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Unfolding of a new history in the Arab and the Muslim World
Author/Source: Muzaffar K. Awan  Posted by: admin
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Muzaffar K. Awan, M.D. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA


Lenin had once said that “there are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” The last many weeks since December, 2010 the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt prove Lenin right. It  also proves the “end of history” cohorts as dead wrong.


For a long time, it seemed like history had been dead in the Muslim world for about two centuries. Most Muslim societies have been characterized by apathy, lack of creativity, corruption and hostility towards democracy, human rights, and justice for all.  The winds of change for the better are now spreading in the Middle East and beyond.


The common image of the Muslims in the West has been a mixed one. On the one hand you had the elitist, well-educated, spoiled, submissive Muslim autocrat who had been ready to collaborate with Western powers in exchange for his own ongoing rule. On the other hand you had the Bedouin type, the backward, the violent, the unpredictable, and the sentimentalist. Both served in their own ways the interests of the alien establishment and the regional order the West generally projected onto the Middle East and Muslim world.


Many Americans and Westerners believed that the Muslims lacked the democratic genes and were prone to autocracy. They came from a tribal and feudal background and believed in a religion that advocated only theocracy. Why bother supporting democracy, free elections and accountability when Western-friendly autocrats ran their countries as instructed? When the Bush and the neocons supposedly advocated and preached a freedom and democracy agenda for the Middle East, they certainly had a hypocritical design in mind. They paid no attention to the fact that human rights and true Democracy, everywhere in the world can only come internally from the peoples themselves, without any lectures, prescriptions and imposing from outsiders. It cannot be enforced by a gun, like Bush tried to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Things are now beginning to change and West’s pillars of sand will go on crumbling unless the West too gains a better understanding of the Arabs and the Muslim world and readjusts it own failing policies. Tunisians and Egyptians have demonstrated to the world that they themselves can change their autocrats without violence and bloodshed -- all the violence and bloodshed over the last many weeks shamefully came from the establishment forces.


As they succeed in making a peaceful transition to freedom, human rights and democracy; they have initiated the march of history in the Islamic world once again. They will go on inspiring millions of others around the globe to reclaim their fundamental rights. They are certainly demonstrating that they are determined to recreate their own history, again.


A new history is in the making, and everyone including the US, Israel and the West will have to accommodate themselves to achieve genuine global peace and harmony. What is odd is that those who claim to be promoters of democracy and human rights appear to be apprehensive when it comes to the Muslim world’s genuine democratic transition now taking place in Egypt. Israeli officials and many Western pundits do not even bother to hide their double standards and even anger. They don't care how the Egyptians will establish the institutions of democracy and move their country out of its current apathy and poverty. All they care about is Israel's security that in the long haul can be only achieved  through mutual respect and dialogue The days of getting things done by brute force are over, and in this day and age  the only way to get others to accept your ideas is by persuasion and convincing argument. Those who use brute force to reach their goals are intellectually bankrupt.


Naturally, Israel has the right to look after its own security concerns, and no one should blame Israel for it. However, it is a historic blunder to project a regional order in the Middle East and Islamic world exclusively on the basis of Israel’s security outlook and expansionist policies. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East but fears transition to democracy in her own neighboring countries including Egypt. How does one explain and reconcile such dilemmas?


After Tunisia and Egypt, the American and Western strategic thinking has a golden opportunity to redefine their priorities. A democratic Islamic world including Middle East may appear uncertain and unpredictable in the short run. Democracy in Egypt may not work to Israel's liking either, unless Israel herself learns to give and take and arrive at a peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians. But in the long run and if the Israelis are seriously interested in making peace with the Arabs and Muslims around the world, they should not fear democracy and the popular will of people of the Middle East. Instead, they should look at themselves and have a moment of self-re-examination.


Much of the anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments in the Arab and Muslim world come from Israel's policies of occupation, Western collaboration and support for autocratic regimes in Arab and Muslim countries. Israel needs to change this strategic outlook if it wants to live in peace with its Arab neighbors and the Muslim world. Making a last-minute effort to keep Mubarak like autocrats in place is certainly not the way to go any longer.


There has been an intense debate on the possible route the Muslim world including Middle East and African countries could take after recent popular uprisings. Whether they would fall into the hands of “fundamentalist Islamists” or if they can democratize in due course has been discussed for some time. In most of these discussions Turkey’s and Indonesia’s names are being mentioned as models for the Muslim countries that are in transition. The consequences of all this cannot be foreseen with certainty at this point in time. However, the potential is certainly there for democratization rather than any type of theocracy.


