressing Suu Kyi directly at an officially-sanctioned “Solidarity March,” Najib declared that “enough is enough” – and that his country would not “sit by and watch” while human rights abuses took place in their neighbourhood.
While Najib’s remarks at the Stadium Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur drew strong support from the Rohingya community in Malaysia, and marked the first time a Southeast Asian leader has condemned the Myanmar state’s actions in such strong terms, they should be treated with some caution.
A cynical reading of Najib’s address would see him reaching for the moral high ground at a time of immense domestic pressure. These, after all, have not been quiet months for Najib, who has battled corruption allegations over the 1MDB scandal since early 2015 – and has just emerged from a series of tense and highly visible protests led by BERSIH, a wide-reaching campaign for clean government. Despite winning a state election in Sarawak earlier this year, Najib’s ruling National Front has struggled to regain its former popularity, and was recently faced with allegations of human rights violations (from Laurent Meillan, acting representative of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, no less) over the arrests of several activists at the Bersih rallies.
In this light, there is little doubt that Najib’s statements are at least partly designed to shore up his human rights record and regain much-needed political capital. State violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken place since at least 2012, and it’s hard to overlook the particular timing of Najib’s unprecedented response. In a pointed statement ahead of the rally, the President’s Office in Myanmar called it a “calculated political decision to win the support of the Malaysian public.’”
But this was not simply the case of the wrong person saying the right thing at the wrong time. Najib’s statements reflect several political dilemmas that lie at the heart of the refugee question in Southeast Asia, and three elements of his speech deserve closer examination. First, it is worth noting that he chose to frame the issue with a moral vocabulary that other Southeast Asian leaders have, thus far, kept at arm’s length. He emphatically referred to the abuses as “genocide,” and called them, “by definition, ethnic cleansing.” With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he asked the crowd: “Do they want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute? […] What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?”
Such statements, which not only imply that he is acting on a universal duty of response – and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her Nobel Prize – are a deliberate departure from the position, long held among Southeast Asian policymakers, that regional and local values hold sway in Southeast Asian contexts. Building on the “Asian Values” discourse, Southeast Asian leaders and diplomats have previously stressed the region’s “incommensurable differences from the West” as reasons to question the universality of human rights. Najib’s statements suggest a clear pivot away from the default Southeast Asian position, and besides voicing indirect criticism at his own region’s lackluster human rights record, they may also imply that the global community (and the support it can offer) seems somewhat closer to Najib at this point than his immediate neighbors.
The Rohingya Issue is an ASEAN and International Challenge
Second, Najib’s comments on the ASEAN Charter raise difficult questions about regional cooperation in a time of fraught relations. In response to the Myanmar government’s statement – which framed the planned protests as an external intervention in its internal affairs, and reminded Malaysia to adhere to ASEAN principles of noninterference –Najib said: “There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose.” In any case, he added, “this is not intervention. This is universal human values.”
These remarks come in the wake of palpable friction among ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and both the United States’ and China’s increasing involvement in the region. Noninterference by regional and global powers alike has been a core tenet of ASEAN’s institutional stability since its inception, and has been credited for promoting peaceful relations in Southeast Asia especially since the end of the Cold War. However, Najib’s comments have flagged up the uncomfortable truth that this insistence on traditional state sovereignty may be less and less tenable in the present global context, and especially with regards to transnational migration. From Malaysia’s perspective, with more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees already registered by the UN refugee agency within its borders, the question of what constitutes “external interference” seems especially urgent. Najib may have a point: that ASEAN’s ability to effectively tackle regional issues is not necessarily helped by its members’ sensitivities to others’ incursions on their turf.
Finally, Najib’s focus on the “root cause” of refugee flight – Myanmar’s internal abuses against the Rohingya – successfully presents the crisis as a national issue, and sidesteps the glaring evidence that countless refugees are trafficked across the region in horrific conditions, and fall victim to the combined effects of patchy law enforcement, organized crime, and Southeast Asia’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Many end up in Malaysia and Thailand, or in refugee camps in Indonesia; because none of these countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention, few enjoy the legal right to work or corresponding protections against abusive employers. In late 2015, the discovery of the mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia brought the regional scale of the issue to global attention.
