Malaysia tackles the Jihadi Mess with its “best in the world” deradicalization progamme


December 4, 2017

Malaysia tackles the Jihadi Mess with its  “best in the world” deradicalization progamme

by Mariam Mokhtar@www.asiasentinel.com

https://www.asiasentinel.com/society/malaysia-confronts-jihadis/

Image result for Nur Afiqah Farhanah Che Samsudim

 

On November 24, a 26-year-old woman named Nur Afiqah Farhanah Che Samsudim was sentenced to eight years in prison in a Malaysian high court for attempting to enter Syria in a bid to die a martyr’s death.

Although she was on her way to the Middle East, Nur’s story has achieved disturbing relevance with the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as jihadis flee on their way back for sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.  How many Nurs there are – or their male counterparts – is unknown. But according to Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, regional groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah and others serve as what he called a “home away from home” for those fleeing the deteriorating situation in Mosul and other Middle Eastern cities.  Malaysia faces accumulating its own share of the fleeing returnees and what to do about them.

Nur’s father died when she was 17. She became a mistress until her lover died in 2014. Stricken by grief, she married her lover’s younger brother, a drug addict, but the marriage only lasted two months. She then resumed her studies in medicine before being befriended by a man on social media who agreed to marry her on condition she travel to Syria.

Having sold her car to fund her ticket to Turkey, Nur entered Istanbul on August. 30, 2016 and was finally caught trying to cross the border into Syria in February of this year, to be deported back to Malaysia.

Nur’s loneliness, the change in her personal circumstances and her vulnerability, made her easy prey for ISIS propagandists. Had she been persuaded by her internet lover that going to Syria would give new meaning to her life, help her overcome grief and her daily frustrations? What prompted her to tell her mother that she was migrating to Syria to have a martyr’s death? And can Nur and her fellow victims be turned around?

The Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi says yes, that his Home Ministry’s program to deradicalize former prisoners, is “the best in the world.”  The results, he told a crowd in Kuching in February of 2016, are encouraging and recognized internationally.

“We are not praising ourselves, this is a recognition by the United Nations, Interpol and others,” Zahid said, “which is why Malaysia hosted the International Deradicalization Conference last month.”

The Principal Consultant of JK Associates, Khen Han Ming, works in close collaboration with the media and law enforcement agencies on global security issues, intelligence and terrorism.  He is a skeptic.

The prevention of radicalization in prisons is all about damage control. Khen said, “Inmates jailed for non-terror related offences meet other inmates who may have become radicalized, either as sympathizers or members of a wider terror network, prior to their detention.  Harsh conditions of confinement, overcrowding, racial divisions and isolation of inmates are to blame for radicalization.

“In a recent exposé by The Straits Times, a 53-year-old former ISA detainee was shown to have been actively recruiting inmates in Tapah Prison after he was arrested in February 2013, for terror offences.”

Radicalization in prison, isn’t just a Malaysian problem. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Khen lists those who were radicalized whilst in prison.

“Guantanamo Bay once housed Said Ali al-Shiri, the late al-Qaeda leader who masterminded the 2008 attack on the US embassy in Yemen,” he said. “The current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was radicalized in Egyptian prisons, while the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi attempted to recruit fellow inmates to help him overthrow the government in Jordan.”

Richard Reid, the 2001 “shoe bomber” who attempted to blow up an airliner on a flight between Paris and Miami with explosives in his shoes, was radicalized while imprisoned in the United Kingdom.

Although the British, European Union and American governments have yet to find an effective strategy, in Malaysia, Zahid is all praise for his own program. Implemented under the Malaysian Prisons Department blue ocean strategy, steps so far used on 130 convicts were outlined by Zahid.

Convicts were separated during detention to stop their influence on other convicts, and 97 percent of those who have been rehabilitated, haven’t returned to their activities, he said. The department has close cooperation with the Malaysia Islamic Affairs Department (known by its Malay-language acronym JAKIM), psychology experts and NGOs.

“As a result, it makes Malaysia an example of the most successful country in the de-radicalization program, the best example in the world,” Zahid said.

