Malaysia’s Razaleigh Speaks Up Quietly on Crisis

July 20, 2015

My Message to Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah:

Ku Li, it is time to come into the arena and lead. Exhortations won’t work anymore. Let me quote Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. “–Teddy Roosevelt/

Read the full speech:

All the best and Selamat Hari Raya. Maaf , Zahir dan Batin–Din Merican. Phnom Penh

Malaysia’s Razaleigh Speaks Up Quietly on Crisis

by Asia Sentinel Correspondent

Former Finance Minister calls for “total overhaul” of the system as he addresses deteriorating racial and political atmosphere

Tengku LiTengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the reluctant Kelantan prince and Malaysia’s elder statesman, issued a public statement Wednesday, July 15, calling for “honorable men” to step forward to reverse the country’s descent into racial unrest and political chaos as battling politicians seemingly ignore a deteriorating social and economic picture.

The crisis has deepened considerably following press reports last week that nearly US$700 million from the controversial 1MDB government investment fund ended up in Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s personal accounts. Those revelations have led to calls for Najib to resign and have led many to seek out Razaleigh as a potentially unifying figure.

najib-low-yat2The disarray was illustrated ominously by a riot on July 12 in which 200 Chinese and Malays battled at a Kuala Lumpur shopping plaza when a Malay youth allegedly stole a phone from a Chinese store clerk.

Critics charged that the tension had been fomented by United Malays National Organization leaders to take voters’ minds off scandals and the political squabble between Najib and former Premier Mahathir Mohamad. Indeed, one of the two said to be responsible for sparking the riot was an UMNO party branch leader; the second was a blogger known as Papagomo, who is widely known for his anti-Chinese comments. Papagamo has often been seen with top UMNO leaders.

LOW_YAT_HOOLIGANS_120715_TMISETH_0Razaleigh’s message, delivered after 40 days of mourning for the death of his wife, said he feels “freer to reflect upon and address the goings on in Malaysia during the past several months.” As elliptical as Razaleigh’s statement is, it is being greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters as a call to arms from a political figure long out of the public eye who is regarded as one of a few relatively clean UMNO members, and it coincides with a spate of other fast-moving political realignments that could spell a major shift in the political picture.

Razaleigh, 78, however, has not been a force in Malaysian politics since 1987 when he tried unsuccessfully to drive Mahathir out of the UMNO leadership. Although some consider him a figure of the past, he has in recent weeks been the focus of attempts by members of the business community and others to head a unity movement that would counter the paralysis brought on by the fight between Najib and Mahathir. He has yet to tip his hand.

Mahathir ready to pounce again

MALAYSIA-POLITICS-MAHATHIR-FILESNajib is trying to stop Mahathir with an all-out attack on his critics, accusing them of treason and attempting to bring down the country. However, Mahathir is believed to be ready to deliver fresh attacks after the end of the Muslim fasting period on July 17.

At the same time, Najib’s estranged younger brother Nazir Razak ,Chairman of the CIMB banking group, is reported in the Straits Times of Singapore to be contemplating linking his planned NGO, first disclosed in Asia Sentinel on June 16, with moderates driven out of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, in the fundamentalist party’s recent annual conclave.

Najib and 1MDBThe moderates have since formed a new political party, Gerakan Harapan Baru [New Hope Movement] to attempt to lure rank-and-file members from PAS along with the increasing numbers of ethnic Malay voters disgusted with the deep corruption in UMNO that is exemplified by the scandal-ridden 1Malaysia Development Bd.

But, said Dzulkefli Ahmad, a moderate and former Executive Director of the PAS research center, “What is another NGO? You have got to be where the action is. Not to belittle them, they are a force to be reckoned with. But if you want to be in the heat of things, you have got to be a political party.”

One of the drawbacks to a tie-up is that Harapan Baru intends to remain an Islamic party, if a moderate one. Nazir’s movement is aimed at being secular. He has been meeting with a wide range of moderates including top leaders of the Chinese business community as well as Malay and Indian executives who are alarmed by the political paralysis and deteriorating racial situation.

The leadership battle within UMNO appears to have left the leadership either unable or unwilling to address the mounting problems. In fact, as the Kuala Lumpur riot shows,  there are concerns that the leadership is attempting to use the racial situation to solidify its standing with ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population but who believe the Chinese [23 percent] are seeking to usurp political leadership along with their economic dominance.

