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POLITICS: Engage or Oppose Political Islamism?

Mithre J. Sandrasagra

NEW YORK, Mar 21 2007 (IPS) - The question of whether opposition or engagement with political Islam is the better way forward for the United States in Asia was the focus of a panel discussion sponsored by the Asia Society here Tuesday.

“Non-violent Islamists, those who pursue a state and society based on Islamic sharia law, ought to be engaged by the U.S. government rather than opposed,” Radwan A. Masmoudi, president of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based think-tank, told those gathered.

Sadanand Dhume, a fellow of the Asia Society, “disagree[d] forcefully.”

Dhume made the case that in the long run, U.S. interests lie in fostering secularism and enlightenment in Muslim Asia. He argued that Islamic societies must be held to the same standards of pluralism and human rights as the rest of the world, and that the ideology of Islamism is the biggest hurdle toward achieving this goal.

“All Islamists – both those who use terrorism and those who renounce it – must be opposed,” stressed Dhume.

Islamism is a term that has been used to describe a set of political ideologies holding that Islam is not solely a religion, but also a political system where Islamic law is the basis for all laws of society, and that Muslims must return to the original teachings and the early models of Islam.

This usage, however, is controversial. People who are labeled Islamists oppose the term because it suggests their philosophy is a political extrapolation from Islam rather than a straightforward expression of Islam as a way of life.

According to Masmoudi, it is hard for Muslims to separate religion and politics.

“All Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God, and the Koran talks about political, economic and social issues,” Masmoudi explained.

“When Muslims are engaged and participate in the political process they become more moderate, more pragmatic – as can be seen in Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Masmoudi. “But the opposite is also true, when Muslims are excluded, oppressed or repressed by their own governments, they of course become more violent, more radical.”

Asked what steps the U.S. could take in moving forward, Masmoudi told IPS: “Throughout the Muslim world I think the U.S. needs to do two things: support the process of democracy and democratisation, and make it very clear that the U.S. will not support dictators and oppressive regimes and rulers.”

“In the process of democracy we must partner with everyone: secular groups, Islamic groups, religious groups. The U.S. message has to be: we support democracy and we engage with everybody,” Masmoudi added.

Masmoudi rejected the idea that U.S. support for authoritarian, yet friendly, regimes serves U.S. interests and highlighted the growing suspicion among Muslim populations of U.S. claims to support democracy at all.

Democracy can make significant inroads if freedom of the press, free market economies, freedom of religion and association, and judicial systems that respect the rule of law are encouraged, Masmoudi said.

“Extremism can’t survive where there is free discussion and debate. The biggest mistake that the U.S. can make is to say we are not going to talk to the Islamists, or that we are going to consider them all our enemies,” he stressed.

“The way to modernisation is through re-interpretation of the texts,” Masmoudi said, emphasising that, “how the problem of reinterpretation is reconciled will be different in each country.”

The U.S. should treat political reform the way it does economic reform and require timetables, Masmoudi suggested.

In addition, the U.S. should support political participation of moderate Islamic parties in order to provide a legal outlet for grievances and refrain from radicalisation of the parties through exclusion.

On the other hand, in making the case for a secular strategy, Dhume told IPS: “We must recognise that there are good ideas and bad ideas, we don’t need to surround these ideas with discussions of sensitivity.”

“Modernisation requires giving things up that are dear to you,” Dhume said, stressing that it is unwise to believe that “seventh century texts and practices can some how supply us with answers to all problems that we face in twentieth century life.”

Islamists are endeavouring to “insert religion into every sphere of human activity,” according to Dhume.

“You see this across Asia in everything from how women dress to how banks calculate interest. In Malaysia you see it in separate supermarket lines for men and women. In Aceh, Indonesia, you see it in public floggings and anti-vice squads. In parts of Pakistan you see it in attempts to ban popular music and women on billboards.”

Dhume argues that “Islamism represents a set of ideas that are repressive, retrograde and fundamentally at odds with modern notions of individualism, free inquiry and pluralism.”

“These ideas attempt to sequester Muslims and place them outside the reach of the progress that we have made over the past several centuries as human beings, especially in terms of women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities,” he continued.

Dhume warned that, “In terms of goals and aspirations there is in fact no sharp break between violent Islamists – such as al Qaeda or Jamai Islamia in Southeast Asia – and their non-violent counterparts – groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami Party in Pakistan, the Islamic Party of Malaysia or the Justice and Prosperity Party in Indonesia.”

“In the long run the best defence against terrorism lies in fostering secularism and enlightenment in Muslim Asia,” Dhume stressed.

This enlightenment, he suggests, includes avoiding the pitfalls of blind, race-to-the-bottom democratisation and recognising that Islamic societies must be held to the same standards as the rest of the world.

U.S. President George W. Bush has said that Indonesia, the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation, is an example of how democracy and modernisation can provide an alternative to extremism.

Although acknowledging a fledgling democracy and free presidential elections in Indonesia, Dhume, in a recent Voice of America interview, pointed out that, “If you are a minority today in Indonesia, you have never been as unsafe.”

“If you want to go and pray in your church or in your temple, you have never been as unsafe in the last twenty years as you are today, because what could happen is that a [Islamist] mob could decide that your church was, for example, illegally constructed and they could come and shut it down, and there is no authority that is willing to take them on,” Dhume said.

Dhume believes that the U.S. decision on what moderate Islam looks like, “how we think Indonesia ought to look in 2020,” is going to make a very big difference.

“They know what their end goal is. And I think the only way to stop that end goal from becoming a reality is by having a clear sense of what the alternative end goal is,” he said, emphasising that the alternative is secular democracy where there is room for Islamists to participate, but “certainly one where their threat is kept in mind.”

“This issue is vital to our national security interests here in the U.S.,” U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke told IPS following the panel discussion.

“I think that the U.S. needs to dramatically improve its policies of public diplomacy and communications with the Muslim world, not to change Muslim societies, but to create better relations between us and the Muslims,” said Holbrooke, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under former President Bill Clinton and who now serves as chairman of the Asia Society.

“We have to improve now. This is a great problem right now,” he stressed.

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