However, Khen dismisses Zahid’s claim. “Zahid also said, in his entry in The Journal of Public Security and Safety, that “there is no formula by which one can measure the effectiveness of a given law, or in this context, the rehabilitation program. An effective de-radicalization program can be gauged by its rate of recidivism.”

Recidivism rates, he said, “can be very misleading because they reflect only what is known to intelligence services, which is limited to public knowledge. The 2004 Saudi de-radicalization program, also known as “PRAC” (Prevention, Rehabilitation, After-Care) was also described as one of the “best rehabilitation programs in the world,” and a role model for many countries.

It was considered a complete success until five years later, Khen said, when 11 former Guantanamo inmates and program graduates “were discovered to have returned to al-Qaeda.”

Another method for tackling radicalization is via community outreach programs involving both the private sector and NGOs. The aim is to take away the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS by disrupting radical and extremist narratives.

“We need a systematic program, which emphasizes inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, and which delegitimizes extremist ideologies such as the “them against us” mentality,” Khen said. Citing the approach adopted from The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore, he added, “Community outreach clinics, or hotlines which offer help to people-at-risk, or individuals with information, widen the channels of communication and accessibility to information, which would otherwise be difficult.”

He strongly believes that local celebrities can help counter extremist views: “Malaysian Sultans and members of the Royal Household are increasingly getting involved, by speaking up against the encroaching Talibanization of our country. Celebrities have a huge following and are sometimes considered more reliable than politicians. They also have the capability to break the barrier of political distrust. They are often the symbol of solidarity and unity, when we see a terror attack, overseas.”

Many in the field agree that terrorism and violent extremism is a battle of ideology that must be addressed at many levels, using a multilateral approach. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Badrul Hisham Ismail, the Program Director for IMAN, an organization which conducts research on society, religion and perception, told local media that to achieve successful rehabilitation and reintegration  into society, “we need to regain or rebuild trust and confidence, not only in society, but also between governments, civil societies and communities, to ensure strong collaboration and cohesion across all levels.”

Badrul added: “It is not only the responsibility of government or authorities. Each of us must play a crucial role in maintaining and promoting social cohesion and inclusivity – the remedy for any form of extremism.”

Khen, who has been involved in the provision of security services for over a decade, agreed and said, “Private sector involvement helps to address these issues, which affect everyone. Radicalization is not limited to religious indoctrination, but includes socio-political groups and similar groups.  We need to combat radicalization and violent extremism by disengaging them at their source, by advocating moderation and activism, to disrupt the spread of radical ideologies.

“Unless and until the main source of the problem is addressed, we are doomed to repeat the cycle.” The state, he said, shouldn’t waste its time and resources on de-radicalization programs but instead focus on addressing the root cause of extremism.

Image result for Mustafa Akyol

 

Despite this, the authorities can appear to contradict themselves. In September, the Turkish moderate writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol, who was invited to give a series of talks in KL, was detained, while the Indian fugitive ‘terror-mentor’ Zakir Naik was given a safe-haven in Malaysia and made a Permanent Resident.

A controversial preacher, Zamihan Mat Zin, who outraged Malaysians and the Malaysian Royalty with his radical views on separate launderette facilities for “unclean” non-Muslims and his intolerance in race and religious matters, was found to be part of the deradicalization program.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysian journalist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel

Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye


December 3, 2017

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

By James M. Dorsey

Image result for crown prince mohammed bin salman

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters file

By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam’s holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, President of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.nl/2017/11/targeting-islamic-scholars-from.html

Apatheism beats Atheism


November 26, 2017

 Apatheism beats Atheism

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | As hard as I try to avoid reading or writing about the eternally contentious and utterly tedious topic of religion, it keeps rearing its ugly head.

Image result for Apatheism

Especially in Malaysia, where some senior members of the kleptocratic UMNO-BN regime consistently claim to be divinely-appointed to their positions, and the UMNO party as a unit perennially poses as the ‘protector’ of Islam.

And to support and hopefully perpetuate this ‘protection’ racket, selected UMNO spokespeople regularly make more or less ludicrous ‘religious’ pronouncements.

The most notorious of these that I recall was the claim six years back by some hack named Hasan Ali that the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) had discovered that Christians were covertly trying to convert Muslims by means of ‘solar-powered hand-held talking bibles.’

