Remembering Tunku’s words on his 116th birthday by Lim Kit Siang


February 8, 2019

Remembering Tunku’s words on his 116th birthday

by Lim Kit Siang

https://www.malaysiakini.com

MP SPEAKS | Today is the 116th anniversary of the birthday of Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Thirty-six years ago, on Feb 8, 1983, on his 80th birthday, Tunku issued the clear public message that plural Malaysia should not be turned into an Islamic State.Image result for tunku abdul rahman

Four days later, on Feb 12, 1983, on the occasion of his 61st birthday, the Third Prime Minister  Tun Hussein Onn publicly supported Tunku’s call.

In fact, Tunku told Parliament on May 1, 1958: “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood; we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the state.”

It is most appropriate to remember this history when we watch the MCA president Wee Ka Siong turn and twist in his histrionics to justify something the founding fathers of MCA, whether or not Tan Cheng Lock or Tan Siew Sin would have approved, the political co-operation with PAS under the leadership of Abdul Hadi Awang – who is reviving Islamic State rhetoric and espousing the most toxic and vicious brand of politics of lies, hate, fear, race and religion to sow suspicion, distrust and hatred among the races and religions in Malaysia.

Wee need not reply to the question whether he is aware that he would have lost his deposit in Ayer Hitam parliamentary seat in the 14th general election under the Hadi’s dictum that Muslims must vote for Muslim candidates, for all Malaysians know the answer.

DAP has never denied that we had worked with PAS in the Barisan alternative from 1999 to 2001 and Pakatan Rakyat from 2008 to 2015, but DAP’s co-operation with PAS was based on principles – not opportunism or expediency.

DAP leaders believe that Malaysia should be an international showcase of inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue, tolerance and understanding instead of being an example of a “clash of civilisations”.

To achieve this, Malaysians must engage with a political Islam that recognises Malaysia as a plural society and believes that Malaysia’s greatness comes from the leveraging of the assets and best qualities from the diverse races, religions, languages and civilisations that meet in confluence in Malaysia, building tolerance, trust and confidence among the races and religions and not sow suspicion, distrust, fear and hatred among the races and religions.

DAP leaders were prepared to pay a heavy price to achieve this national goal, including being defeated in the 10th general election in 1999 when Karpal Singh and I were defeated in the Jelutong and Bukit Bendera parliamentary seats, respectively.

This is when the voters succumbed to the Gerakan/MCA propaganda against Barisan Alternative with the politics of lies and fear that a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS and an Islamic state, and that if I was elected, the Chinese could not eat pork, take alcohol and go to temples, while beautiful women woud not be able to find jobs and that there would be a chopping of hands and feet.

The Barisan Alternative would not have been formed if PAS was not prepared to respect the opposition of DAP, Parti Keadilan and PRM to an Islamic State, focusing instead on the common objectives of restoring justice, freedom, democracy and good governance in Malaysia.

After the 1999 general election however, PAS leaders disregarded the opposition of the other component parties of Barisan Alternative to an Islamic State.

The issue confronting Barisan Alternative was whether the PAS leaders were prepared to abide by the BN consensus and respect the DAP’s opposition to an Islamic State in a multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia was not compatible with parliamentary democracy, power-sharing in a plural society, human rights and individual freedoms, women’s rights and social tolerance.

DAP had no hesitation to break our co-operation with PAS in 2001 when PAS reneged on the common Alternative Front manifesto “Towards a Just Malaysia”.

 

When the second DAP-PAS cooperation occurred with the formation of Pakatan Rakyat on April 1, 2008, after the “political tsunami” of the general election that year, it was based on a joint commitment “to uphold the rights and interests of all Malaysians, regardless of religion or race, as enshrined in the Constitution”.

But Hadi’s insistence to raise the Islamic State issue caused a crisis in Pakatan Rakyat, which was saved from dissolution after a late-night meeting of Pakatan Rakyat leaders on Sept 28, 2011, resulting in a joint statement by the leaders of the three parties in the coalition reaffirming their resolve to continue giving priority to Pakatan Rakyat’s common policy framework and consensus.

This common policy framework and consensus excluded Islamic State and hudud and there was the clear understanding that any policy change in Pakatan Rakyat would need the agreement of all three component parties.

Before the 13th general election, DAP rebuffed PAS overture for Hadi to replace Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister-designate of Pakatan Rakyat.