What is Nazir up to? 

Nazir Razak2Although Nazir immediately downplayed his plans when they became public, saying his projected movement was only an NGO, the widespread impression is that he is trying to put together a political unity movement to reach all races and form a funded new, nonpartisan political entity to end the divisive racial politics. He is widely reported to be highly critical of alleged corruption inked to both Najib, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

The public face of Nazir’s movement is Saifuddin Abdullah, a former UMNO Deputy Minister who joined the University of Malaya as a research fellow but resigned to protest the ouster of a fellow academic for activities that were critical of the government.

Saifuddin, according to the Straits Times, met with leaders of Harapan Baru, which is expected to affiliate with jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, the remaining two legs of the shattered opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which PAS walked away from last month.

Razaleigh: ‘dire straits’

In Razaleigh’s message, he called attention to “the dire straits that our sovereign fund, 1MDB, finds itself in.” The fund is mired in allegations that as much as RM25 billion of its RM42 billion in liabilities are unfunded and could threaten the financial structure of the country.

But, he said, “the reality is that all these remain mere talk and nothing has changed. In effect, currently there is much confusion in the people’s minds which have to process statements whose veracity is suspect and might not reflect the true situation. We earnestly hope that there is still honor left in our beloved country and that there are honorable men who have the relevant facts to put the matter to rest. They should stand fast by their principles and take the moral high ground to assist in the resolution of the problem. If this were the case, surely there is no necessity for us to waste time instituting inquiries and investigations. Knowing the facts and the problem but not telling the truth is not an option.”

He suggested that the government should consider deferring a goods and services tax that has aroused enormous resentment along with the steeply falling value of the ringgit, as international investors grow increasingly queasy over the political crisis.

“It is undeniable that life is a constant struggle for the many,” he said. “They worry about the future of their children and grandchildren. They fret about the continuously deteriorating quality of life. Indeed they deserve better. A particular socio-economic issue creating much worry among the people is the lack of a financial safety net to provide economic security for retirees.

RacismHe called on political leaders to “stop bickering, squabbling and politicking. We must close ranks and come together to achieve the rich potential that has always been our feature. We should consider a total overhaul of the system. On that note, I wish every Malaysian Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and a happy holiday ahead.”

Malaysia: The Low Yat Plaza Incident is the Hand Maiden of Racists

July 14, 2015

COMMENT: The Najib Administration must not  be dismissive of  this incident. His divide and rule politics of religious exclusivity and racial differentiation has come to roost and is now beginning to threaten communal harmony  and political stability with attendant effects on an already difficult economy.

There is so much anger and frustration in Malaysia that the situation can flare up at the slightest provocation. Pekida and other UMNO-sponsored Malay right-wing elements, the Chinese triads and Indian terror groups  can pounce into action to create chaos.

Kee Calm Eat Kangkung

The Prime Minister must cease playing survival politics and get down to the serious business of governance. Otherwise, like William Shakespeare’s Richard The Third ( Act 5, scene 4, 7–10) he can be expected to be trading his besieged  kingdom for a horse. –Din Merican

Malaysia: The Low Yat Plaza Incident is the Hand Maiden of Racists

by Boo Su-Lyn
Low Yat Plaza  V2

The Low Yat Plaza riot which injured five people was scary with its disturbing racial overtones, and we don’t do Malaysia any favours by pretending that the whole incident had nothing to do with racism.

The original incident seemed simple enough. A Malay man allegedly stole a smart phone from a Chinese trader at a shop in Low Yat Saturday. He was caught and handed over to the Police. Then the upset man brought a group of friends over who allegedly assaulted the workers from the mobile phone outlet and damaged the store, causing about RM70,000 in losses.

The story then took a strange racist twist, with rumours suddenly popping up on social media about how the “cheating” Chinese had tried to sell a counterfeit phone to the Malay man. The Police, by the way, have reportedly dismissed claims about the counterfeit phone.

A riot broke out at Low Yat the following day, with disturbing videos of the violent Malay mob attacking a car with passengers cowering inside, as well as three journalists from the Chinese press.