Turkey has emerged as a stable democracy, a growing global economy, and a major foreign policy player. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is now the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the 18th-largest economy in the world. In both cases, enlightened Islamic intellectual thought and practice influenced political parties playing key roles in their transformational process.  They did not abuse democratic means to then undermine democracy in any way, as some at that time had feared. They played by the rules during the elections and then observed those rules once in power while genuine Islam shines in the public sphere (in Indonesia and Turkey) playing an ongoing  and constructive role in the civic arena.


Turkey is not a democracy because there is a secular army that has had guardianship over the political system, but instead Turkey is democratizing due to the very military’s loosening hegemony and grip on power that has been weakening progressively (from 4 coups in first 80 years to e-coup and no longer any real coups in the last almost a decade of AKP government) since 2002. And a full analysis of the real political situation in relation to democratization in Turkey, of course, is much more complex than my simple formula here.


Turkey has been undergoing democratic evolution in exactly the same way as the West has been and still is evolving in democratization ongoing process. The West may be ahead by two centuries but its own democracy is still teen-ager while other countries are between a toddler and teen-age levels. Democracy everywhere is still a work in progress and no nation can brag about having perfectly matured popular democracy as yet with an equal opportunity for all of its citizens.


Also democracy comes after power struggles, and after breaking down the power blocks that exist in all countries. The bourgeoisie in Europe fought against the autocratic kings and the aristocracy not because they were too democratic but because they wanted to have a fair share in the distribution of power. From this struggle democracies emerged and evolved even further. This is exactly what has been happening in Turkey, Indonesia for a while and is bound to happen in the democratic evolving process around the globe


Turkey had this military and civil bureaucracy on the one hand and quite a tamed bourgeoisie that owed its richness to the deep state on the other. This had been the power block in Turkey since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. The military saw itself as the sole owner (as Pakistani Military sees to this day) of the country and the bourgeoisie was also in their service. After all, the Turkish rich became rich because of the privileges provided to them by the military-ruled state. They became rich as a result of usurping non-Muslims’ commodities; they became even richer with the high walls of customs raised for them by the state.


One can imagine about the Turkish military and old bourgeoisie as the king and aristocracy in Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. One can also think of the “Anatolian Tigers” (a term used for the newly emerged religious-conservative businessmen from Anatolia) as the new bourgeoisie fighting against this power block of king-aristocracy and military-old bourgeoisie. A so-called Turkish “Islamist” party has come to power on the shoulders of the “Anatolian tigers,” which emerged after Turkish markets opened up to the external world in the Turgut Özal era in the 1980s and later. This new bourgeoisie does not feel it owes anything to the deep state as it does to the civic society where true Islamic values apply and as inspired by Fetullah Gulen’s thought and practice for 40 years. On the contrary, it saw old power relations as a serious constraint to its own well-being and the future of Turkey.


The military is still there and the old bourgeoisie is still there, and there had been this power struggle going on at full intensity from which Turkish democracy has been emerging for some time. Add to this a 60-year multiparty system, a relationship with Western institutions for the last 50 years and the huge influence of the EU accession process on Turkey and then you’ve got a formula for Turkish democracy.


Consequently, I do not think we have a ready-made formula for Turkish democracy for the rest of the Muslim world. However, undoubtedly, Turkey can be a huge inspiration and incentive for the democratization of the Middle East and rest of the Muslim world as long as we understand it correctly and as it is. The same could hold true with Indonesian democratization example.


For many in the West, the fall of Mubarak was reminiscent of the final days of another military strongman - Indonesia's Suharto and his New Order regime. So what can Middle East and the rest of Muslim world learn from Indonesia's experience? Could Indonesia be a model for a democratic transition in Egypt?


Indonesia can certainly also is an inspiration to the Arabs and other Muslim countries, and no doubt there are some direct lessons to learn from Indonesia. But despite the many apparent similarities with Egypt, 30 years of military-backed authoritarian government collapsing overnight and widespread anger against human rights abuses and corruption, in fact there are a lot of differences as well between the two countries and the regions. And it's always the case with these sorts of changes that each country has to find its own way.


To begin with Indonesia since Sukarno’s era has been a state based on a national ideology called “Pancasila” (Five Principles). These five principles are: (1) Belief in the One Supreme God or monotheism; (2) Just and civilized humanism; (3) The unity of Indonesia; (4) Democracy; and (5) Social Justice.


And early on in 1967, Suharto became acting president of Indonesia, and he eventually maintained his presidency until 1998, more than three decades. Like Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy,” the New Order under Suharto was an authoritarian regime. Although opposition movements and popular unrest were not entirely eliminated under his presidency, Suharto’s regime was extraordinarily stable compared with that of Sukarno’s. His success in governing the country is mainly attributable to two factors: the military’s absolute or near-absolute loyalty to the regime and the military’s extensive political and administrative powers.