After the 13th general election, the Islamic State and hudud issues re-surfaced and Pakatan Rakyat faced its demise in 2015 when Hadi persisted with the goal of implementing hudud in violation of the coalition’s common policy framework.

Now Hadi condemns DAP as an “enemy of Islam”. But during the Teluk Intan by-election in May 2014, Hadi was full of praise for DAP and recalled that it was DAP that defended PAS when the Kelantan government fell in 1978.

Although BN was working with PAS then, BN did nothing to help them.

Hadi said in the Teluk Intan by-election: “Only DAP defended us that time and we are grateful to them.”

At that time, PAS followed the true teachings of Islam and was a strong opponent of corruption and abuses of power – but subsequently, Hadi took PAS through a major transformation by giving former prime minister Najib Razak support for turning Malaysia into a global kleptocracy!

DAP is always a “friend of Islam” which is moderate and tolerant which will make Malaysia a world top-class nation and not an extremist and intolerant Islam which divide Malaysians and will destroy the Malaysian dream.

I had wondered why Hadi has suddenly attacked DAP as an “enemy of Islam”.

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The reason is quite obvious – to divert public attention from Hadi’s withdrawal of his legal suit against Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown and an out-of-court settlement which allowed the original Sarawak Report article on Najib giving RM90 million to PAS to remain online and Unretracted.

This bring us to the question of why MCA is co-operating with PAS when Hadi is reviving the Islamic State rhetoric and espousing the most vicious and toxic politics of lies, hate, fear, race and religion to divide Malaysians in post-GE14 Malaysia?


LIM KIT SIANG is the MP for Iskandar Puteri.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

When a Muslim scholar parades his irrelevance as the nation mourns–Sheer Hypocrisy


December 20, 2018

When a Muslim scholar parades his irrelevance as the nation mourns–Sheer Hypocrisy

“The Adib episode, like the three years of the 1MDB saga before the May9, 2018 election, is proof that those in charge of guiding the Muslims are the ones who  need to be guided first” .–Abdar Rahman Koya

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by AR Koya

For more than seven months now, Pakatan Harapan (PH) has been after its political enemies in the name of fighting corruption, the promise which propelled it to power. This has met with some success, with many Malaysians hoping for some sort of closure to what has been a tragic era of mismanagement of the country’s wealth and potential.

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Immediately after taking over the government, PH set up its high-powered committee for reforms under the Council of Eminent Persons, which has since been disbanded.

While Malaysians still wait for some form of meaningful structural reforms, some things have gone from bad to worse.

The country’s Islamic institutions, for example, continue to be the playground of individuals who still find it easy to get away with acts that if committed by the common man would have seen him thrown in jail.

A recent example is the vibes coming out of people who are referred to as ulama and muftis in the wake of the death of Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim.

Adib’s death is mourned by a great many Malaysians, quite a number of whom are angry over the needless tragedy. If it’s any comfort at all, the young fireman has not died unsung after getting himself burnt every now then on a monthly salary of a little over RM2,000.

It is to the credit of the vast majority of people in this country that things have remained calm despite the small but noisy pack of social media users who have tried to push a racial narrative on the tragedy.

A leader in the early years of Malaysia’s formation once remarked that if a fight between a Malay and a Chinese in a coffee shop does not spill out to the streets and descend into racial riots, then Malaysians will have matured and racial harmony will have been realised.

Adib, a Malay and a Muslim, may have succumbed to injuries he sustained at the hands of people who are not Malay and not Muslims. Decades ago, this was enough for a full-blown racial riot.

Thankfully, key leaders from both the government and the opposition have been quick to show maturity by asking for justice through civilised laws.

But do we see such a display of maturity among the so-called religious people, the very people Muslims are supposed to look up to for guidance, and from whom they can get clarification on the dos and don’ts of being a good Muslim?

The answer is a pathetic no if we are to consider the silence of some Muslim leaders, or to go by their posts on the social media written in the hope of rousing the vengeance of Muslims.

One of them has invoked the eye-for-an-eye principle as the correct Islamic response to Adib’s death.

Despite warnings by police against provocations, these ulama are still free. Any other mortal would have been warned, hunted down and investigated.

The other irony is that some of these same Muslim scholars were tasked with advising the government on reforming Islamic institutions in the country.

It was only recently that we heard yet another Arabic phrase uttered to showcase the positive role that Islamic principles can play in a multiracial country.

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That phrase is “rahmatan lil alamin”, or mercy to the worlds, and its key proponent is Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs.