In Malaysia, the UMNO-BN regime still persists in its years if not decades-long campaign to ban the use of the generic Arabic word for God, Allah, in Bahasa Malaysia translations of the Bible.

However, the latest shot in UMNO’s self-styled “struggle” to “protect” the “faith” of Malaysia’s vast Muslim majority involves not just copyright of the word “Allah” or threats from other religions, but the spectre of anti-religion, or atheism.

This latest controversy was started last week in Parliament, when MP Siti Mariah Mahmud (Amanah-Kota Raja) complained that a group calling itself the Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur was leading Malay youths astray with its nefarious activities, which include criticising Islam and other religions on Facebook.

This alleged group sounds to me to be as vivid a figment of the fevered imaginations of UMNO’s “religious” authorities, or in other words as bad a joke, as the above-mentioned solar-powered hand-held talking bibles so obviously were.

Image result for Apatheism

But Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki took Siti Mariah’s complaint seriously, and pronounced atheism to be “unconstitutional” and “an offence under the Sedition Act 1948”.

“In the context of Malaysia,” he claimed, “freedom of religion (as) stated in our Federal Constitution does not mean freedom not to have a religion.”

And he followed this barefaced falsehood with a series of lame attempts to demonise atheism as a “dangerous” contravention of public order and morality laws, and of the “principle of belief in God” as enshrined in the Rukunegara.

As for Siti Mariah’s lament that the Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur is allegedly using social media to undermine the sanctity of Malaysian society, Asyraf was quoted as stating that the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) had sought to block the group’s Facebook page, but failed.

“Jakim, in cooperation with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), had reported it to Facebook,” he elaborated, “but unfortunately Facebook responded that it did not violate their policy.”

Image result for Apatheism

“If (the) MCMC were to block it, they can’t just block the page,” he lamented, “but will need to block the whole of Facebook.”

Faithbook, Fakebook or Flakebook

For my part, I can’t for the life of me see why the UMNO-BN regime doesn’t simply block the whole of Facebook. Jakim is funded to the tune of well over a billion ringgit a year, and the MCMC and the Prime Minister’s Department countless – and unaccountable – billions more, so between them all they can well afford to fund their own regime-friendly substitutes for Facebook.

And given the multitude of religious and other such maniacs, there evidently are in not just Malaysia but everywhere else around the world, an UMNO-BN sponsored Faithbook, Fakebook or Flakebook could be a monster success.

Image result for Apatheism

The only downside being, of course, that those accursed atheists might sneakily insinuate themselves into these sites too. Not that atheism is anywhere near as threatening to the UMNO-BN’s hold on the hearts, minds and souls of the majority of its subjects as the regime’s members and propagandists appear to fear.

As I see all around me, and discern in myself, the most serious threat these days to not only religions but also anti-religions like atheism may well be what anthropologist Kate Fox calls in the latest edition of her classic book “Watching the English”, apatheism.

In other words, people are abandoning religion, at least in England and much of the West, not so much out of antagonism or active disbelief, but sheer indifference or absolute apathy.

And if there is any nation on earth with a bigger proportion of its populace capable of total apathy about anything much besides eating, shopping and of course sex, it’s Malaysia.

Millions of people are too apathetic to bother to vote; or too apathetic to speak out or otherwise openly protest against the robbery, rape and misrule of their country by a corrupt, repressive, lawless, lying and above all hypocritical regime; or to otherwise care so much as a damn for even a semblance of self-respecting citizenship.

Image result for Zahid Hamidi and his co-religionists

Only UMNO and PAS members are true to Islam, other Malaysian Muslims are deviants

If only this world-beating capacity for apathy could be extended to apatheism and thus render any and all religion irrelevant, it would prove infinitely more powerful against the fake pieties of UMNO-BN than any amount of atheism.

And, who knows, from there more people might progress towards apathy for apathy itself, or, in other words, actual action or even activism in the cause of decent and truly democratic self-government.

