Conversation with Chandra Muzaffar (1).

by Farish A. Noor (2)


Southeast Asia is one of the most diverse, complex and dynamic parts of the world today. Up till the financial collapse of the so-called ‘tiger economies’ of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in 1997, the region witnessed double-digit annual economic growth and sociocultural transformation on a massive scale. Many foreign commentators have pointed to the obvious role played by foreign (i.e. Western) capital investment as a catalyst for growth in the region, but you have argued that this misses many other aspects of development in Asia. Would you care to comment further on that?

Well, to begin with, we must remember that the societies of Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular are by and large still very attached to religion. Religion plays an important role in the daily lives of the people on a number of levels—from the ritualistic to the abstract. We cannot discount the role that has been played by religion as a force of change in Southeast Asia and we cannot explain the phenomenal growth and development there without looking at the role played by religion and religious discourse in the entire process. While the rapid development in Asia during the 1980s and 1990s was massive and unprecedented, we must not forget that there were other counter- vailing and stabilizing factors at work. It was during this time that we witnessed the emergence of numerous NGOs and activist movements that were religious- ly-inspired and which helped to check the forces of rampant capitalist develop- ment in the region. These NGOs that dealt with issues like the environment, workers rights and gender equality, helped to provide an alternative interpreta- tion of progressive Asian values that were at variance with the school of ‘Asian values’ as developed by staunch defenders of capitalism like Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

But this, of course, does not mean that religion or religious discourse is homogenous. We all know that religion has also become a key point of contestation among the various political actors and agents themselves.

I am not saying that religion is flat or static in any way. The South- east Asian experience has shown how all religions—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity—have evolved and been taken up as tools for political mobi- lization. Of course there have been instances when religion has been used by the ruling élite as a means to legitimize and perpetuate their own interests, but there is also the other side of the picture. Two good examples come to mind.

The first would be the example of how Christian groups employed the discourse of Christianity and liberation theology in their struggle against the American-backed regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Dur ing the early and mid-1980s we saw how Filipino church leaders, unionists, students and activists attempted to gain control of the discourse of Christianity and turn it into a tool of critique against the regime in power. The pacifist principles and philosophy of Christianity were used to blunt the war-nawaathine of the Filipino army and to discredit Marcos’s military campaign against his own people. The one image that remains with us is that of Filipino Catholic nuns who stood as human shields before the bayonets and guns of the Filipino soldiers and the students and human rights activists during the People’s Power uprising of 1986. This helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the manifestly corrupt and brutal regime of Marcos, and in the end, even the Filipino soldiers stopped obeying their orders when they felt that what they were asked to do was against their conscience and their religious beliefs.

Another example that comes to mind is the use of Buddhist discourse as a critique of an oppressive military government by Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar/Burma. Here we saw how she had effectively managed to rob the ruling military élite of its credibility and legitinawaaty by levelling an essentially religious critique against them. By stressing the principles of non-violence that lie at the heart of Buddhism, Suu Kyi has managed to represent the regime as what it real- ly is: a military dictatorship that has usurped power and which has systematically tried to block the democratic process in the country. But Suu Kyi was sensitive to the fact that her people were—and remain—devoutly Buddhist in their religious beliefs and cultural outlook. She made it a point to frame and base her critique of the military establishment on terms that would be understandable and relevant to her people—and this happened to be Buddhism. Similar attempts to create a form of progressive Buddhist thought have been made in Thailand by the late Buddhist sage, Buddhadasa, and the lay Buddhist activist, Sulak Sivaraksa.

In all these cases we see how the use of religion has actually led to positive results when it is in the hands of progressive-minded leaders. The same scenario was repeated in Indonesia when Islamic movements and parties began to use Islam as a means to discredit the government of Suharto and thereby bring about his downfall. It was Islam that provided these students and activists with a locally rooted discourse of rights and entitlements which helped to discredit the ruling establishment in their country.

But religion, as we all know, is a double-edged discourse. You speak of the positive consequences when religion is used and promoted by progressives and liberals. But in the contemporary Muslim world today there is ample evi- dence of Islam being used and abused by conservative reactionaries and corrupted élites as well.

That I do not deny. Islam has been both used and abused by many parties and sectarian groupings all over the Muslim world. The history of Islam is rife with examples of sectarian conflict among Muslims themselves and the recent history of the Muslim world shows that many a corrupt government was and is willing to play the Islamic card to keep itself in power.