Najib’s call for Myanmar to cease crackdowns against the Rohingya, while valuable in itself, swept this wider incrimination of Southeast Asian governments, including his own, under the carpet. More than a choice of political convenience, it was perhaps a deliberate decision to downplay transnational aspects of the refugee question, and – by drawing on regional and global perceptions of Myanmar as a pariah state in transition – place the responsibility for regional crisis within the already-tied hands of an unstable administration. While raising his human rights credentials vis-à-vis his neighbors, thus, Najib simultaneously exempted them from adopting a concerted response.
For those concerned – as we should all be – about the increasingly dire situation facing the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility. At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.
Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as co-editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.
Double-Speak is a political way of life for Malaysia’s Prime Minister–Why can’t we say that he is a liar?
Is double-speak natural to human beings and the only way to become a true-blue politician worth his/her weight? An UMNO Deputy Minister and an equally idiotic Deputy Speaker of Parliament could not see anything wrong with that MP’s wrong speech and impure motives about another MP.
The victim of this abuse was a lady Member of Parliament; whose dignity was obviously denied but our Deputy Speaker appeared to play down the incident. It was clearly recorded vide a video-clip of our parliamentary session distributed to me from Singapore.
Sadly, too, if Parliament is our symbolic leadership head of our nation-state’s parliamentary democracy system; it is sad that the rotting of our fish-head has begun in that August House. My only retort to the deputy minister is: “padan muka” with this note: our grandchildren are watching and learning from your uncouth conduct.
Hadi’s public misinformation
Was Ustaz Abdul Hadi Awang, the President of PAS, also participating in doubles-peak with his Act 355 amendments agenda? While he is a Member of Parliament for Marang, is he not elected to do at least two things; one, is to represent all the people in Marang and two, to speak up on bills and handle concerns in Parliament for both his party and his constituency.
But, my question to him: is he only a Member of Parliament for Muslims with complete disregard for non-Muslims who live in Terengganu?
My take is that Hadi’s Act 355 amendments is simply mischievous and therefore malicious in intention. It is absolutely an attempt to open back doors for hudud implementation in the whole of Malaysia; without labelling it as such. My previous column argued eight reasons against it but allow me now to appeal to all my Muslim friends in Malaysia to explain why we (as Christians) have little choice but to oppose this bill.
The Village Idiot and UMNO Clown with his Corrupt Boss
First, think of Malaysia as existing practically at three levels of reality. These are federal, state and local levels. That means that when one is a federal citizen, that role ascribes and observes certain rights and obligations to all of Malaysia and to all her citizens; there cannot be inequity of citizenship. That is a universal expectation of citizenry anywhere in the world; even when some are treated more equal than others.
Therefore, while his bill was promoted and projected as a bill for Kelantan (one state) to dispense new Syariah by-laws with new limits; the simple fact is that federal law is being mobilised to enable state level criminal prosecution, and therefore its application is always national and federal.
Allow Kelantanese to breathe green air?
Can we assume, for arguments sake, that Kelantan gets this bill for Syariah system compliance and was not designed with hudud intent in mind. Let us grant this right to one of the nine states with rulers; as their second level of operational reality; state-level existence.
Whether we like it or not, such an enablement includes Sabah and Sarawak, too. But, please help me think through the real consequential issues and concerns of all other state jurisdictions at local levels premised on this Kelantan hypothetical experiment.
Therefore my simple but honest question to every Malaysian living in urban and suburban areas is as follows:
If criminal law is now a jurisdiction of any state and consequently their local government Administrations; cannot these authorities also later be mandated that, for example, only Muslims can live in a particular geography of Kelantan; whatever their logic or reasons?
Can non-Muslims therefore be disallowed to buy homes in some other specified area? Or, can it be stipulated that their beaches, like Pantai Cahaya Bulan (PCB), are now only for Muslim-specific attired swimmers? Non-Muslim can therefore be excluded, right?
Of course, supermarkets with male and female lanes become a mandatory given; if not halal and non-halal carts.Is all the above mere fiction from my head, or is there some element of reality to all of it?
The reason I ask these questions is that only our criminal laws can distinguish between the purity of intentions versus obvious and real evidence of wrongdoing. This is our practical but real level of human existence. Any differences or gaps between one’s espoused theory and the one-in-use is always a matter of spiritual consideration and never the domain of public policy of any state.