 

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society


November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin Hewison@www.newmandala.org

http://www.newmandala.org/illiberal-civil-society/

In the mid-1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of civil society in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was an efflorescence of activism as activists campaigned against trade agreements, foregrounded gender issues, worked to reduce poverty, improve health, protect the environment, advocated for workers and consumers, exposed corruption, bolstered human rights and agitated for democracy.

Image result for rethinking civil society in southeast asia

The optimism of the decade was driven by a feeling of confidence that democracy was taking root in the region, growing on a foundation of thriving capitalist economies. The resonance of 1960s modernisation theory was palpable—the “Third Wave” of democratisation was said to be washing over the region. This was emphasised by the triumphs of popular uprisings in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). These events were associated in the theory with the rise of the middle class and an expansion of civil society.

Two decades later, this optimism has faded. There is now more pessimism about civil society and democratisation. To understand these changing perspectives, it is necessary to give attention to recent political events, and rethink how we conceptualise civil society and its role in Southeast Asian politics today.

Civil society and democratisation

The notion of “civil society” has meanings embedded in the development of capitalism and the end of absolutism in Europe, and the consequent reduction of the weight of the state. The idea of a space relatively autonomous of the state developed quite late in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia. While anticolonial, socialist and communist movements, religious and educational organisations, trade unions and the like were established from the late 19th century, they were usually repressed.

When writing of civil society in late 20th century Southeast Asia, analysts tended to emphasise the non-state nature of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many have agreed with David Steinberg, who defined civil society as:

composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means. These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even organizations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associations, etc.

The organisations mentioned can be formal or informal, may be charitable, developmental or political. Yet when considering democratisation, authors usually associate civil society with efforts to expand political space. Some authors identify a “political civil society,” where “non-violent … organisations and movements … seek to promote human rights and democratisation…”. Their efforts mean that the political space of civil society becomes a site of intense competition and struggle—including for the organisations that occupy this space.

Civil society and political conflict

Image result for Indonesia Ahok Protest

 

But this conceptualisation of civil society—one which views the groups making up civil society as only being non-violent and peaceful—is too limiting. Civil society and its political space is open to many groups, not just those considered “democratic” and “progressive”. That space can also be occupied by state-sponsored, right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-democracy activists, and many others considered nasty, fascist, and reactionary. That the groups occupying civil society’s political space will sometimes be violent, and will oppose other groups, should be no surprise when we consider that all societies are riven and driven by conflict over all manner of resources.

Thinking this way of political space and civil society is not uncontroversial. Much of conventional political science, heavily imbued with modernisation theory, has romanticised civil society as the natural domain of individual and group freedoms, and sometimes conceived of NGOs and CSOs as representative interest groups. Such a perspective treats conflict and division as pathological, and misses the fact that political space is created through contestation with the state and with other groups in society. It is a view that fails to give sufficient attention to how civil society groups have actually behaved.

Contestation within civil society

Image result for malaysia bersih 5 rally

Bersih Movement in Malaysia

When we think of civil society as a site of struggle, it becomes clear that it is not always a ballast for democratisation. Islamic militias in Indonesia, racist Buddhist gangs in Myanmar and right-wing ultranationalists in the Philippines and Thailand are not forces for a democratic society—yet each undoubtedly occupies the space of civil society.

Islamic militias have re-emerged at various times during Indonesia’s reformasi era and engaged in mobilisation and violence. While the use of violence might exclude such groups from the romanticised approaches to civil society, militias have occupied a space created by democratisation, even if their activities are meant to mobilise anti-democratic groups and against some freedoms. A recent example of such anti-democratic opposition was seen in the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the 2017 Jakarta governor’s election. The Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) joined with several political parties to oppose Ahok in an acrimonious contest that involved the mobilisation of Islamic identity in huge demonstrations that targeted Ahok as a Chinese Christian portrayed as “threatening” Islam. Eventually, Ahok’s opponents gained the support of elements of the state to jail him on charges of blasphemy and inciting violence.

In Myanmar, religious groups have also engaged in racist and xenophobic activism. Radical Buddhists such as the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Patriotic Association) have been able to mobilise mass demonstrations against Muslims and have fuelled extreme communal violence since 2012. Such groups have also been supported by elements of the state and by elected politicians, all the while taking advantage of the expanded political space created by Myanmar’s political transition to mobilise and propagandise.

