To be or not to be....

Daily Times, October 1, 2005
VIEW: ‘Muslim moderates’ are not for hire —Farish A Noor

If the moderate majority remains a silent one, it is because they have been reduced to such a mute state by the oppressive laws of the ruling government. And that is one thing we cannot blame on the so-called ‘radicals’

We live in an age of mantras and slogans and among the more popular ones these days is the oft-repeated mantra that ‘Muslim moderates must speak up and re-claim Islam from the clutches of the radicals’. This has been the latest hit single for the past few months and at many a conference attended by the great and the good held all over the world in the spankiest five-star hotels the same record has been played time and again, to an appreciative crowd.

The latest glitzy do was held in Southeast Asia where the future prospects of the region were discussed at length. Predictably the same clichéd references were uttered before a jaded audience too bored or deaf to note the difference: ‘September11’, ‘Bali bombings’, ‘international terrorist network’, ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘war on terror’, etc. To cap it off the hit mantra was chanted once again, this time by the deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, who called on the ‘moderate majority’ of Muslims to rescue the faith from the clammy clutches of the nefarious ‘minority’ of radicals and fundamentalists whose grip on the faith was said to be great because no one has spoken up against them.

Chipping in as part of the chorus was the spokesman for Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono, Dino Patti Djalal, who likewise bemoaned the present unhealthy state of affairs where a minority of trouble-makers and ne’er-do-wells could do so much damage to the image and understanding of Islam. Presumably the audience then walked nervously to the buffet, fearful that a case of plastic explosives might be planted between the curried chicken and prawn cocktail...

The call for Muslims of the moderate ilk to stand up and defend their faith is not new, or even original for that matter. Those with even a modicum knowledge of history would know that the game of dividing ‘good’ Muslims from the ‘bad’ ones is as old as the colonial enterprise of the past, and can be compared to that other favourite pastime of tyrants and elites: dividing the ‘natives’ into ‘good niggers’ and ‘bad niggers’.

A cursory overview of the corpus of colonial discourse of the 19th century would reward us with an abundance of instances of ‘good Muslims’ stepping forth to offer their services for the sake of Empire. These were the ‘good Muslims’ who helped the British, French and Russians colonise most of Africa, the Arab states (including Egypt), Turkey, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

So who are the ‘good Muslims’ of today and how do we recognise them? And what, more importantly, are their own ends and objectives in this latest imperial venture?

Well for a start there are the ‘moderate’ Muslim regimes of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia, all falling over each other to look like President Bush’s own good men and pet Muslim tyrants in the making. The cast of ‘moderate Muslim’ governments that grace the map of the world today is as unbelievable as can be imagined: Pakistan’s president was brought into office via a coup, the Malaysian government is led by a party that has been in power for almost half century and whose ideology is based on a divisive logic of communitarianism and ethno-nationalism; while Indonesia’s elite has been propped up by the army all along.

Let us not forget the other ‘moderate hopefuls’ waiting in the corridors: Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak whose secret police and security apparatus remain the mainstays of Egyptian politics, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai whose personal safety is catered to by American-trained security personnel, and so on.

It is confounding that the deputy prime minister of Malaysia can suggest that the country’s moderate Muslims should speak up to defend Islam and its good name. Malaysia under the present leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has embarked on a series of economic and institutional reforms, but local critics maintain that much of what has happened is only cosmetic and for media consumption. The fact remains that Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) that allows for detention without trial remains firmly in place.

Worse still the ‘liberal, moderate Muslim’ tribe have said and done little about the continuing existence of this law, a colonial relic from the imperial era of the past. The same can be said for the other allegedly ‘moderate’ Muslim regimes where real political freedom remains a pipe dream at best.

What has happened, however, is this: in the wake of September 11 and the Bali bombings, the governments of the Muslim world have introduced more laws that impinge upon and diminish the personal freedoms of many. Opposition Islamic parties, NGOs and intellectuals have been hounded, persecuted, arrested and even liquidated in earnest. The search for alleged clandestine Islamist movements have given these governments reason and excuses to obstruct the development of democracy as never before.

What then is the true ‘moderate’ Muslim to do? Should members of this dwindling tribe still exist, they need to remember that the true moderate is one who condemns tyranny and injustice that occurs before his very eyes without fear or favour. While it is imperative that moderate Muslims should condemn the barbarity of radical groups without feeling that this somehow compromises his or her faith and identity; it is equally vital for him or her to speak the truth to power and to condemn the blatant injustices and oppression meted out by his government.

Here then lies the crunch: for while the ever-so ‘moderate’ Muslim leaders and governments are united in their support for President Bush’s war on terror, the last thing they want to see is the emergence of independent minded moderate Muslims capable of thinking for themselves and who may be equally critical of their leaders. Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Najib may bemoan the quietude of the lumpen moderate Muslim masses, but he has failed to see the obvious truth: If the moderate majority remains a silent one, it is because they have been reduced to such a mute state by the oppressive laws of the ruling government. And that is one thing we cannot blame on the so-called ‘radicals’.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin

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