Once Friend, now a Political Foe
Therefore, regardless of what Hadi or anyone says; the new bill gives unlimited jurisdiction for the Kelantan state government to colour their air green and it can insist that everyone can only breathe and live such green air; in Kelantan. How else could the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) have raided Damansara Utama Methodist Church or DUMC (a church complex) without a police search permit merely on suspicion of some wrongdoing?
This gap between intentions and real action causes a lot of doubt and makes citizens question true political motives. For example, in a BBC interview with Maria Chin Abdullah, they could not understand why she was released before the court’s habeas corpus hearing.
My answer is simply that the Home Affairs Minister could not defend their abuse of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma); as former Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail so clearly already explained from the Hansard records what were the real intentions for the enactment.
God or Allah is our creator
Before the 2013 GE, Ustaz Hadi attended a meeting chaired by Anwar Ibrahim and attended by a whole group of NGOs and promised all of us that the word ‘Allah’ can be equally used by Muslims as with non-Muslims. I was there and heard his promise. But today they do exactly the opposite. Can we trust such politicians, even when they speak with green tongues?
Therefore, my only question to Ustaz Hadi is as follows:
Do we really believe in different Gods?
Is not intention in faith always a personal human faith matter and not a matter anyone else’s religious enforcement? Is not such responsibility for faith always a personal matter and not for the state?
How then can anyone justify all ‘forced limits to human intentions?’ Are we then not taking over God’s role and responsibility, and thereby playing God?
Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?
A speech to the Oxford Union by Indian former UN Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor appears to have hit a nerve online
By Shashi Tharoor
It’s not often that one can honestly say a book began as a speech. But my new book An Era of Darkness: the British Empire in India did just that.
At the end of May 2015, I was invited by the Oxford Union to speak on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’. The event, in the Union’s impressive wood-panelled premises, was a success and I left pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.
In early July, however, the union posted the debate on the web and sent me a video copy of my own speech. I promptly tweeted a link to it and watched in astonishment as it went viral.
Within hours it was being downloaded and replicated on hundreds of sites, sent out on WhatsApp and forwarded by email. One site swiftly crossed over three million views while others did not keep track, but reported record numbers of hits. Even the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, congratulated me publicly for having said ‘the right things at the right place’. Hundreds of articles were written for and against what I had said. For months, I kept meeting strangers who came up to me in public places to praise my ‘Oxford speech’.
This is why my publishers persuaded me that the arguments outlined in my speech needed to be turned into a substantial book. It has just been published in India and is already the number one bestseller on several lists.
Should a work of engaged amateur history have aroused so much passion? Seventy years after independence, shouldn’t we just forget about the past and move on? Is there still any moral urgency to explain to today’s Indians why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be? A lot of the popular histories of the British Empire in the last decade or two, by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have painted colonialism in rosy colors, and this needed to be challenged. Historical material is available to everyone who’s willing to look for it, but perhaps, in the rush of modern materialism, we’ve stopped looking.
In three months’ time, the book will also be published in Britain, which has been suffering from a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism. As the book emerged from the press in India, an article by a Pakistani writer in The Guardian pointed out that the Brits simply don’t teach their own schoolchildren the truth about their colonial past. Many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign boon to the ignorant natives.
There’s been a lot of self-justificatory mythologising in Britain about the colonial era. Popular television shows tend to focus only on the romanticised aspects of the Raj. All this explains Britons’ ignorance, but does not excuse it.
British rule deindustrialised India, created landlessness and poverty, drained our country’s resources, exploited, enslaved, exiled and oppressed millions, sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the country’s partition into two hostile states, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 35 million people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines as well as of thousands in massacres and killings. That just skims the surface of the havoc wreaked by British colonialism. The British conquered one of the richest countries in the world and reduced it to one of the poorest. At the beginning of the 18th century, India accounted for 23 per cent of global GDP. When the British left it was down to barely 3 per cent. A country where landlessness and poverty were virtually unknown before the British, found itself at independence with 90 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.
Of course, many see lasting benefits from British rule. But each of these supposed benefits in turn – political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket – was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British.
But I don’t in fact ask for reparations, as the Oxford debate did. How do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? There’s really no compensation that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. The symbolic pound-a-year I’d suggested would be a nightmare to administer.
Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by the British would signal true atonement. Imagine a British prime minister, on the centenary of the notorious Jallianwala Bagh masssacre, apologising to the Indian people for that atrocity and by extension for all colonial injustices – that would be better than any sum of reparations. The British could also teach the harsh truth about colonialism to their schoolchildren instead of allowing them to wallow in romanticised ignorance about their own past misdeeds.