Image result for Radical Buddhists in Myanmar
Buddhist monks walk during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Reuters)

 

Indonesia and Myanmar demonstrate how extremists use the political space of civil society, and elements of electoral democracy, to oppose and challenge the freedoms that have come with democratisation. These groups are connected with some of the most regressive elements that continue to populate some state agencies. So far, they have not managed to destroy the political basis of these new democracies. But to see how the political space of civil society was used to re-establish authoritarianism in a Southeast Asian “democratic success story” of years past, we only need to turn our eyes to Thailand’s decade of high-octane political contestation.

Thailand: civil society for military dictatorship

 

Image result for thailand red shirts vs yellow shirts

The Yellow and Red Shirts of Thailand

Thailand’s recent political mobilisations have been designated by the colours that define their motivations. Their massive street demonstrations mobilised many, including NGOs and CSOs. The broad Red Shirt movement and the official United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship bring together supporters of electoral politics, those opposed to military interventions, and supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, of course, developed to oppose the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement. The latter initially coagulated as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wearing yellow to announce their royalism. Yellow Shirts tend to support the status quo, are anti-democratic, ultranationalist, and supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

In the 1990s, Thailand’s civil society, dominated by middle class interests, gained a reputation for opposing the military’s domination. NGOs and CSOs also tended to support the liberalising ideas that permeated the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997. When Thaksin was elected under the rules of this constitution in 2001, his government gained the support of many NGOs and CSOs. This support was forthcoming because of Thaksin’s initial nationalism, and his attention to grassroots issues and poverty eradication. That early support quickly drained away, with Thaksin coming to be viewed as authoritarian and corrupt.

The PAD, which was formed to oppose and bring down the popularly elected Thaksin, came to include many CSOs and NGOs which, at the time, would have been bundled into the broad category of “progressive civil society”. As the anti-Thaksin campaign expanded, the middle class, including spokespersons for civil society groups, began to denigrate the grassroots. The latter appreciated Thaksin’s “populist” policies and, especially in the north, northeast and central regions, voted for his parties in large numbers. Mobilised Yellow Shirts vilified this grassroots support for Thaksin, labelling those who voted for his party as ignorant, duped or bought.

As pro-Thaksin parties won every election from 2001 to 2011, the Yellow Shirts began an inevitable shift towards the denigration of the electoral processes itself, while declaring themselves the protectors of “true democracy”. The Yellow Shirts—the PAD and its clone, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—emphatically rejected electoral politics, arguing that electoral victories amounted to a dictatorship of the majority. In the 2013–14, PDRC protesters opposed an election called by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yellow Shirts blocked candidate registration, prevented the distribution of ballot papers, and tried to prevent voting on polling day. The PDRC argued that no election could be “free and fair” until the “Thaksin regime” had been destroyed. Their ultimatum was that the Yingluck government had to be thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed “reform” committee to purge those associated with Thaksin’s rule.

Backed by Bangkok’s middle class, including CSOs and NGOs, PAD and the PDRC campaigned for a “democracy” that rejected voting and elections. They wanted a greater reliance on selected and appointed “representatives”, usually opting for a royally- appointed government of “good” people. This paternalism was taken up by protesters, who claimed to champion transparency and anti-corruption while begging the military for a coup. Such Orwellian doublespeak was also in evidence when the military responded and seized power in 2014. The junta defined a coup and military dictatorship as a form of “democracy”. One pronouncement called on:

all Thai citizens [to] uphold and have faith in the democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO [junta] fully realizes that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (emphasis added).

The result has been more than three years of military dictatorship that has narrowed political space and heavily restricted much civil society activism. Red Shirts had championed electoral politics, arguing that winning elections should count for something and reckoned that electoral democracy was the appropriate platform for political reform. Under the military junta, they have been demobilised, jailed, and repressed.

