Greater democratic space and a just and inclusive economy are the two great challenges for democrats, whether socialist, Muslim or any other denomination
I would firstly like to thank the organisers for allowing me the opportunity to address this distinguished audience gathered here at the inaugural “World Forum of Muslim Democrats” conference.
The objective of the forum, as stated in its concept paper, is to “moderate and ameliorate the negative voices of intolerance, extremism and exclusivism with the voices of moderation, tolerance, understanding and inclusivism.” Our discussion here is most timely, given the recent rise of religious bigotry and extremism all over the world.
In war-torn Middle East, a militant force that originated as a regional branch of al-Qaeda has forcibly gained control over parts of western Iraq and north-eastern Syria, styling their unrecognised territory as the “Islamic State.”
Whilst claiming religious authority over Muslims the world over as a born-again “caliphate,” the Islamic State has in fact been carrying out a systematic campaign of sectarian brutality particularly against Muslim minorities. Just yesterday, reports have come in about the massacre of 322 members of an Iraqi tribe in the western Anbar province, including some 50 women and children whose bodies were dumped unceremoniously into a well.
Though the Islamic State has committed great crimes through its inhumane “executions” and ruthless massacres, they have committed a greater crime by misusing the name Islam in the propagation of its abhorrent ideology.
The kind of violence and cruelty being practised by the Islamic State is antithetical to the fundamental teachings of Islam, which ultimately prescribes peace, tolerance and equality amongst mankind. If there appears to be a coincidental relationship between Muslim societies and organised violence in current times, we must bear in mind the context of most Muslim countries today, most of which suffer from authoritarian rule by a ruling elite that is largely seen to be self-serving and subservient to Western hegemony. At the end of the day, the themes aggravating post-colonial Muslim societies today are more economic and socio-political in nature, rather than religious or sectarian.
Closer to home, the situation is not nearly as bad, though increasingly tense and acrimonious by Malaysian standards. The situation is made worse by the government’s inability to stem the growing extremism, and at times appearing to be tacitly supportive of them, as evident by the Executive’s stubborn defence of an right-wing extremist’s threat to burn the Malay-language Bible. Not only did the Attorney-General refuse to prosecute for this provocative attempt to incite religious hatred, the government has gone on record to justify its stand by claiming that this extremist had merely defended the sanctity of Islam.
To make matters worse, all this is happening against a backdrop of the unfettered use of colonial-era draconian laws such as the Sedition Act against political opponents and prominent social activists.
All democrats share the same values
This current state of intolerance is unsurprising, given that the regime in power is now embattled after losing the popular vote for the first time in history in last year’s landmark 13th General Election. Consequently, having been rejected by the majority of moderate Malaysians, they are now increasingly beholden to right-wing elements in the misguided belief that extreme ethno-religious sentiments would strengthen their electoral base. In other words, the government’s response to the people’s yearning for greater freedom and democracy is to further divide and oppress the people with a greater dosage of authoritarianism.
It is now more important than ever to fight this bigotry and oppression through championing the values of freedom, equality and solidarity. These are universal human values, not only for social democrats and those who subscribe whether to Immanuel Kant’s ideals of the inherent goodness and dignity of human beings or Confucius and Mencius’ philosophy of man’s innate goodness, that people are by nature good, and that this goodness needs to be cultivated, but also for Muslim democrats, whose ideological foundations are derived from Quranic values.
In fact, optimism in humanity and the ideals I mentioned earlier are also rooted in Islam, as epitomised by the leader of the Tunisian Islamist movement, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi’s progressive notion of an Islamic state – a civil one based on justice, equality, human rights and democracy, where the state not only protects freedom of belief but also freedom of conscience.
In other words, all democrats share the same values. Therefore, it is based on these similarities that we can hope to produce a common political agenda for the benefit of all mankind. This common political agenda would be rooted in the shared values of our different traditions, whether as social democrats or Muslim democrats, and focused on facing the challenges of modern society – good governance, rule of law, free and fair elections and socio-economic justice.
Lessons from the Middle East
I would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon events in the Middle East, beginning with the rise and fall of the Hizbun Nahdah or the Renaissance Party of Tunisia, which I feel has great relevance and lessons for all of us.
For many Islamists in the world, and certainly for those who have termed themselves as Muslim democrats, en-Nahdah was the classic example of what a moderate Islamic movement should be. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, who had been in exile during the time of deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had triumphantly returned to lead the party into a general election that saw them winning 40 per cent of the seats in October 2011.
What followed was the promulgation of a civil constitution based on Islamic values, leading Tunisia to become a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world. Last Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Tunisia, however, saw the defeat of en-Nahdah to the secular leftist Nidaa Tounes. So what led to en-Nahdah’s downfall?