An Indian man takes a photograph of a painting depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. The massacre took place on April 13, 1919, when British Indian Army soldiers on the direct orders of their British officers opened fire on an unarmed gathering killing at least 379 men, women and children. Photo: AFP
Yet the book is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects. Indeed, British Prime Minister Theresa May has just concluded a visit to India seeking investment from here in her post-Brexit economy. You don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge. ■
Advice for Young Muslims: How to Survive in an Age of Extremism and Islamophobia
Although Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash wrote this letter to his sons and also intended it as advice to Young Muslims, I hope it is read by Najib Razak and Hadi Awang, and other UMNO and PAS leaders and our politically motivated ulamas like Harussani Zakaria and others in our religious establishment. They should develop an attitude of “attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities”.
The Najib Administration wants to grant this fugitive from India, Zakir Naik, who is radicalizing Young Muslims, a Malaysian citizenship. Something is not right here. What example are we setting to the rest of the world?–Din Merican
The Ambassador said he wanted his sons “…to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith”. Let us not pollute our young with dogma and injunctions (fatwas) that retard progress. –Din Merican
His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash was appointed UAE Ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2008. He began his career in the UAE Mission to the United Nations; founded Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery; is a trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and sponsors the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in memory of his father, the UAE’s first Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He is a trustee at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London and the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi.
Saif, the elder of my two sons, was born in December 2000. In the summer of 2001, my wife and I brought him with us on a visit to New York City. I remember carrying him around town in a sling on my chest. A few days after we got back home to Dubai, we watched the terrible events of 9/11 unfold on CNN. As it became clear that the attacks had been carried out by jihadist terrorists, I came to feel a new sense of responsibility toward my son, beyond the already intense demands of parenthood. I wanted to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show him—and to show myself and all my fellow Muslims—that the world offers so much more than the twisted fantasies of extremists. I’ve tried to do this for the past 15 years. The urgency of the task has seemed only to grow, as the world has become ever more enmeshed in a cycle of jihadist violence and Islamophobia.
Today, I am the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and I try to bring to my work an attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. In that spirit, I have written a series of letters to Saif, with the intention of opening his eyes to some of the questions he is likely to face as he grow ups, and to a range of possible answers. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand how to be faithful to Islam and its deepest values while charting a course through a complex world. I want them to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.
How should you and I take responsibility for our lives as Muslims? Surely, the most important thing is to be a good person. And if we are good people, then what connection could there be between us and those who commit acts of terrorism, claiming to act in the name of Islam?
Many Muslims protest against and publicly condemn such crimes. Others say that the violent extremists who belong to groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS) are not true Muslims. “Those people have nothing to do with Islam,” is their refrain. To my ears, this statement does not sound right. It seems like an easy way of not thinking through some difficult questions.
Although I loathe what the terrorists do, I realize that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. Islam demands only that a believer affirm that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger. Violent jihadists certainly believe this. That is why major religious institutions in the Islamic world have rightly refused to label them as non-Muslims, even while condemning their actions. It is too easy to say that jihadist extremists have nothing to do with us. Even if their readings of Islamic Scripture seem warped and out of date, they have gained traction. What worries me is that as the extremists’ ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink. And as it has shrunk, it has become quieter and quieter, until only the extremists seem to speak and act in the name of Islam.
We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace. We need to demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in our community.
I am not saying that Muslims such as you and I should accept blame for what terrorists do. I am saying that we can take responsibility by demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can make clear, to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary. And we need to act in ways that make clear how we understand Islam and its operation in our lives. I believe we owe that to all the innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have suffered at the hands of our coreligionists in their misguided extremism.
Taking that sort of responsibility is hard, especially when many people outside the Muslim world have become committed Islamophobes, fearing and even hating people like you and me, sometimes with the encouragement of political leaders. When you feel unjustly singled out and attacked, it is not easy to look at your beliefs and think them through, especially in a public way. Words and ideas are slippery and can easily slide out of your control. You may be certain of your beliefs about something today, only to wake up with doubts tomorrow. To admit this in today’s environment is risky; many Muslims are leery of acknowledging any qualms about their own beliefs. But trust me: it is entirely normal to wonder whether you really got something right.