The shoplifting was not unusual and had nothing to do with race, certainly. But the subsequent fallout was motivated by racism, with all the belligerent calls on social media to #BoikotCinaPenipu and to boycott Low Yat. There were hostile calls for Malay unity and vague threats of assault, with a photo of a gunman and the words “Call of Duty Low Yat” on Facebook.

Low Yat Plaza violence

There were even calls for arson. Malays were painted as victims, oppressed by the Chinese. At the mob gathering on Sunday night, a Malay man is seen in a video making a racist speech about how Malaysia is “bumi Melayu” and how the Chinese humiliated the Malays.

Police, politicians and the public have been quick to say that the Low Yat incident was not about racism, but just a simple case of theft. Wake up and smell the coffee — the Low Yat riot was racially motivated and it shows how ugly things can get when the economy is bad.

For all our campaigns about “moderation”, the truth is, racism exists in this country and we can’t ignore it. People look for scapegoats when the economy is in the doldrums. The Jews were made a scapegoat for Germany’s economic problems after World War I.

It is easier to blame a person from another ethnic group living near you, who is sitting in the same LRT and eating at the same fast food restaurant in which most of the counter staff appear to be Malays, for robbing you of opportunities in life.


It is  easier to get angry at news of someone from another race ripping off your fellow brethren over something tangible like a phone, than at the purportedly missing billions in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.

After all, you don’t know exactly how many of those billions come from your taxes. And you don’t see physical cash from your taxes being diverted into someone’s personal bank account.

It’s easier to hit a fellow Malaysian of a different skin colour over perceived injustices, compared to trying to slap the Prime Minister who’s protected by bodyguards and whom you only see in the news, not on the streets.

The government too should be blamed for allowing, and even encouraging, circumstances for a riot to happen. The race-baiting in Utusan Malaysia, the refrain for Malay unity, and Friday sermons that repeatedly label minority groups as “the enemy” have all contributed to this powder keg of racial tension.

A minister who brazenly called for Chinese traders to be boycotted should have been sacked. But instead, he remains in government. The ethnic conflict between the Malays and Chinese is driven by the perception that the Chinese are significantly wealthier. It’s unclear how much of that is really true.

A Khazanah Research Institute study shows that 26 per cent of Bumiputera households earn less than RM2,000 per month, compared to 20 per cent and 14 per cent of Indian and Chinese households respectively. So it is arguable if the Chinese really do dominate the economy.

Racism is not just caused by politicians who use the race card to get support. There are things that do not make it in the news – the wariness of the Malays at eating or drinking at Chinese coffee shops, the unnatural fear of pork to the extent of shunning Chinese ice-cream sellers, the undercurrent of complaints against the Chinese for stealing the country’s wealth and for trampling on the rights of the Malays.

There’s breeding resentment on both sides. The Chinese complain about not getting equal treatment and having to work twice as hard to get the same opportunities as the Malays, who receive coveted positions at public universities, housing discounts etc. They look down on the Malays and perceive them as “lazy”.

When a Malay is hardworking and does make it to the top, they say she’s an exception, not the rule. This makes for uncomfortable reading. But we need to confront racism head on.

We need to acknowledge that we hold racial stereotypes and that such stereotypes comfort us. They make us feel good about ourselves. They make us feel superior. We can laugh at racist jokes but we secretly place our colleagues, acquaintances, civil servants, and traders into racial stereotypes that they happen to fit in.

I myself am guilty of doing it. I compare the Chinese and Malay nasi lemak sellers at the wet market that I regularly go to. The Chinese nasi lemak seller is fast and efficient, but she’s very careful with her portions, always measuring them so she does not give too much.

The Malay trader’s nasi lemak is tastier and he lets customers dole out their own portions, charging a far cheaper price too. But he arrives at a later time than the Chinese, which means fewer customers, and he’s slow.

So I secretly think that the Chinese is a better businesswoman, even though I prefer buying from the Malay nasi lemak seller (when he arrives early enough).And I allow myself to take comfort in the (dangerous) belief that yes, the Malays may get everything handed to them on a silver platter, but we Chinese can still beat them because we’re better, smarter and faster than them.

I feel uncomfortable admitting this in writing. But I must, just like all of us must similarly admit the racial stereotypes we hold if we want Malaysia to move forward. We will never eradicate racism by burying our heads in the sand and pretending that it does not exist.