When New Order period in Indonesian history finally ended, the question then remained: How democratic opposition, Islamic or otherwise, could legally and peacefully be expressed in the workings of Pancasila as state ideology? This was an important question because the Pancasila on which Suharto based his power and rule was his own dictatorial interpretation and practice of this state ideology. Although Suharto’s Islamic policy had benefited at least some quarters of Indonesian Muslims, it was founded on his personal, hence fragile, foundation. Stated differently, living harmoniously in the religiously pluralistic Indonesia would only be possible if, and only if, two conditions are met: (1) Pancasila as state ideology is whole-heartedly accepted and supported by the Indonesian Muslims, the largest religious group in the country; and (2) Indonesia as a country is governed democratically.

Thanks to the Reformation Movement (Gerakan Reformasi) that had brought the end of Suharto’s dictatorship in May 1998, the two conditions have begun to be met in the post-Suharto Indonesia. There is no stronger indication of this than the rejection by the majority of Muslim politicians in the newly- and democratically-elected People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat or MPR) of the “Syari`ah amendment” in 2002. Note that this amendment, which stated that the state should be responsible for the implementation of Islamic law (Syari`ah) for all Muslims, represented the latest effort to revive the Jakarta Charter. Although the amendment was supported by some politicians who came from Islam-based political parties, they all constituted only about 15% of the total members of MPR.


One cannot overemphasize the importance of this decision but in Indonesia’s history, this was indeed the first and most democratic decision in which Indonesian people accepted Pancasila as state ideology and rejected the Jakarta Charter for the state to implement Islamic law.  Remember that during the Constituent Assembly sessions that took place after the general election of 1955, the only democratic election that Indonesia has ever had before the one held after the fall of New Order in 1998, the debate over state ideology came to a deadlock and for that reason Suharto issued the presidential decree to return to the Pancasila and began his dictatorship.


In Indonesian context, the interesting and important point is that majority of Muslim politicians in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) finally and willingly accepted Pancasila. This happened because of the changes that have been taking place in the last three decades of Muslim intellectual thought and practice in Indonesia providing further Islamic justification for the acceptance of Pancasila. The contributions were made to this end especially by the late Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid, undoubtedly the two most enlightened and influential Muslim thinkers and reformers in Indonesian contemporary history.

Madjid (1939-2005) was widely-known for his authority in Islamic teachings and history. He was the first Indonesian Muslim intellectual who publicly introduced the idea that political secularization, meaning the separation of state and religion, is not only an Islamic legitimacy but also a necessity. In a speech delivered in early 1970s, and in the spirit of defending the Islamic teaching of tawhid that is corroborated by the development of modern political thought, he argued that as far as Muslims cannot distinguish the sacred from the profane, Islam from worldly social and political affairs, then they would be able to achieve neither the essence of Islam, as the sacred, nor the establishment of modern form of politics, as the profane. Madjid said:

By “secularization” is not meant the implementation of Secularism, because “secularism” is the name of an ideology, a new closed world view which functions very much like a new religion. What are meant here are all forms of “liberating development?” This liberating process is particularly needed because the Muslim world, as a result of its own historical growth, is no longer capable of distinguishing – among the values which they consider Islamic – those that are transcendental from those that are temporal. In fact the hierarchy of values is often the reverse; the transcendental becomes temporal and vice versa, or everything becomes transcendental and valued as ukhrawi [pertaining to the hereafter] without exception. 

For Madjid, because the only sacred in Islamic teachings is God, then the secularization or de-sacralization of the profane (mundane politics) is a religious necessity. Hence he was known for his secularization motto, “Islam, Yes; Islamic party, no,” which meant among others that Muslims do not have to support any political party using Islamic name or symbols.


In line with his mastery in Islamic teachings and history, Madjid developed his support for the

modern ideas of equality, tolerance, pluralism, consensus, opposition, and popular sovereignty from Islamic doctrines and traditions. He argued that any ideas developed by Muslims that contradicted these modern social and political ideas should be subjected to historical criticism. By taking this approach and stating it publicly, coupled by his being an effective writer and speaker, he became an important agent of Islamic cultural change among his contemporaries. In the last three decades, he has been a major force in developing a modern Islamic discourse and political practice in Indonesia.

Considering Indonesia’s diversity and pluralism, Madjid used the same approach to support Pancasila as state ideology and to reject the idea of Islamic theocratic state. He argued that for many Muslims, Pancasila is, from the Qur’anic perspective, a common term (kalimah sawâ’) between different religious people that God commands to seek and find. He quoted a verse in the Holy Book (3: 64) that stated, addressed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Say: O people of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, lords and patrons, other than God….”