Some of the greatest scholars of Islam went through periods of confusion and doubt. Consider the philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who was born in Persia in the eleventh century and has been hugely influential in Islamic thought. His works are treasured today, but during his own lifetime, he was so doubtful about many things that he withdrew from society for a decade. He seemed to have experienced a spiritual crisis. Although we don’t know much about what troubled him, it’s clear that he was unsure and even fearful. But the outcome of his period of doubt and self-imposed isolation was positive: Ghazali, who until then had been esteemed as a scholar of orthodox Islam, brought Sufism, a spiritual strain of Islam, into the mainstream. He opened up Islamic religious experience to spiritualism and poetry, which at that time many considered foreign to the faith.
Today, some of our fellow Muslims demand that we accept only ideas that are Muslim in origin—namely, ideas that appear in the Koran, the early dictionaries of the Arabic language, the sayings of the Prophet, and the biographies of the Prophet and his Companions. Meanwhile, we must reject foreign ideas such as democracy, they maintain. Confronted with more liberal views, which present discussion, debate, and consensus building as ancient Islamic traditions, they contend that democracy is a sin against Allah’s power, against his will, and against his sovereignty. Some extremists are even willing to kill in defense of that position.
But do such people even know what democracy is? I don’t think so. In fact, from reading many of their statements, it is clear that they have little understanding of how people can come together to make communal decisions. The government that I represent is a monarchy, but I feel no need to condemn proponents of democratic reform as heretics. I might not always agree with them, but their ideas are not necessarily un-Islamic.
As extremist ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink.
Another “foreign” practice that causes a great deal of concern to Muslims is the mixing of the sexes. Some Muslim-majority countries mandate the separation of the sexes in schools, universities, and the workplace. (In our own country, most public primary and secondary schools are single sex, as are some universities.) Authorities in these countries present such rules as being “truly Islamic” and argue that they solve the problem of illicit relationships outside of marriage. Perhaps that’s true. But research and study of such issues—which is often forbidden—might show that no such effect exists.
And even if rigorous sex separation has some benefits, what are the costs? Could it be that it leads to psychological confusion and turmoil for men and women alike? Could it lead to an inability to understand members of the opposite sex when one is finally allowed to interact with them? Governments in much of the Muslim world have no satisfactory answers to those questions, because they often don’t bother to ask them.
MEN AND WOMEN
You have been brought up in a household where women—including your mother—are strong, educated, focused, and hard-working. If someone suggested to you that men are somehow more valuable or more talented than women, you would scratch your head. But when I was your age, the sermons that I heard at mosque taught that women were inherently inferior. Men were strong, intelligent, and emotionally stable—natural breadwinners. Women were appendages: objects to be cared for but not to be taken seriously.
That view of women persists in parts of the Muslim world—and, in fairness, in many other places, as well. It is certainly not the only possible view of women afforded by Islam, but it is a powerful belief, and one that enjoys a great deal of political, legal, and financial support.
I am proud that your mother and your aunts are all educated and work in professions that they chose. Doing so has hardly stopped any of them from raising families and taking care of their husbands—the roles demanded by conservative readings of Islamic texts. The women in your life defy the strict traditionalist view, which presents women as fundamentally passive creatures whom men must protect from the ravages of the world. That belief is sometimes self-fulfilling: in many Muslims communities, men insist that women are unable to face the big, wild world, all the while depriving women of the basic rights and skills they would need in order to do so.
Other traditionalists base their position on women on a different argument, one that is rarely discussed openly, especially in front of non-Muslims, because it is a bit of a taboo. It boils down to this: if women were mobile, and independent, and working with men who were not family members, then they might develop illicit romantic or even sexual relationships. Of course, that is a possibility. But such relationships also develop when a woman lives in a home where she is given little love and self-respect. And all too often, women are punished for such relationships, whereas the men involved escape censure—an unacceptable inconsistency.
This traditionalist position is based, ultimately, on a desire to control women. But women do not need to be controlled; they need to be trusted and respected. We trust and respect our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, and our aunts; we must provide the same trust and respect to other women. If we did, perhaps we would not witness so many cases of sexual harassment and exploitation in the Muslim world.
