Behind bars : Muslim democrats must lead the Umma in a turbulent world

23 November 2015


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*Opening address by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, convener and co-founder of the World Forum for Muslim Democrats, at its Second International Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia on 23rd November, 2015. The speech was delivered by Nurul Izzah Anwar, Malaysia’s Member of Parliament, Vice President of KEADILAN

Friends, fellow democrats, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Assalamualaikum wbt & Selamat Siang.
First, let me extend a warm welcome to all our participants and delegates to this conference – the second international conference of the World Forum for Muslim Democrats.
I remain gratified by the support of Sasakawa; the Habibie Center and SETA for allowing the articulation of the vision first formulated to unite Muslims in the pursuit of democratic reforms. Specifically, I must express my personal appreciation for this endeavor through the enthusiastic support and consideration by Former Presidents BJ Habibie, Abdullah Gul and Dr Rashid Ghannouchi.
More than three years ago, in March 2012, I was in Dubai at a conference presenting the changing political landscape in the Muslim world when the idea of this forum took shape.
When I used that phrase – changing political landscape, back then, it indeed reflected the turbulent times we were in. However, now with the benefit of hindsight, it did not anticipate the pace of the change, nor its intensity and ramifications.
The Arab Spring was still unfolding with Tunisia blazing the democracy trail, after successfully deposing Ben Ali, just 13 months before that. But hardly a year later, Bashar al-Assad warned protesters of consequences of “working with foreign elements to undermine his regime.”
Soon after, the first of a series of murderous attacks by the Assad regime on its own people unfolded in the city of Homs. Two weeks before I delivered that keynote address in Dubai, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down. Two months later, Mohammed Morsi won the first round of the presidential elections in Egypt and the day after, Assad ordered another round of massacre in Houla.
On June 24, 2012, the election commission officially announced that Morsi had won the presidential runoff. It was a narrow margin of 51.7 percent of the vote versus 48.3 for the contender.
By July, the international world finally realised that a full blown civil war in Syria was underway. Over 200,000 Syrian refugees had fled the country.