We need to perhaps befriend more people of other races. Maybe even get into interracial relationships and have babies of mixed ethnicity. Then maybe, just maybe, Malaysia will be a little less racist.

Watch out: Malaysian Big Brother is snooping on Us

July 13, 2015

Watch out: Malaysian Big Brother is snooping on Us

by John

john-berthelsenIf you live in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam and you are an activist, the government probably knows a lot more about the inside of your computer than you think, and more than you want it to.

On July 5, unknown hackers broke into the computers a shadowy company based in Italy that has become notorious across the world. With offices in Milan, Washington, DC and Singapore, its name is The Hacking Team, and it is one of a half-dozen such firms identified as “digital era mercenaries” because they sell products to governments to spy surreptitiously on their own citizens.

Najib in anxietyHe can go to sleep because he is using technology to snoop  and spinners to dupe Us

Top Asian clients among the countries using The Hacking Team’s services are Malaysia, the seventh-biggest spender, paying The Hacking Team US$1,861,131 for its assistance in spying on its citizens. Singapore is 10th, just behind the US, which is 9th. Singapore paid The Hacking Team US$1,209,963. Vietnam is 21st, at US$560,735, followed by Thailand at US$466,482.

According to the Massachusetts-based CSO cyber-security firm, the US Department of Defense apparently had a contract with The Hacking Team but no longer does. The FBI had an active maintenance contract until June 30 and the Drug Enforcement Agency has a renewal in progress.

The hackers, whoever they were, downloaded 400 gigabytes of internal documents, source codes and email communications with governments and dumped the haul onto the Internet. The documents tell a chilling story of helping some of the world’s most repressive countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbijan and Kazakhstan. In all, 38 countries are on the list of clients. According to other sources,  The Hacking Team also expressed the intention to go after Human Rights Watch and other such activist organizations. 


And what do they get for their money? Here is a presentation on the company’s website to entice governments to spy. It is well worth listening to:

“You have new challenges today. Sensitive data is transmitted over encrypted channels. Often the info you want is not transmitted at all. Your target may be outside your monitoring domain. Is passive monitoring enough?  You want more. You want to look through your target’s eyes. You have to hack your target.  You have to hit many different platforms. You have to overcome encryption and capture relevant data. Being stealthy and untraceable. Deployed all over your country. That is exactly what we do. Remote Control System Galileo. The hacking suite for governmental interception. Rely on us.”

Big Bro1

“Without advanced technology, authoritarian regimes would not be able to spy on their citizens,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. They are Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat.”

Bahrain’s royal family has used Trovicor’s surveillance and interception products to spy on news providers and arrest them, according to Reporters Without Borders. Blue Coat’s deep packet inspection products have made it possible for Syria to spy on dissidents and netizens throughout the country, and to arrest and torture them. Amesys provided products to the Libyan secret police during the late Muammar Gaddafi’s reign. The Hacking Team and Gamma have provided malware to capture the passwords of journalists and bloggers.

“Online surveillance is a growing danger for journalists, citizen-journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Regimes seeking to control news and information increasingly prefer to act discreetly. Rather than resort to content blocking that generates bad publicity and is early circumvented, they prefer subtle forms of censorship and surveillance that their targets are often unaware of.”

The contract with the Malaysian government apparently was routed through the Prime Minister’s Office, “Malaysian Intelligence,” both listed as “active,” and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, now listed as “expired” according to documents made public by CSO.  Thailand’s contract, with the country’s department of corrections, was listed as expired. A full list of curated documents made available by CSO can be found here.

The Singapore government’s Infocom Development Agency is the unit that apparently purchased the Galileo software. That agency, according to its website, “formulates and develops short- and medium-term infocomm-related policies, as well as standards, codes of practices and advisory guidelines – all of which are enforceable by IDA – pertaining to issues such as licensing, interconnection, resource and competition management, to name a few. IDA also monitors local and global infocomm market trends, developments and regulatory measures, while remaining technology-neutral, to ensure that the current infocomm policies and regulatory frameworks are effective and relevant.”

According to The Hacking Company’s website, “In today’s connected world, data is moving from private devices to the social cloud. Encryption is everywhere to protect the users’ privacy from prying eyes. In the same way, encryption is hiding criminal intents from you. Don’t you feel you are going blind? Sometimes relevant data are bound inside the device, never transmitted and kept well protected … unless you are right on that device.”