But it is abundantly clear that the beauty of Islam is the last thing one would find among the salaried religious elites of this country, whose robes sweep the polished marble floors of their offices.

The Adib episode, like the three years of the 1MDB saga before the May election, is proof that those in charge of guiding the Muslims are the ones that need to be guided first.

It also spells the start of the Islamic bureaucracy’s move towards irrelevance when it comes to portraying Islam as mercy to the worlds.

Abdar Rahman Koya is editor-in-chief of FMT.

Wanted: A new National Narrative


December 4, 2018

Wanted: A new national narrative


 

Forward thinking: When Datuk Onn Jaafar founded Umno over 70 years ago, he relentlessly wrote and cajoled the Malays to work hard, to study hard, to send their daughters to school, to be entrepreneurs, to be brave and confident, to take risks and be their own bosses. — Photo courtesy of National Archives

Forward thinking: When Datuk Onn Jaafar founded Umno over 70 years ago, he relentlessly wrote and cajoled the Malays to work hard, to study hard, to send their daughters to school, to be entrepreneurs, to be brave and confident, to take risks and be their own bosses. — Photo courtesy of National Archives

 

IN my agama school in Johor Baru in the 1960s, I learnt about Iblis (Satan) who refused to bow down with the other angels before the first human (Adam) that God crea­ted. When God asked why, Iblis said, “I am better than him; You created me from fire and you created him from dirt.” For his contempt and his disobedience, God cast Iblis out of heaven.

This parable has remained in my mind as it is this belief in one’s superiority that is the root of cruelty and injustice in the world. To think that one is better, one is greater, one is superior than the other in the name of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, caste, class, leads to all manner of injustice against those who are different from us – for no other reason than the fact that they are different. It is the logic of Satan.

At last Tuesday’s seminar on Islam and Human Rights organised by JJAKIMakim and Suhakam, the de facto Minister for Religion, Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof, made an impassioned plea for Muslims to recognise that human rights are a part of Islamic belief. He sprinkled his speech with verses from the Quran and stories from Prophet Muhammad’s life to illustrate the values of justice, compassion, dignity, freedom of religion, non-discrimination, and anti-racism.

Human rights, he said, constitute “darah daging” (inherent in) Islam. There will never be peace, he warned, if one side insists that its race or its religion is superior as the other side will then retaliate with its own claim of superiority. Two Malay men who had entered the hall in tanjak and keris regalia to display their “superior” Malay identity slinked away in silence after the speech.

Mujahid said he wanted to create a new narrative for a new Malaysia. I believe this is an imperative given the dogged efforts by the supremacists of race and religion to destabilise this new government and derail its change agenda. And I hope Mujahid’s colleagues in the Cabinet and the Pakatan Harapan leadership and membership will share his courage of conviction to do the same. For Malaysia cannot afford to go on being polarised on the basis of race and religion.

Events over the past few weeks reveal the continuing agenda of these desperate demagogues to incite hate and escalate further the sense of siege and fear among certain segments of the Malay community. These mischief makers are priming for violence, with threats of blood being shed and another May 13 being engineered. Such incitement to hatred and violence constitute criminal acts that must not be allowed to go unpunished.

It is obvious that those baying for blood are those who have lost political power and lucrative financial entitlements that they were used to. If they can no longer plunder the country at will as in the past, let’s tear this country asunder so that no one else benefits, seems to be their plan. And they dare proclaim they are doing this in order to protect the Malays and Islam? What an insult. You can fool some Malays some of the time, but you can’t fool all the Malays all of the time.

Enough Malays stood up on May 9 to say enough is enough and voted for change. Let’s get real here. While Pakatan Harapan might have garnered only 30% of the Malay votes, Umno’s share of the Malay votes plummeted by a whopping 15%. There was not just a significant Malay swing, but also a youth swing against Umno and all that it stood for – epitomised by a leader who thought it was all right that RM2.6bil could enter his personal bank account, countenanced by his cabinet and his party leadership.

The challenge before this Pakatan Harapan government is to find effective ways to build more Malay support for its change agenda. Who really pose a threat to the well-being of the Malays? Those who claim to speak in their name and yet plundered the wealth of the nation for personal gain cannot possibly be the champions of those left behind.

The focus of affirmative action must be on those left behind. They have a right to feel aggrieved, not the privileged UMNOputras whose gravy train is wrecked, with no spare parts in sight. Rising inequality and low wages must be addressed immediately so that these demagogues who exploit the vulnerabilities of those left behind have little space to advance their us-versus-them hate narratives.