Thus the principle of monotheism, for Madjid, is the common term of all divinely inspired religions. But he quickly added that the adherents of different religions could also agree to a set of common terms that includes more values than one of monotheism alone: “And the more values that the adherents of different religions could agree upon as common terms, the better it should be,” he wrote.  To support this argument, he quoted a dictum in the Islamic principles of jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh) that said, in Arabic, mâ kâna aktsar fi`lan kâna aktsar fadhlan (“The more [there is of good] deeds, the greater the virtue”). This means, to have five subjects as common terms between different religions or factions, such as with Pancasila for Indonesian people, is better than to have just one subject. In that way Pancasila becomes the firm basis for the development of religious tolerance and pluralism in Indonesia.


Madjid ideas find crucial support from his close colleague Madjid, another major agent of the modernization of Muslim thought and political culture in Indonesia. In fact, given his background and social status, Wahid’s agency has perhaps been even more decisive than that of Madjid’s. A grandson of the founder of NU Hasyim Asy'ari, (The NU- Nahdlatul Ulama is one of the largest independent Islamic organizations in the world. The estimates of its membership range are as high as 30 million. NU acts as a charitable organization, helping to fill in many of the shortcomings of the Indonesian government in the civil society; it funds schools, hospitals, and organizes communities or kampungs into more coherent  civic groups in order to help combat poverty) and a son of Wahid Hasyim, the long-term NU Chairman. In 1984, Abdurrahman Wahid, inherited the leadership of NU from his father, and was later elected President of Indonesia in 1999.


In addition to his mastery of Islamic teachings and tradition, he has also been known for his close attention to Western intellectual, civilizational and artistic tradition (he could speak about Aristotle’s philosophy, Tolstoy’s novel, or Spielberg’s movies as fluent as he tells Islamic history or discusses Ibn Taymiyah and al-Kindi). Although he is less inclined than Madjid in anchoring his ideas in Islamic teachings and tradition, his voice strongly resonates in and is widely accepted in NU circle, most possibly because of his social standing.

Since the early 1970’s, Wahid’s major concern has been with pluralism and tolerance in the context of the modern Indonesian nation-state. He argues that in order for Indonesia to be a modern nation-state, and for the sake of the public interest (mashâlih al-mursalah), itself the core value of Islamic teachings, every citizens in the country should be treated equally regardless of his or her religious affiliation. Since Indonesia is a religiously plural nation, in which Islam is only one among many religions, then treating someone as a second-class citizen simply because he or she is non-Muslim is entirely intolerable. For this reason, Wahid argues, putting Islam and other religions as complementary, not antagonistic, is necessary for the sake of the public interest.

Moreover, he sees nothing contradictory between Islam and nationalism. He also believes that Islam could indeed thrive spiritually in the nationalist state that is not formally based on Islam. He writes: NU adheres to a conception of nationalism that is in accordance with the Pancasila and the Constitution of 1945. NU has become the pioneer in ideological affairs. This is the case even though throughout the entire Islamic world there is still a problem between nationalism and Islam. All the Saudi writers consider nationalism a form of secularism. They do not yet understand that nationalism such as in Indonesia is not secular, but rather respect the role of religion. 

 During the New Order period, Wahid’s idea of an inclusive Islam leads him to support Pancasila as the sole foundation of Indonesian politics. And under his leadership, NU was the first major Islamic social organization that accepted Pancasila as the final state ideology. Moreover, NU declared that Pancasila is its organizational foundation, a decision that had a powerful effect on NU’s role in national politics. Among others, under his leadership, NU withdrew from partisan politics and declined its support for PPP, an Islam-based political party. And in 1984, NU returned to the 1926 khittah (“the guideline of 1926,” the year it was born), meaning that it became once again a purely social and faith based, but not political, movement. Under this principle, as if echoing Madjid’s secularization motto, the members of NU were free to participate and vote for any political party, regardless of its religious affiliation. Since then, NU members can be found in many parties, Islamic and secular, including the NU-based PKB political party that rejected the “Syari`ah amendment” in 2002.


And of course one factor that many Islamophobics around the world were relieved about was the fact that Indonesia, not unlike Turkey, did not descend into an extremist Islamic state. Egypt too in my view is not endangered for any theocracy ever.


 There's the Muslim Brotherhood, who are well organized and very professional and  have denounced violence since the 1970’s.Many enlightened moderate Muslims of the Wasatia  wing of MB (Muslim Brotherhood) particularly ,in the  likes of  Tariq Al-Beshri,  by engaging politically, there's  the possibility that in time they will come to influence constructively  and humanize the political system in Egypt as  Indonesia did through enlightened works of Muslim intellectuals like  Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid. In Turkey Bediuzzam Nursi and Feullah Gullen inspired millions and through civic movement transformed political party rooted in Islam to a genuine democratic party that has positively transformed politics in Turkey and continues to influence positively the entire region. I foresee a similar positive change in Egypt and gradually all countries of the Middle East, the entire Muslim world and the rest of the world eventually.





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