Muslim democrats and the dynamics of change

I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to offer some closing remarks. I am honoured to be here today in the presence of so many distinguished personalities and guests.

As a matter of fact, I feel very priviledged to be back here again for the forum – after having had the opportunity to take part in the Jakarta proceedings last year.

Let me begin by addressing the theme of the forum “Strengthening Democracy in the Fight Against Extremism and Islamophobia.”

Socio-economic advancement

One of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest, for Muslims has been and remains to be socio-economic advancement. We have to be clear about dealing with the issue of extremism and Islamophobia and to remember that these are symptoms and not causes.

Indeed the causes are manifold such as political and cultural marginalization. Deprivation of sovereignty or what may be described as the politics of dispossession is well documented. The Palestinian issue, the Patani Muslims and the Moros are some clear examples.

But then there is a clear and pressing – I may say overarching – problem which is the socio-economic position of Muslim communities throughout the world but more so in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

More than two thirds of the world’s Muslims live in countries located in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. From the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in 2014, the numbers are expected to increase through natural increase to about 1.8 billion in 2025. On the whole, Muslim populations rank below the world’s average in terms of levels of socio-economic development.

We don’t need to wait for extremism to flare up before we react and do something positive to rectify the situation. But the time for talking and rhetoric is long over. Clear prescriptions followed by solid and tangible action is the only way.

Speaking from the perspective of the administration of the state of Selangor, Muslim democrats can and do play a practical and active role in this regard. Selangor is the most developed state in Malaysia and is often referred to as the nation’s economic powerhouse. It contributes nearly a quarter of Malaysia’s GDP and is typified by positive economic growth and dynamism as well as political stability where governance is firmly grounded in accountability and transparency.

We implement an agenda for socio-economic empowerment of the people which is essentially two-fold in a broad sense. First, the strategic thrust of the state economic blueprint is centred on developmental growth with special emphasis on infrastructure, education, primary health care and the advancement of a home owning democracy.

Secondly, there is a more micro-managed social justice agenda targeting the lower income group to provide for micro-financing, extra budgetary allocations for religious schools to encourage enhancement of learning for science and technology and a sustained program to uplift the living standards of those in the rural areas.

As issues of poverty and socio-economic marginalization among Muslims are of serious concern, I would say that these efforts that I have enumerated are crucial measures to help Muslims break free from the cycle of poverty.

While the Selangor population is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, the majority remains to be Muslim and there is no question therefore this strategy has a direct and positive impact in terms of uplifting the socio-economic position of Muslims.

Moderation and justice

Subsumed under this strategic thrust is of course an explicit and clearly articulated state policy of moderation and justice. And this answers one of the fundamental questions asked: What does it take to create a Muslim democratic society?

To infuse the concept of moderation and justice in the governance of a state like Selangor, we must walk the talk. So, one of the earliest examples we set was to resolve the problem that arose concerning the Malay language Bible that was confiscated by the local authorities. In addition, inter-faith dialogues were held and I personally made courtesy calls to church leaders. Significantly too, during Ramadhan, church leaders and their congregation joined Imams and other Muslim leaders in iftar or breaking fast sessions.

These are not matters that should be brushed aside as being insignificant. On the contrary, when moderation and justice is left by the wayside, a culture of intolerance and bigotry will occupy the vacuum. I will not belabour the point that if unchecked, a one-dimensional and inward looking world view will logically morph into extreme bigotry and many other manifestations of extremism.

Geopolitical dynamics

In gauging the role of Muslim democrats and their strategic tasks ahead, the geopolitical dynamics and implications of a rising Muslim population in Southeast Asia is an important factor.

We know that after the war, Japan re-entered the international state system with concentrated focus on economic revival and since then, for more than half a century, Japan has proved to be the rock of Gibraltar for Asia’s geopolitical stability.

Particularly since the 1980’s, Japan has played an influential role in the democratization process of Southeast Asia. Apart from the pivotal economic role that Japan plays and will continue to play, the dynamics of engagement with Muslim democrats will be increasingly political.

Muslim democrats in turn will stand to benefit tremendously with greater engagement with Japan, being the most established democracy in Asia as well as the most developed in terms of its socio-economic framework.