Interestingly, most of the PAD and PDRC-affiliated NGOS and CSOs have either supported, or at least not opposed, the junta. Some have continued to receive state funds. However, the relationship with the junta remains tense, not least because the junta sees some of these groups as contingent supporters, worrying about their capacity for mobilising supporters and considering them more anti-Thaksin than pro-junta. Few high-profile leaders of these groups have expressed regrets about having supported the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Complicating “civil society”

The travails of electoral democracy in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are not unique in Southeast Asia. Certainly, any notion that increased national wealth results in a civil society that becomes a “natural” ballast of democratisation should be rejected. Democratisation does increase the space identified as civil society. However, this space is not always a stronghold of progressives. As a site of struggle, civil society can be occupied by groups that are anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, and sectarian. As the experience of Thailand and other countries has made clear, much abstract talk of “civil society” runs the risk of crediting its constituent parts with a uniformly pro-democratic outlook that they manifestly do not hold.

This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia, supported by the TIFA Foundation.

NY Times Book Review: Three Inquiries into Religion


October 21, 2017

Three Inquiries Into Religion

by James Ryerson@www.nytimes.com

Three exciting books on Religion by a Philosopher, a Man of Science and a Theologian

 

Contemporary debate about religion seems to be going nowhere. Atheists persist with their arguments, many plausible and some unanswerable, but these make no impact on religious believers. Defenders of religion find atheists equally unwilling to cede ground. The Meaning of Belief offers a way out of this stalemate.

An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. Crane offers an alternative account based on two ideas. The first is the idea of a religious impulse: the sense people have of something transcending the world of ordinary experience, even if it cannot be explicitly articulated. The second is the idea of identification: the fact that religion involves belonging to a specific social group and participating in practices that reinforce the bonds of belonging. Once these ideas are properly understood, the inadequacy of atheists’ conventional conception of religion emerges.

The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.

 

Image result for Religion :What It is,How it works, and why it matters by Richard Dawkins

Religion: What It is, How It works, and Why It Matters (Princeton University)–Richard Dawkins

Image result for john f. haught The New Cosmic Story

John F. Haught: The  New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University)

John Haught is a distinguished theologian who has spent his long career thinking through connections between our outer world revealed by science and the inner experiential world of religion, and has a seasoned grasp of the literature in both realms. Not just a philosophical argument, beautifully precise prose guides the reader through the veil separating the physical-and-objective from the subjective-and-spiritual. He points out that only recently have we determined that the cosmos is not “fixed” but rather is a still evolving (awakening) narrative in which the evolutionary emergence of life and mind are major milestones. He draws attention to the unseen explosion in recent millennia of subjectively experienced, interior life, of which religion is the major expression (as well as literature, media, etc.)

Image result for John F.Haught

Theologian John F. Haught

The main theme of the book is to redirect our seeking from the past into the future: we are submerged within an unfolding cosmic drama in which the unifying principles of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth, what Haught summarizes as rightness, all lie in the “horizon” up ahead of us. Haught’s is a spiral argument in which the general project is plainly manifest from the very beginning, and then, as you proceed through each chapter, your understanding effortlessly deepens; old concepts come alive, as faith is welded to patience and prayer to anticipation.

Malaysia’s Najib Razak fans the flames of Religious Intolerance


October 20, 2017

Malaysia’s Najib Razak fans the flames of Religious Intolerance

by Mariam Mokhtar.

http://www.sentinel.com

Image result for Chicken Najib Razak

Chicken Najib Razak fans the flames of religious intolerance

Malaysia has been thrown into a royal shambles by a growing rivalry between the country’s nine religiously moderate sultans and its conservative mullahs, considered by many to be “nouveaux royals” vying for the attention of ethnic Malay Muslims.

Political and social observers believe that if the controversy is left unchecked, it could undermine the position of the corruption-scarred Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak.