Datuk Onn Jaafar would be crying in his grave to know that almost 100 years after he relentlessly wrote and cajoled the Malays to work hard, to study hard, to send their daughters to school, to be entrepreneurs, to be brave and confident, to take risks and be their own bosses, the party he founded is today led by those who manufacture endless threats in order to keep the Malays feeling insecure and fearful, instead of building their confidence and their capacity to embrace change.

Onn was obsessed since the 1920s with the backwardness of the Malays, and the need to “betulkan orang Melayu” (get the Malays on the right path). I choke at the sight of our 93-year-old Prime Minister still obsessed with this same mission.

It is a tragedy that 72 years after the founding of UMNO, 61 years of being the dominant party in power, 47 years of affirmative action, these UMNO leaders and Ketuanan Melayu agitators still cannot figure out what they might have done wrong if the Malays still feel insecure and left behind in the country’s development. Obviously, their priority is not to find solutions. Their priority is how to get back into power. Since the rakyat have lost confidence in their leadership, and refuse to buy into their race and religion under threat mantra, they are upping the ante by publicly baying for blood and violence. What a disgrace, what a betrayal.

But how do you get those Malays who feel threatened by every conceivable difference to deal with the realities of the Malaysia and the world they live in today? How does this new government undo the damage of decades of indoctrination and demonisation against the Chinese, the Christians, the DAP, the liberal Muslims, the LGBT community, the Shi’as, the Ahmadiyyahs, and against principles and standards that uphold equality, non-discrimination, human rights, liberalism and pluralism. These were all constructed as bogeymen used to divide the nation in order to build Malay groupthink for their Ketuanan Melayu and authorita­rian brand of Islam to maintain power and privilege.

This pipeline of hate and mistrust must be plugged.The latest Merdeka Centre survey on religious extremism in Southeast Asia shows that narratives matter. Muslims who believe in the diet of conservative beliefs such as a literalist understanding of Islam, the primacy of hudud law, and reviving the Islamic Caliphate are those who feel animosity towards others who are different from them and who hold violent and non-violent religious extremist tendencies. Around 66% of Muslims in Malaysia want non-Sunni sects to be banned, and only 41% support multi-faith education, compared to 73% non-Muslims who believe that students should learn the religious beliefs of all groups. What is also disturbing is the attitude towards Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Muslim respondents in Malaysia look negatively towards these “outgroups”, when asked to rank their attitudes towards others. Malaysian Muslims also scored the highest in terms of support for Jemaah Islamiyah (18%) and ISIS (5%), compared to Muslims in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

May 9 has given us hope that change is possible. The new Malaysia must build new dominant narratives on a just and compassionate Islam in a Malaysia that is big enough for every one of every hue and colour.

Those in government, in academia, in business, in the media, and in civil society must take the bull by the horn in loudly challenging the hate spewed out by these supremacists who use race and religion to divide the nation for political and personal gain. Rule of law must be upheld and the authorities must take firm action against those who incite racial and religious hatred. The responsibility to steer this nation to embrace diversity and differences belong to all of us.

There is no other choice. We need to reimagine and rebuild this new Malaysia if we want to live together in peace and prosperity in an inclusive country that should be a model to the Global South and to the Muslim world. We were once that country. We will, we must, we can, once again, be that model.

 

Message to Harapan Government– NIP Wahhabism in the Bud


November 18, 2018

Message to Harapan Government— NIP Wahhabism the Bud

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

https://www.ipohecho.com.my/v4/article/2018/11/16/spread-of-wahhabism

Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s damning statement that Muslims in Malaysia are “slowly but surely becoming radicalised” should not be taken lightly. I knew this was coming as ominous signs are so plentiful and obvious that even the most cynical can no longer dismiss them as inconsequential.

The Islamic scholar implored that the new Pakatan Harapan Government take precautionary measures to arrest the spread before things get out of hand.

“Before the situation becomes untenable like what is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s better to nip the problem in the bud. We need to do whatever possible to see it done. Revamping the school curriculum is one possible way to correct the situation,” he said.

Islam preaches compassion, love and tolerance but what we see in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan is something else. All of those benign virtues associated with Islam are being systematically destroyed by people who use religion for their very own selfish ends. I concur with the academician that religious extremism has no place in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Malaysia.