To answer this question, perhaps it is worth looking back at the Arab Spring. The genesis for revolution in the Middle East began in Tunisia on 17 December 2010, the day a young would-be petty trader, Mohammad Bouazizi, set himself alight. The weeks that followed would bring a dramatic change to the region and even the Muslim world at large. Following the Tunisian protests that led to regime change, Egyptians got into the action as well in January 2011 with a massive mobilisation at Tahrir Square, eventually resulting in the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak on 11 February.
Having claimed the scalp of two long-time dictators, Islamists the world over began to rejoice, asserting the success of the concept called “al-Islam huwa al-hal” or “Islam is the solution.” However, as much as Islamism provided a common mobilising ideology and a useful structure for organised protests, we have to recognise that the real underlying factors that sparked both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are both economic deprivation and political repression.
This duality of motivation has been credited by many studies, including a report by the Arab Institute for Human Rights and the Arab NGO Network for Development, which stated that the desire to build a socio-economic system based on “dignity, liberty and equality… was the main demand of the demonstrators in the entire region and what led them to this profound change.”
Hence, it is not entirely accurate to read the Arab Spring as a phenomenon of “Islamic reawakening” or as the manifestation of the desire to be more Islamic. Instead, the uprising against Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak was neither religious nor was it secular. By and large, the call was for an end to corruption, cronyism, and political repression, as well as for an improvement in economic conditions.
As such, when the people placed their hopes in en-Nahdah in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the Arab Spring, they were hoping that these parties would bring a new approach to politics that centred on equitable economic distribution, good governance and social justice.
Returning to our focus on the Tunisian story, en-Nahdah had been given a mandate to rectify the many socio-economic problems beleaguering Tunisian society, such as persistent unemployment. Unfortunately, the general perception of the voters was that the party failed to deliver. Unemployment remains high and crime has grown more precarious amidst regional turmoil. It is in this context of public discontent over their handling of the economy that en-Nahdah’s recent electoral defeat occurred.
As posited by regional expert and Oxford don Michael Willis: “the economy was the main issue. Nidaa Tounes is seen as having the expertise to get the economy back on track.”
It is the same story in Egypt, where a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that economic grievances rated highest in people’s minds. For example, 63 per cent of the people cited “unemployment” while 30 per cent cited “poverty” as the biggest problem facing Egypt.
A Pew Research Centre study also saw economic aspirations put ahead of democratic demands with more Egyptians – 82 percent – saying that improved economic conditions and a fair judiciary – 79 per cent – are very important.
What can we learn from all this?
I believe that it is realistic to conclude that the main factors underpinning the Arab Spring and the revolutions that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt had less to do with Islamism than they did with more practical realities such as political oppression and the economy.
It’s about the ordinary people
We would do well to learn this lesson here in Malaysia, where there is now an increasing usurpation of personal affairs by the state in the name of religion. This is a dangerous trend, as the more the state attempts to monopolise the “truth” and proclaim themselves enforcers of religion, the more oppression will occur despite any good intentions.
Rather than being obsessed with the issue of amputating limbs, perhaps it is more productive for us to discuss socio-economic policies. This is particularly relevant to us here in Malaysia, where income inequality is the worst in Southeast Asia. The fact that two thirds of our population qualify for welfare assistance in the form of BR1M payments is indicative of a structural defect in the distribution of wealth in our country, especially when the Prime Minister claims that we are only five years away from high-income status based on growth projections.
Hence, in offering an alternative, we in the Democratic Action Party and Pakatan Rakyat as a whole are committed to introducing reforms that would ensure greater democratic space and an economy that is more just and inclusive.
We want to raise the average Malaysian’s standard of living and reduce the widening income gap by addressing systemic irregularities such as corruption and state monopoly capitalism, which not only distorts the market but also concentrates wealth in the hands of the politically connected elite.
In place of the current flawed practices of patronage and opaque public procurement policies, we propose open competitive tenders. We are also against the implementation of the regressive GST at current conditions because we believe the rich should carry a larger tax burden compared to the poor. We also propose to break-up inefficient monopolies in many sectors, especially in the automobile, telecommunications, and public infrastructure sectors.
In terms of democratic reforms, we believe that there are three important aspects to concentrate on. Firstly, there is a need to ensure personal freedoms especially freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, as well as to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Secondly, we need to tackle social justice issues by increasing access to jobs, housing, public transport, medical care and education. And finally, we need to promote political and cultural pluralism, especially in respecting the rights of minorities in this country.
Here in Malaysia, whether we are socialist democrats, Muslim democrats or democrats of any other denomination, our challenge is in addressing the people’s core issues – economic deprivation and political suppression. Hence, instead of focusing on red herrings in the sphere of identity politics, it is critical for us to proffer solutions that would uphold good governance, rule of law, free and fair elections and socio-economic justice.