Saif, I want you to see that there is nothing written in stone that places Muslim women below Muslim men. Treating women as inferior is not a religious duty; it is simply a practice of patriarchal societies. Within the Islamic tradition, there are many models of how Muslim women can live and be true to their faith. There are Muslim women, for example, who have looked into the origins of the hijab (the traditional veil that covers the head and hair) and have concluded that there is no hard-and-fast rule requiring them to wear it—let alone a rule requiring them to wear a burqa or a niqab, which both cover far more. Many men have come to the same conclusion. Islam calls on women to be modest in their appearance, but veiling is actually a pre-Islamic tradition.
The limits placed on women in conservative Muslim societies, such as mandatory veiling, or rules limiting their mobility, or restrictions on work and education, have their roots not in Islamic doctrine but rather in men’s fear that they will not be able to control women—and their fear that women, if left uncontrolled, will overtake men by being more disciplined, more focused, more hard-working.
ISLAM AND THE STATE
You will inevitably come across Muslims who shake their heads at the state of affairs in the Islamic world and mutter, “If only people were proper Muslims, then none of this would be happening.” I have heard this lament so many times. People say it when criticizing official corruption in Muslim countries and when pointing out the alleged spread of immorality. Others say it when promoting various forms of Islamic rule. The most famous iteration of this expression is the slogan “Islam Is the Solution,” which has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood and many other Islamist groups.
It’s a brilliant slogan. Lots of people believe in it. (When I was younger, I believed in it wholeheartedly.) The slogan is a shorthand for the argument that all the most glorious achievements in Islamic history—the conquests, the empires, the knowledge production, the wealth—occurred under some system of religious rule. Therefore, if we want to revive this past glory in the modern era, we must reimpose such a system. This argument holds that if a little Islam is good, then more Islam must be even better. And if more Islam is better, then complete Islam must be best.
The most influential proponent of that position today is ISIS, with its unbridled enthusiasm for an all-encompassing religious state, or caliphate. It can be difficult to argue against that position without seeming to dispute the nature of Islam’s origins: the Prophet Muhammad was, after all, not only a religious leader but a political one, too. And the Islamist argument rests on the inexorable logic of extreme faith: if we declare that we are acting in Allah’s name, and if we impose the laws of Islam, and if we ensure the correct mental state of the Muslim population living in a chosen territory, then Allah will intervene to solve all our problems. The genius of this proposition—whether it is articulated by the fanatical jihadists of ISIS or the more subtle theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood—is that any difficulties or failures can be attributed to the people’s lack of faith and piety. Leaders need not fault themselves or their policies; citizens need not question their values or customs.
But piety will take us only so far, and relying entirely on Allah to provide for us, to solve our problems, to feed and educate and clothe our children, is to take Allah for granted. The only way we can improve the lot of the Muslim world is by doing what people elsewhere have done, and what Muslims in earlier eras did, in order to succeed: educate ourselves and work hard and engage with life’s difficult questions rather than retreat into religious obscurantism.
I don’t want that to be the case for you and your generation. Dialogue and public debate about what it means to be an individual in the Muslim world would allow us to think more clearly about personal responsibility, ethical choices, and the respect and dignity that attaches to people rather than to families, tribes, or sects. It might lead us to stop insisting solely on our responsibilities to the ummah and start considering our responsibilities to ourselves and to others, whom we might come to see not as members of groups allegedly opposed to Islam but rather as individuals. Instead of asking one another about family names and bloodlines and sects, we might decide to respect one another as individuals regardless of our backgrounds. We might begin to more deeply acknowledge the outrageous number of people killed in the Muslim world in civil wars and in terrorist attacks carried out not by outsiders but by other Muslims. We might memorialize these people not as a group but as individuals with names and faces and life stories—not to deify the dead but rather to recognize our responsibility to preserve their honor and dignity, and the honor and dignity of those who survive them.
In this way, the idea of the Muslim individual might help us improve how we discuss politics, economics, and security. If you and other members of your generation start looking at yourselves as individuals first and foremost, perhaps you will build better societies. You might take hold of your fates and take hold of your lives in the here and now, recognizing that there is no need to return to a glorious past in order to build a glorious future. Our personal, individual interests might not align with those of the patriarch, the family, the tribe, the community, or the state. But the embrace of each Muslim’s individuality will lead to a rebalancing in the Islamic world in favor of more compassion, more understanding, and more empathy. If you accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are more likely to do the same for those of other faiths, as well.
Muslims can and should live in harmony with the diversity of humanity that exists outside of our faith. But we will struggle to do so until we truly embrace ourselves as individuals.