Image result for Tough Sultan of Johor

 

Johor people are proud of Major General Sir Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Abu Bakar, who ruled Johor for 64 years from 1895 to 1959 and his successors. Born on September 17th 1873, he ascended the throne on June 4th 1895 following the death of his father Sultan Abu Bakar. He was proclaimed on September 7th 1895 and was crowned on November 2nd of the same year. He celebrated his diamond jubilee of his accession on his 82nd birthday, a world record at that time. Sultan Sir Ibrahim also declined to become the first Yang Di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia in 1957 and so did the subsequent Sultan of Johor, Sultan Sir Ismail.Johor Mesti Sentiasa Jadi Johor

Image result for Tough Sultan of Johor

HRH Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Baginda Al Mutawakkil Alallah Sultan Iskandar Al-Haj, born on 22 November 1958 during the reign of his great grandfather Sultan Ibrahim, is widely admired and respected by all Malaysians

On October. 10, the Royals, who serve as the hereditary titular heads of nine of Malaysia’s 13 states and who even today have a deep reserve of loyalty from feudal rural Malays, called for unity and religious harmony after what they described as “excessive actions” in the name of Islam, a rare intervention into the public arena.

“It is feared that the excessive actions of certain individuals of late can undermine the harmonious relations among the people of various races and religions,” said the statement, signed by the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, according to a report in the state-run news agency Bernama.  “The Rulers feel that the issue of harmony has deep implications if any action is associated with and undertaken in the name of Islam.”

Najib is normally swift to act against members of the Malaysian public who condemn the royal households, the Islamic institutions, or his administration. But last week, after the Malay rulers issued the royal rebuke, Najib was silent.

Leaders of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s biggest ethic political party, understand the potency of conservative Islam to manipulate ethnic Malays, who make up about 60 percent of the population. The other 40 percent are comprised of Chinese, Hindus, East Malaysian ethnic Bumiputeras, and others.

The nine royal households, who by tradition and the Constitution are the guardians of Islam in their respective states, are believed to oppose the implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, and a bill before the parliament to enlarge the power of the Syariah Courts. They are also said to be alarmed about recent events like the banning of certain books and the arrest and deportation of authors and speakers including the Turkish academic, Mustafa Akyol.

Image result for mustafa akyol

 

A series of religious-related incidents has pitted the mullahs and the government against the royal households. Last month, the Kuala Lumpur City Council cancelled the annual Oktoberfest event, a Germany-inspired celebration of the passing of the seasons and of beer-drinking, and told the organizers that the event was a sensitive issue. They did not say who considered it sensitive or how it would affect Muslim sensitivities.

Days later, a launderette in Johor issued a statement saying that its services were only for Muslim patrons. The owner deemed that items belonging to non-Muslims would “contaminate” items of clothing worn by Muslims and invalidate their prayer.

The public were outraged by this act and HRH Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar waded in, warning the owner that the business would face closure by him if it did not stop operating as if it was in the Taliban portion of Afghanistan. After the dressing-down, the launderette owner apologized for his action and offered his services to people of different faiths.

The Royals have thrown the ball into Najib’s court, but he has refused to play. His relationship with the Sultans is increasingly tenuous, but his reticence to make a stand is regarded as weakening his own position.

The nature of the Sultans’ intervention is regarded as an indication that the royals are fed up and irritated as in fact are many of the country’s urban Malays by the erosion of community integration, as are many professionals among the Malay population, who say they are at the end of their tether with Najib and fundamentalist Islam. At a recent wedding, some even said they wouldn’t mind if a Chinese were to become prime minister, an astonishing heresy in the country. Many said they are openly encouraging their children to migrate. Nonetheless, the opposition as a political force remains splintered and a long shot against Najib and UMNO in an expected general election which must be called before the middle of 2018.

“The royals, too, feel their position is threatened. They may be Malay and act as the guardians of Islam, but many, when away from prying eyes, lead a very western lifestyle,” a political analyst told Asia Sentinel. “Some royals spend an appreciable amount of time in the west and enjoy a lifestyle that many of their Malay subjects can only envy. With rising Islamic conservatism, the ordinary Malays cannot emulate this western lifestyle in Malaysia.”

The Royals are compelled to speak out before extremism takes root and undermines their royal status, another social critic said. “In Islam everyone is considered equal, and only in Saudi Arabia are kings above the law. The Malaysian royals are taking the initiative and acting before their own existence is questioned by the extremists.”

As an example, he said, in April 2016, the Sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin stripped the state’s chief minister Ahmad Razif of all state-awarded titles because Razif had presented a controversial Indian zealot, Zakir Naik, with three islands.