The government’s target, according to the website, “can be anywhere today, while your hands are tied as soon as he moves outside the country. You cannot stop your targets from moving. How can you keep chasing them? What you need is a way to bypass encryption, collect relevant data out of any device, and keep monitoring your targets wherever they are, even outside your monitoring domain. Remote Control System does exactly that.”

The system allows governments to take control of target computers and monitor them regardless of encryption and mobility. “It doesn’t matter if you are after an Android phone or a Windows computer: you can monitor all the devices. Remote Control System is invisible to the user, evades antivirus and firewalls, and doesn’t affect the devices’ performance or battery life. Hack into your targets with the most advanced infection vectors available. Enter his wireless network and tackle tactical operations with ad-hoc equipment designed to operate while on the move.

“Keep an eye on all your targets and manage them remotely, all from a single screen. Be alerted on incoming relevant data and have meaningful events automatically highlighted. Remote Control System: the hacking suite for governmental interception. Right at your fingertips.”

The Najadi Murder remains unresolved as the Mastermind is still at large

July 12, 2015

The  Najadi Murder remains unresolved as the Mastermind is still at large

by Malaysiakini Team

Young Hussain NajadiPascal Najadi, the son of slain AmBank founder Hussain Najadi, claimed the man who purportedly ordered his father’s killing has returned to Malaysia under an alias.

Speaking to Malaysiakini from Russia in a Skype interview, Pascal said he was informed of the suspect Lim Yuen Soo’s return by a source on condition of anonymity.He also claimed Lim was connected to the wife of a local senior politician.

Pascal insisted that Police look into Lim’s phone records over the last five years as it may reveal communications with the woman. Malaysiakini’s investigation also revealed Lim is more than a businessman who ran “entertainment outlets and carpark businesses” as described by Police. Research showed that Lim owns a security firm named Active Force Security Services Sdn Bhd, which describes its nature of business as “guards and security services”.

According to a Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) search, Lim controls 30 percent of the company. The information was last updated on Jan 5, 2015. The other two shareholders are former Melaka Tengah Police Chief Mohd Khasni Mohd Nor, who also holds a 30 percent stake in the company, and one Ismail Mohd Noh who controls the remaining 40 percent.

Hussain Najadi murderLim had allegedly paid Kong Swee Kwan RM20,000 to gun down Pascal’s father, Hussain on July 29, 2013 near Jalan Ceylon in Kuala Lumpur. Kong was arrested in September 2013 and sentenced to death a year later but Lim remained elusive despite the Police announcing in October 2013 that it was seeking Interpol’s help to track down the mastermind who was believed to be in Australia.

UMNOist IGP Khalid A BakarSo it came as a surprise to Pascal when Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar (above) on Wednesday abruptly declared the case, with the shooter already convicted, as “solved”. It is for this reason, Pascal said he had not relayed the information about Lim’s possible return to the Malaysian police whom he described as “unreliable”.

“I am not the one doing the Police work. This should have been picked up by the police. They should know, and I think they do know…,” alleged Pascal, who had hired his own private investigators.

Private investigators

Pascal said he was baffled that Malaysian Police had in October 2013 given an ultimatum to Lim to turn himself in within a week and then later announced they believe he was in Australia and would seek Interpol’s help. Around the same time, Pascal said an anti-terrorism officer in France with close links to Interpol informed him that Lim had fled from Sydney, Australia to Shanghai on a commercial flight.

Najadi's Memoirs“Now, if you look at the security protocol, you understand that in any modern nations’ airport, with biometric passport, you cannot walk through unnoticed. “So this man had very powerful help. Who helped him? I don’t know, but he had powerful help to fly on a scheduled flight from Sydney to Shanghai in October 2013,” said Pascal.

Pascal said the focus of his private investigators is now on establishing Lim’s links to certain individuals. “We are in the middle of investigating everything. Because the Malaysian Police are not reliable, we have to do it ourselves.I do not want to reveal things that are not yet ready but they are ongoing in this process and of course today’s process helps us to get more access to information than before,” he said.

The “process” Pascal was referring to is a separate investigation into allegations that RM2.6 billion linked to 1MDB was deposited into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank accounts at AmBank.