Nevertheless, the geopolitical implications arising from the current rival claims in the South China Sea pose challenges to both peace and prosperity in the region. Whether or not it will pitch Japan and China on the path of direct confrontation is a matter that cannot be simply brushed aside. But when that happens, Muslim democrats from Southeast Asia will face formidable challenges as to which side they will be on. The doctrine of ZOPFAN – making Southeast Asia a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality – has been essentially in force and is said to have stood the test of time for the region, in terms of collective security and stability. These new developments will pose new challenges to this principle.

The Westphalian System and ASEAN’s Position

According to Dr Henry Kissinger, it is in Asia that “the maxims of the Westphalian model of international order find their contemporary expression”, where sovereignty “is treated as having an absolute character.” In the case of Southeast Asia and to be specific ASEAN, this principle has been translated into the doctrine of “non-intervention and consensus”. Because sovereignty is absolute, the domestic actions of member states cannot be interfered with – even if they are clearly excessive.

Faced with such a strong dictum against intervention, member states stand by the side-lines and turn a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In the name of national sovereignty, member states fold their arms while more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims – among the worst treated minorities of the world – are stripped of their citizenship while thousands are forced into concentration camps and thousands more are forced to flee abroad.

The question therefore is: Having now entered fully into the 21st century, can such a doctrine be considered relevant? The time is ripe therefore for Muslim democrats to seize the moral high ground to make that change. While it is true that many Muslim countries have not got their own house in order, that should not be the pretext for a policy of indifference for Muslim democrats. Can Muslim democrats stand idly by while their leaders rob and plunder the nation’s wealth and siphon tax payers’ money into their private bank accounts? What can we say about the state of democracy in Muslim countries when kleptocracy becomes an accepted culture and practice?

To my mind, the Forum for World Muslim Democrats is not just an enabler for Muslims to be the voice of reason to call for justice and toleration but also a firm and formidable platform to drive the establishment of proper governance, to fight the scourge of power abuse and corruption and to ensure accountability and transparency.

Enlightenment and voice of reason

Muslim democrats must have a voice that can hold its own without resorting to the easy tools of mere polemics, name-calling and political grandstanding. However, this approach requires courage of conviction, sincerity and forthrightness while observing the dictates of propriety. Nevertheless, it underscores the profound importance of articulating an inclusive paradigm in the discourse.

In any event, such a paradigm is not new. It is borne by the influence of democratic principles and ideas of the Enlightenment which, historically, have made their mark on the likes of the early Muslim democrats such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi and eventually Muhammad Abduh. Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, for example, was not obsessed with rhetoric but went on taking concrete measures including economic, educational and administrative reforms and to the support of parliamentary democracy. This may be history but as in the words of T.S. Eliot:

“History may be servitude, History may be freedom.”

It is up to us as Muslim democrats to make that choice. History has also shown that the subsequent backward slide to fundamentalist Islam also saw a rise in extremism even as progressive Islam was making its presence felt too. And this has much to do with personality cults or charismatic leaders – in the Weberian sense of leaders who gain the upper hand in moral authority.

Islam Nusantara

In this regard, we are reminded of leaders who bring transformational change. Speaking from the Southeast Asian perspective we have, without doubt, Anwar Ibrahim who, even as we speak, remains incarcerated as a victim of a foul political conspiracy. Nevertheless, Dr Anwar Ibrahim’s agenda for islah and tajdīd – reform and renewal – for the Muslim ummah can never be incarcerated.

In Indonesia, the reform agenda of the Nahdlatul Ulama movement which occupies a crucial place, not just in Indonesian politics but regionally as well, showcases yet another transformational Muslim leader namely the late Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur as we know him. Notwithstanding his relatively short span as president of the largest Muslim nation in the world, Gus Dur brought real and tangible reforms to the cultural and political fabric of Indonesian society. His writings draw from both classic Islamic and Western philosophy into a synthesis that is “compatible with modernity” especially democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance.

In closing, may I say that even as Muslim nations are attempting to forge ahead on the path of democracy, the risks and temptation of backsliding into autocracy are real and pose a major challenge to all of us – as Muslim democrats – to stay true to the cause and to have the courage of conviction to stand up for what is right.

I sincerely believe that the future for us – even as the challenges are very trying and formidable – remains bright. This forum itself is living testimony to the unceasing efforts, fortitude and optimism of we Muslim democrats to do what ever it takes to strengthen democracy.

Thank you.