On 9/11 that year, the American diplomatic mission at Benghazi, in Libya, was attacked killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Sometime in November, Morsi changed the state constitution to empower the president to “protect” the nation and to legislate without judicial oversight. Eight months later, he was deposed in a military coup d’état.
In the early part of last year, ISIL emerged as the “Kraken”[1] seemingly out of nowhere to capitalise on the conflict in Syria and Iraq, the instability in the Middle East and the power vacuum created by the Sunni/Shia strife in the region. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lessons of history
Indeed, I have taken some time to recount these events because I believe in the powerful lessons of history – if we have the humility and the conviction to learn from them.
T.S. Eliot tells us that history can be freedom but then immediately reminds us that history can also be servitude. That, I suppose, is a question of which side of history we choose to be on.
Yes, it is true. Today, ISIS?/ISIL? is making headlines committing acts of terror, violence and barbarism not just within the Middle East but also in Europe and elsewhere. Together with al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organisations, they are vying for media attention and what they believe to be the adulation and admiration of young minds. We know on which side of history they will be remembered for.
I might speak from a prison cell in Malaysia, having been unjustly denied of my freedom, but that does not present an obstacle to the deep sadness and outrage anyone must feel upon hearing of such heinous and despicable acts – most recently in Paris, preceded by Beirut then Turkey.
These despicable acts of savage and wanton killing of innocent civilians including women and young persons deserve our unreserved condemnation. We must join hands with all like-minded forces, eschewing all parochial boundaries of race and religion, in one resolute message – that such premeditated and cruel killing is simply not acceptable.
Today, we are on the cusp of that wave of a sea change by which future generations will judge us. The forum for Muslim democrats will be tested here.
Did the rest of the Muslim world just fold its arms in resignation as the newly minted democracies and newly liberated societies in Egypt, Libya, in Iraq crumbled under the weight of the machinations of the deep state?
It appears that the Hegelian cycle of history does ring true. Monolithic regimes built on totalitarian foundations and dictatorial use of power will not give up their culture of repression, oppression and violence even in the face of widespread protests of the people for change.
They may cave in for a while. But without the full conviction of the people and the establishment of democratic institutions, they will return with a vengeance.
Spring may revert to winter because there are always counter-revolutionary forces at work to turn the clock back and restore the power and glory enjoyed for so long.
The brutal mayhem and bloody reprisals unleashed on the people will serve as chilling reminders of the desperation and savagery of tyrants and autocrats who refuse to give up power.
Muslim democrats must not allow the deep state or the terrorists to continue hijacking the course of history. We must chart a new course. In this new narrative, there will be zero tolerance for them.
We must make it clear that the actions of these killers can never be jihad. This is corruption of Islam of the most vulgar and savage kind. They don the cloak of religiosity and claim they are doing this for Islam and the umma but what they really seek is worldly gain and political power.
A such, we must reiterate our condemnation on the dastardly/barbarous acts of the fanatical few – and ISIS/ ISIL as the war menace to a civilized world.
Our resolve and struggle for reform – democracy and justice are unequivocal and unabated. It’s a bold intiative – to determine the narrative; that freedom and justice; that democracy and the rule of law are rightfully the Muslim agenda.
Imperatives for the Muslim Umma
In this ever more turbulent world, what we need is to keep our focus on what is best for the Umma.
We must be clear on the fundamentals of governance – characteristics in determining the legitimacy of a regime. The main predicament or malaise of the ummah is the inability to participate in the process of determining who represents them. This is at the core of the problem.
So, we must strive for a humane economy and a clean and caring government. We need to strike a balance between free enterprise and the demands of social justice. We need constitutional guarantees for our fundamental liberties, good governance and an independent judiciary.
How are we treating our women and children, the old and the infirm? We demand rights for Muslims in non-Muslim majority countries but what is our record and position when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities in Muslim countries?
We must strive to stamp out bigotry and intolerance within ourselves. Islamophobia begins at home. Sunni Muslims fear Shia Muslims and Shia Muslims fear Sunni Muslims. And within the different denominations, sub-denominations harbour mutual suspicion.
We need to go through a rebirth. This implies reform and renewal. We need to boldly go on the path where the maqasid al-Shari’a will guide us.
The demands of islah would also warrant that interpretation of Islamic law be re-examined not just in the light of the historical experience of Muslims under colonial rule but taking into account the maqasid. There is a need to reemphasize the true, peaceful and pluralistic nature of Islam.
The forum must endeavor to encourage Muslim intellectuals and masses to return to the primacy of the Islamic message of freedom and rahmatan lil ‘alamin.
This is also in line with a very healthy growing trend among Muslim scholars to go deeper into the area of civilizational dialogue. The importance of interfaith programs cannot be overemphasized.
Economic empowerment is essential. Among the two billion plus Muslims, more than half are living below the poverty line. This kind of economic marginalization breeds devastating socio-economic consequences.
The very idea of al-adalatul ijtama’iyya is at stake. Where is the social justice enjoined by the Qur’an and the Sunna? What has become of the Islamic imperatives on health care, education, housing and employment?
The outrageous inequities that plague the Muslim world will persist and get even worse if there is no collective and concerted effort. The Muslim nations that are better off must lead this venture armed with a clear and firm resolve to those who are not so fortunate.
We cannot be mere bystanders??
The greatest tragedy is that other Muslim nations tend to be mere bystanders in this theatre of mayhem and killing. And because of this, the stark reality is that the future of these nations lies not in the hands of the Arab and Muslim world but in the United States of America and Europe. In spite of the immense wealth in oil and other resources, they choose to hibernate in pathetic indifference while some are themselves in utter disarray.
Is it because it is not happening to us directly that we tell ourselves that it doesn’t really concern us?
Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What we need is less looking at others and more at ourselves. Ask one fundamental question: Why do Muslim refugees prefer to seek asylum in the European countries rather than in the Middle East or in other Muslim countries elsewhere?
What does it say about the state of the Muslim world when the most trampled, most disadvantaged and the least fortunate of its umma, prefer to seek shelter in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Hungary, and exceptionally, Turkey?
We, therefore, need to look into our moral compass and ask where the arrow is pointing.
The issue of legitimacy in government is an overarching problem in the Muslim world. Despite decades of independence, we are still grappling with the fundamental questions of democracy, the rule of law, justice and human dignity. The powers that be are too preoccupied with staying in power to bother about political legitimacy.
Forging ahead with the Maqasid
Based on the maqasid al-Shari’a, there are sufficient imperatives for Muslim leaders to get on with the task of establishing the institutions of governance for justice, democracy and human rights. That is the way forward for the resurgence of the Umma.
Social justice must be a priority and Muslim societies being among the poorest in the world, must address poverty. Poverty is to be eliminated and education be made a birth right.
To talk of an Islamic resurgence without freedom of speech, or freedom from arbitrary arrest is pointless. To my mind, Islamic resurgence is about ensuring the rule of law, clean government, social justice, and cultural empowerment where women are not treated as second-class citizens or regarded as mere chattels and minorities are not marginalized.
It is a trying period ahead for the Muslim world and the road to recovery and strength is long and winding. The greatest challenges facing the umma is not the West or Europe but from within. Tajdid and islah must emanate from ?within ?ourselves.
A revolution may happen overnight but the transition to democracy requires sustained efforts, collective will and steely resolution to let it take its course. Or else, the reversion may lead to situation even worse than the one it had attempted to replace.
In this part of the world, we can see that the experience of Indonesia shows that the first cycle of transformation set in motion. Civil liberties are now guaranteed and basic institutions of civil society flourish.
Elections are generally free and fair as well as transparent. There are institutions in place to ensure the existence of an effective check and balance against executive powers, the protection of fundamental liberties, the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

And following a free and democratic elections – the issue of democratic accountability; inequality; quality of education; and the move to address endemic corruption are allowed to effectively surface. Such is our hope and remain future challenges for Indonesia, Turkey, even Malaysia. Muslim leaders certainly should not be known for amassing personal wealth but for propagating Rahmatan Lil Alamin.

Finally ?, allow me to ?thank all friends for their sense of comradeship – sympathy and support? in supporting this vision during my forced hiatus. Inshaa Allah, I shall soon return.
Let me part with a quote from a 17th century English poet[2] who, too, had the honour of going in and out of prison for his beliefs:

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”

I end with a reminder that continued repression by ruthless dictators and autocrats – are incubators for fanatics. In the absence of hope of reform or peaceful regime change – their only option is to promise Heaven by blowing themselves.

The barbarous few terrorists aim to create fear and perhaps to provoke similar retaliatory actions of hate. It is imperative we ensure that they fail to do so.

We must remember that they do not speak for or represent the overwhelming majority of peace-loving human beings. The barbarous few cannot be allowed to hijack Islam.

Democrats worldwide, it is time to unite.

[1] A monster in Greek mythology emerging from deep in the war of the Titans.
[2] Richard Lovelace, To Althea, from Prison



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