Pascal had previously alluded that the two cases may be linked, but when pressed on whether he had evidence, he was reluctant to reveal much except to say, “I have reason now to believe there is a link”. He also described claims that his father was killed for mediating on behalf of a temple to prevent its land from being acquired as a “concoction”. Police Chief Khalid had however dismissed any suggestion that Hussain’s murder was linked to the scandal involving government-owned investment fund 1MDB.

Islam, violence and the West

June 29, 2015

Islam, violence and the West

First, do no harm

by Erasmus, Religion and Public Policy

SHOULD the United States and its Western partners delve inside the ideological, and theological, debates going on within the world of Islam, in the hope of influencing the results?

David Cameron seemed to answer that question in the affirmative in his first reaction to the ghastly terrorist incidents of June 26: a mass shooting on a beach in Tunisia and a beheading in France. The British Prime Minister said:

The people who do these things, they sometimes claim that they do it in the name of Islam. They don’t. Islam is a religion of peace. They do it in the name of a twisted and perverted ideology that we have to confront with everything we have.

That was an understandable thing to say, in the immediate aftermath of a terrible horror, even though many people may counter-argue (as they have done every time Barack Obama has said similar things) that it is not really the business of a Western political leader to say what Islam is or is not. In the end only the practitioners of a faith, under the guidance of its most trusted interpreters, can decide what that creed really implies…or so the argument goes. It might be added that although outsiders certainly have a strong interest in the final outcome of a great religion’s internal debates, it is hardly their place to interfere in the process.

But a different and more elaborate claim for the legitimacy of deep Western (and specifically, American) involvement in Islam’s deliberations is laid out in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of America’s Council on Foreign Relations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Currently a fellow of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she has become one of the leading (sceptical) commentators on Islam in her adopted homeland.

She finds fault with President Obama for saying that the terrorists of Islamic State are “not Islamic”.  The real situation, as she sees it, is that both the IS terrorists and more peaceful adherents of Islam are acting out of strongly and sincerely held readings of that religion, whose billion-plus adherents are in the grip of some agonising internal wranglings over what their faith signifies. And in her view, the American government should be weighing on the side of the liberal and reformist camp.

She suggests that today’s American administration should be copying the example of the CIA, which as she approvingly recalls, funded magazines, conferences and influential individuals as part of its ideological battle against communism. The beneficiaries of this American largesse should be those who “oppose the literal application of sharia to apostates and women or who argue that calls to holy war have no place in the 21st century.” She also proposes certain favourites on more narrowly theological grounds, such as an Iraqi Shia cleric whom she commends for questioning the uncreated (in other words, divine) nature of the Koran.

In the same issue, a State Department veteran who introduces himself as a former “senior adviser for countering violent extremism”, makes a powerful and convincing counter-argument. For the American government to get involved in the internal debates of world religions is illegal (it violates the constitutional separation of church and state) and almost certainly counter-productive, he reckons. As the diplomat, William McCants, puts it: “Imagine the US government managed to navigate a thicket of laws and find its Muslim Martin Luther. His or her cause is going to suffer greatly in the arena of Muslim public opinion if it is revealed that the wildly unpopular United States is bankrolling it.”

A Hirsi AliIt might be added that for any reformer labouring inside the Islamic heart-land, the open support of secularist American-based intellectuals such as Ms Hirsi Ali, especially those like her who were born into Islam but later renounced it, could also be a kiss of death.

Perhaps a more modest argument should be made. The awkward fact is that America and its allies did quite a lot, in the late 20th century, to foster the most militant factions within Islam. Islamism gained ground in Pakistan under President Zia ul-Haq, an American strategic partner. During the battle to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan, some of the most extreme factions of mujahideen benefited from Western assistance, only to morph later into al-Qaeda. In several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, pro-Western governments cautiously encouraged Islamism, when it first raised its head, as a counter-weight to Marxist or secular-nationalist rivals.

In the present situation, Western governments probably can’t do much to help liberalising theological tendencies within the world of Islam, although they are certainly entitled to stand up for their own ideals of human rights and the rule of law. (For example, they can protest over the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger, without pronouncing on whether his liberal reading of Islam is correct or not.) But first and foremost, they should avoid repeating past mistakes and stop nurturing the most illiberal and violent factions.

Janus-Faced Political Islam

June 28, 2015

Janus-Faced Political Islam

by Charles Hirschkind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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