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The radicalisation of Islam in Malaysia, incidentally, did not happen in a few short years. It is like an underground fire that is fueled by methane gas. You don’t see the flame but the burning continues and the heat permeates through the vents. It becomes volatile and deadly once the flames reach the surface and start to engulf the surrounding. This is the scenario I can think of.

According to Fauzi, Islamic theology taught in government schools in the early 1990s has shifted from traditional to one derived from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia. The views are one-sided, sidestepping the norms while embracing a more radical form of mind-set, one of exclusivity, supremacist, with diminishing respect for the practitioners of other religions. Thus minorities and those with differing views are considered “aliens” or “non-conformists.”

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The term “liberalism” is often bandied about. If being a Muslim and you don’t conform you are a “liberal” and is regarded an outcast destined to burn in hell. The naivety is simply mind-blowing. The only similarity I can allude to is the Inquisition in 12th century France which later spread to Spain and Portugal. The objective of the Inquisitors was to “combat dissent and public heresy committed by baptised Christians.” And the targeted groups were mainly converts who were erroneously labelled as suspects due to the “assumption that they had secretly reverted to their former religions.

Incidentally, the last public execution of the Inquisition was in Spain in 1826 when a school teacher was garrotted (strangled) for being a disbeliever and attempting to spread his belief to his students.

Things were definitely different, pre- and post Merdeka in 1957. And being someone from that era I can safely vouch for it. In 1979, following the Iranian Revolution that helped catapult Ayatollah Khomeini into power, the equation changed dramatically. The revolution sparked interest in Islam all over the world.

Iran is a proponent of the Shia form of Islam which is strongly opposed by the Sunnis in other parts of the Muslim world led by Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich Saudi government, in wanting to counter the spread of Shia teachings, took advantage of this change offering scholarships and money to institutions and charities in the developing Muslim world. Malaysia was one of the many beneficiaries.

 

This, the Saudis believe, would help impose their brand of conservative Islam popularly referred to as Wahhabism or Salafism within their area of influence, including Malaysia.

In the 1980s and 1990s many Malaysians, especially Malay Muslims, went overseas for higher education. Due to the interest in Islam, many headed to the Middle East especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to pursue religious studies. This was made possible by the generous scholarships offered by the Saudi Arabian government. Over there they were exposed to the Wahhabi/Salafist way of thinking and practices.

When these students returned they got into the mainstream education system and becoming the ideal source for the Wahhabi/Salafist way of thinking which preaches intolerance, extremism and exclusivity. Some gained entry into the civil service, becoming influential bureaucrats, lawyers, academicians and politicians. These people are now in positions of power thus allowing them to make decisions for the good and bad of all of us. That explains why the thinking of these “misfits” are so skewed

Wahhabism was started by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) who was dismayed by what he saw in Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks’ way of life, he reasoned, was revolting. He then decided to propagate his version of “a pure and unadulterated Islam.”

The “Arabisation” of Malay Muslims has accelerated over the years. Today “uncovered” women are a rarity. And if you do meet them they are among the few who dare to be different. To the diehard believers, this phenomenon is the result of the proliferation liberalism that corrodes their way of life. The traditional yet alluring kebaya modern, the choice dress of my mother and aunties in the 1950s right to 1970s, had given way to the drab and soulless “tudung” and “telekung” which are designed to conceal the female figure.

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Why no skull cap for Anwar Ibrahim?

Male members are more adept at sporting a goatee and wearing a skullcap, as this is deemed appropriate and in sync with the dress code of Wahhabis. The more Arab one looks and talks, help to improve one’s religious credentials. It is about being as close as what was witnessed in 6th century Mecca and Madinah.
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So “selamat pagi” becomes “assalamualaikum” and “akhirat” becomes “jannah”. It is definitely chic to lace one’s speech with some Arab-sounding words although they may mean little or nothing to both speakers and listeners. The absurdity is getting a little out of hand, I dare say. But to the adherents this is God-sent.

The troubled interfaith relations prevalent today are the result of this exclusivist Wahhabi/Salafist thinking which has crept into the education curriculum and mind-set. Renowned Muslim scholars are labelled “secular” and “liberal” to keep the Muslim masses from hearing them out. Those who do not toe the line are banned from speaking out. Fatwas (religious edicts) issued are seldom explained. Questioning a fatwa is considered blasphemous.

Notwithstanding the brouhaha surrounding the controversial Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), no solutions are yet forthcoming. Funding for the department’s many questionable activities has never been accounted for.