Najib is not known for issuing retractions, denials or affirmations, as he has normally depended on a coterie of loyal supporters, most of whom belong to his inner circle, to lash out on his behalf.

However, the Royal dressing down has thrown Putrajaya, the seat of government, into disarray and political observers wonder if Najib will order an immediate shakeup of the Department for the Development of Islam in Malaysia, known by its Malay-language initials JAKIM.

Image result for harussani zakaria

It takes a Siti Kassim to put Perak’s Chief Mullah Harussani Zakaria in his proper place

Several other religious experts including two influential muftis, Asri Zainul Abidin of Perlis and Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri of the Federal Territory also admonished the launderette owner in Muar and another “Muslim-only” launderette operating in Perlis.

The Royals are compelled to speak out before extremism takes root and undermines their royal status, another social critic said. “In Islam everyone is considered equal, and only in Saudi Arabia are kings above the law. The Malaysian royals are taking the initiative and acting before their own existence is questioned by the extremists.”

As an example, he said, in April 2016, the Sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin stripped the state’s chief minister Ahmad Razif of all state-awarded titles because Razif had presented a controversial Indian zealot, Zakir Naik, with three islands.

Najib is not known for issuing retractions, denials or affirmations, as he has normally depended on a coterie of loyal supporters, most of whom belong to his inner circle, to lash out on his behalf.

However, the royal dressing down has thrown Putrajaya, the seat of government, into disarray and political observers wonder if Najib will order an immediate shakeup of the Department for the Development of Islam in Malaysia, known by its Malay-language initials JAKIM.

Several other religious experts including two influential muftis, Asri Zainul Abidin of Perlis and Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri of the Federal Territory also admonished the launderette owner in Muar and another “Muslim-only” launderette operating in Perlis.

In an unprecedented move, however, an Islamic preacher, Zamihan Mat Zain, fired back at the Johore Sultan and the Perlis and FT muftis for their stance, claiming that Muslims were only trying to lead good lives.

In a YouTube video, Zamihan termed Malaysia an “Islamic state” and said that being clean was Islamic. He was shocked, he said, that the small issue of the Muslim-only laundrette had been blown out of proportion, and become a worldwide sensation.

At a graduation ceremony at the Tun Hussein Onn University, the Johor Sultan called Zamihan “an empty tin with no brains,” adding that he was “very arrogant,” “haughty” and someone who believed he was the only one who had the right to scorn people of other races.

The Sultan of Johor’s criticism was swiftly followed by a similarly worded statement from the Perlis Crown Prince, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Jamalullail. The other Sultans delivered the October 10 Royal rebuke, saying Malaysians should focus on tolerance, moderation, and inclusivity for life in a diverse, multicultural Malaysia.

The statement, signed by the keeper of the ruler’s seal, Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, said, “The rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of such actions are more severe, when they are erroneously associated with, or committed in the name of Islam.”

In a further development, the royal rebuke has finally forced Jamil Khir Baharom, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (PMD), who also heads JAKIM, into the open. JAKIM is under the control of the Prime Minister’s department, with an annual budget of RM1 billion (US$236.7 million). Calls for the accounts to be audited and made transparent have been ignored.

Jamil was silent when the issue of safety, teaching quality and the mushrooming of illegal tahfiz, or religious schools cropped up, but Zamihan, who took potshots at the Sultan, has forced Jamil to seek an audience with the Johor Sultan, who in turn ordered the state religious authority, JAIJ, to sever ties with JAKIM.

Zamihan initially denied he was attached to JAKIM, but it was revealed that he is an “Islamic affairs officer” who has been seconded to the Home Ministry’s publications and Koranic text control division. His videos and talks are often inflammatory. It is also alleged that preachers are paid about RM20,000 per month.

Anyone who thinks that this battle royal is just another religious incident that will soon blow over is wrong. Najib knows that clipping the religious preachers’ wings would seriously erode his powerbase, but he is caught in a dilemma of his own making. Rural, feudal Malays are making it crucial that Najib’s political future be determined by his ability to conciliate the royal households and the demands of the power-hungry, conservative Islamic clerics whom he has fostered. Najib has unleashed a hydra which he may be unable to control.

Mariam Mokhtar is a liberal political commentator in Malaysia