Where will all this lead us to? Your guess is as good as mine. With the emergence of Malaysia Baru (New Malaysia) this inadequacy will be addressed in due course. But looking at what’s been happening, I have my doubts.

Hopefully, I will be proven wrong.

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”


October 198, 2018

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

On October 4th, 2018, Karen Armstrong, writer and religious historian, delivered the sixth Annual Pluralism Lecture titled “Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”.

Please to listen to Karen’s lecture and reflect. Egoism is our problem. God is always Great.  –Din Merican

 

De Tocqueville and the French exception


August 14, 2018

Liberal thinkers

De Tocqueville and the French exception

The gloomiest of the great liberals worried that democracy might not be compatible with liberty

 Print edition | Schools brief

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HE IS the most unusual member of the liberal pantheon. Liberalism has usually been at its most vigorous among the Anglo-American middle classes. By contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville was a proud member of the French aristocracy.

Liberalism tends to be marinated in optimism to such an extent that it sometimes shades into naivety. Tocqueville believed that liberal optimism needs to be served with a side-order of pessimism. Far from being automatic, progress depends on wise government and sensible policy.

He also ranks among the greats. He wrote classic studies of two engines of the emerging liberal order: “Democracy in America” (1835-40) and “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He also helped shape French liberalism, both as a political activist and as a thinker. He was a leading participant in the “Great Debate” of the 1820s between liberals and ultra-Royalists about the future direction of France.

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In 1849 he served briefly as foreign minister (he died a decade later). He broadened the liberal tradition by subjecting the bland pieties of the Anglo-American middle class to a certain aristocratic disdain; and he deepened it by pointing to the growing dangers of bureaucratic centralisation. Better than any other liberal, Tocqueville understood the importance of ensuring that the collective business of society is done as much as possible by the people themselves, through voluntary effort, rather than by the government.

Tocqueville’s liberalism was driven by two forces. The first was his fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual. The purpose of politics was to protect people’s rights (particularly the right to free discussion) and to give them scope to develop their abilities to the full. The second was his unshakable belief that the future lay with “democracy”. By that he meant more than just parliamentary democracy with its principle of elections and wide suffrage. He meant a society based on equality.

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The old regime was predicated on the belief that society was divided into fixed classes. Some people are born to rule and others to serve. Rulers like Tocqueville’s family in Normandy inherited responsibilities as well as privileges. They were morally bound to look after “their people” and serve “their country”. Democratic society was based on the idea that all people were born equal. They came into the world as individuals rather than as aristocrats or peasants. Their greatest responsibility was to make the most of their abilities.

Terror and the state

Many members of Tocqueville’s class thought that democratisation was both an accident and a mistake—an accident because cleverer management of the old regime could have prevented the revolution in 1789, and a mistake because democracy destroyed everything they held most dear. Tocqueville thought that was nonsense—and pitied his fellow blue-bloods who wasted their lives in a doomed attempt to restore aristocratic privilege.

The great question at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought is the relationship between liberty and democracy. Tocqueville was certain that it was impossible to have liberty without democracy, but he worried that it was possible to have democracy without liberty. For example, democracy might transfer power from the old aristocracy to an all-powerful central state, thereby reducing individuals to helpless, isolated atoms. Or it might make a mockery of free discussion by manipulating everybody into bowing down before conventional wisdom.

Sir Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, points out that Tocqueville’s contribution was to identify a structural flaw in democratic societies. Liberals are so preoccupied by the “contract” between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other that they don’t make enough room for intermediate associations which acted as schools of local politics and buffers between the individual and the state. And, he was the first serious thinker to warn that liberalism could destroy itself.

Tocqueville worried that states might use the principle of equality to accumulate power and ride roughshod over local traditions and local communities. Such centralisation might have all sorts of malign consequences. It might reduce the variety of institutions by obliging them to follow a central script. It might reduce individuals to a position of defencelessness before the mighty state, either by forcing them to obey the state’s edicts or making them dependent on the state’s largesse. And it might kill off traditions of self-government. Thus one liberal principle—equal treatment—might end up destroying three rival principles: self-government, pluralism and freedom from coercion.

Tocqueville feared his own country might fall into the grip of just such an illiberal democracy, as it had in the Terror, under Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. The French revolutionaries had been so blinded by their commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity that they crushed dissenters and slaughtered aristocrats, including many members of Tocqueville’s family. His parents were spared, but his father’s hair turned white at 24 and his mother was reduced to a nervous wreck.

He was worried about more than just the bloodshed, which proved to be a passing frenzy. The power of the state also posed a more subtle threat. The monarchy had nurtured an over-mighty state, as French kings sucked power from aristocrats towards the central government. The revolution completed the job, abolishing local autonomy along with aristocratic power and reducing individual citizens to equal servitude beneath the “immense tutelary power” of the state.

By contrast, the United States represented democracy at its finest. Tocqueville’s ostensible reason for crossing the Atlantic, in 1831, was to study the American penal system, then seen as one of the most enlightened in the world. His real wish was to understand how America had combined democracy with liberty so successfully. He was impressed by the New England townships, with their robust local governments, but he was equally taken by the raw egalitarianism of the frontier.

Why did the children of the American revolution achieve what the children of the French revolution could not? The most obvious factor was the dispersal of power. The government in Washington was disciplined by checks and balances. Power was exercised at the lowest possible level—not just the states but also cities, townships and voluntary organisations that flourished in America even as they declined in France.

The second factor was what he called “manners”. Like most French liberals, Tocqueville was an Anglophile. He thought that America had inherited many of Britain’s best traditions, such as common law and a ruling class that was committed to running local institutions.

Of liberty and religion

America also had the invaluable advantage of freedom of religion. Tocqueville believed that a liberal society depended ultimately on Christian morality. Alone among the world’s religions, Christianity preached the equality of man and the infinite worth of the individual. But the ancien régime had robbed Christianity of its true spirit by turning it into an adjunct of the state. America’s decision to make religion a matter of free conscience created a vital alliance between the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty”. America was a society that “goes along by itself”, as Tocqueville put it, not just because it dispersed power but because it produced self-confident, energetic citizens, capable of organising themselves rather than looking to the government to solve their problems.

Sleeping on a volcano

He was not blind to the faults of American democracy. He puzzled over the fact that the world’s most liberal society practised slavery, though, like most liberals, he comforted himself with the thought that it was sure to wither. He worried about the cult of the common man. Americans were so appalled by the idea that one person’s opinion might be better than another’s that they embraced dolts and persecuted gifted heretics. He worried that individualism might shade into egotism. Shorn of bonds with wider society, Americans risked being confined within the solitude of their own hearts. The combination of egalitarianism and individualism might do for Americans what centralisation had done for France—dissolve their defences against governmental power and reduce them to sheep, content to be fed and watered by benevolent bureaucrats.

Tocqueville exercised a powerful influence on those who shared his fears. In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill thanked Tocqueville for sharpening his insight that government by the majority might hinder idiosyncratic intellectuals from influencing the debate. In 1867 Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal politician, argued for mass education on the Tocquevillian grounds that “we must educate our masters”. Other Liberal politicians argued against extending the franchise on the grounds that liberty could not survive a surfeit of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s American intellectuals seized on Tocqueville’s insight that mass society might weaken liberty by narrowing society’s choices.

More recently intellectuals have worried about the rapid growth of the federal government, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme. Transferring power from local to the federal government; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats to pursue abstract goods such as “equality of representation” (even if it means riding roughshod over local institutions); and undermining the vitality of civil society tends, they fear, to destroy the building blocks of Tocqueville’s America. A recent conference, organised by the Tocqueville Society and held in the family’s Normandy manor house, dwelt on the various ways in which democracy is under assault from within, by speech codes, and from without, by the rise of authoritarian populism, under the general heading of “demo-pessimism”.

It is worth adding that the threat to liberty today does not stem just from big government. It also comes from big companies, particularly tech firms that trade in information, and from the nexus between the two. Gargantuan tech companies enjoy market shares unknown since the Gilded Age. They are intertwined with the government through lobbying and the revolving door that has government officials working for them when they leave office. By providing so much information “free” they are throttling media outfits that invest in gathering the news that informs citizens. By using algorithms based on previous preferences they provide people with information that suits their prejudices—right-wing rage for the right and left-wing rage for the left.

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

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Before the revolution in France in 1848, Tocqueville warned that the continent was “sleeping on a volcano…A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” Today democracy in America has taken a dangerous turn. Populists are advancing in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Authoritarians are consolidating power. The most pessimistic of great liberal thinkers may not have been pessimistic enough.

Read more on classical liberal values and thinkers at  Economist.com/openfuture

This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “The French exception”