We have seen so many Muslim leaders—Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan, Colonel Ghaddafi of Libya, and General Suharto of Indonesia—try to use Islam for their own ends. In some of these cases, the use of religion was quite cynical and exploitative. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for instance, introduced the so-called Islamization programme of Pakistan only when it was clear that his government was losing its popular support and that the Islamic opposition was gaining ground in the country. After Zia took over during the coup of 1977, these Islamic laws were strengthened further, but only in order to divide the people of Pakistan by sowing the seeds of sectarian con- flict among them. In no way did any of this help to create an Islamic society based on justice and equity. In other cases, Islam has been used to bolster the government’s efforts towards capitalist development. The use of Islam as part of a capitalist work ethic by the government of Dr Mahathir in Malaysia is a case in point. Yet most of these attempts have failed because the governments them- selves were proven to be inept, corrupt or oppressive.

What then are the conditions necessary for the creation of a progres- sive school of Islam? Is this even possible today?

I certainly feel that it is possible for us to develop a modern, progressive, and accommodative school of Islam. There is ample evidence from the past that shows that this was the case before. Just look at certain periods of the Abassid, Umayyad and Uthmaniyyah [Ottoman] Caliphates or the Andalusian empire in Spain.

For this effort to succeed today, we need to address the pressing realities of the immediate present and not dwell in homesick nostalgia for the past. But for that to happen what we need most of all in the Muslim world is a political culture that shows through deeds—not words—that it values human dignity. To nourish human dignity, a democratic environment is essential. Thus far the struggle for democracy in the Muslim world has not gotten very far. There is hardly a Muslim country that can call itself truly democratic, and some, like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, have even openly stated that they are ideologically opposed to democracy on ostensibly Islamic grounds.

The problem is that none of these regimes can ever hope to justify their suspension of the democratic process indefinitely. First of all, by opposing the democratic process all they have done is lend weight to the Huntingtonian thesis that Islam is an oppressive and intolerant faith that is opposed to the popular will of the people. Secondly, what they fail to note is that Islam itself is fundamentally democratic in nature and that it opposes all forms of oppressive government. So some of these ostensibly Islamic governments may try to prevent the development of democracy in their own societies on Islamic grounds, but in the end it is Islam and the discourse of political Islam that will be used to dismantle their own repressive structures of power and dominance.

You claim that Islam has been used as a discourse of legitimization as well as delegitimization in many Muslim countries over the centuries. But despite the plastic nature of this discourse and the way that it lends itself to a critique of power and authoritarianism, the Muslim world remains largely undemocratic. Why hasn’t democracy taken root in the Muslim world? What are the obstacles that stand in the way of creating a form of civil Islam?

Why democracy has not taken root in most of the Muslim world is a complex issue. That many Muslim societies are mired in abject poverty is undoubtedly a factor. But then poverty has not stopped people from exercising their democratic rights. Witness the commitment of the Indian poor to democracy . The absence of an educated, socially conscious middle class in much of the Muslim world which can both articulate and defend democratic principles is also a bane. But the mere presence of a strong middle class or a highly literate population does not guarantee democracy either. Singapore proves the point, where we see a large and well-endowed middle class who are nonetheless prepared to put up with all kinds of repression and state control as long as they are allowed to get on with their business interests and commercial activities.

Perhaps what is needed is an autonomous middle class, which is not a mere appendage of the state, a middle class whose professionals, its business people, its intellectuals can take positions on public policies without fear or favour. This does not exist in the Muslim world partly because of the overwhelming power and dominance of the ruling élite. The élite could be the military. In other instances it could be civilian rulers, or even a single individual who is in total control. Sometimes, the élite try to justify their control by delegitimizing democracy. Democracy, they argue, is a Western import and has no place in Muslim societies.

There are a number of cases where the ulama have provided ‘religious’ sanc- tion to such erroneous views. This also constitutes an obstacle to the growth of democracy in the Muslim world. One should not be surprised that authoritari- an rule is often rationalized in the name of Islam, for authoritarianism became integrated into Muslim state structures within 50 years of the Prophet’s death. Since then, the fiqh [jurisprudential] tradition has been used to justify the dominant, sometimes oppressive, power of Muslim rulers.

Surely the Muslim world is not the only one to be blamed here? Much of your NGO work has been dedicated to highlighting the imbalances and injus- tice that has become normalized and institutionalized in international rela- tions. What about the international dimension then?

We also have to look at the problems of the Muslim world from a broader, nawaatro perspective. It is right to consider the ills of the Muslim world from a global viewpoint. If democracy and human rights have not been respected in the Muslim world today, we cannot put all of the blame on Muslim governments and élites only. They are of course partly to blame as they have never allowed democracy to fully develop for fear of compromising their own short- term interests. But the rest of the world has played a part in this complex process. For instance, one needs to remember the role played by foreign multinationals—ranging from the powerful Western oil companies to Western donor agencies—in helping so many Muslim governments and military regimes oppress and subjugate their own people.

The record of human rights in so many Arab states is abysmal by any standards, but the West continues to deal with them as it is much easier to deal with an unpopular regime that will forever be beholden to its foreign benefactors. That is why Western governments and multinationals have never really tried to push the democratic agenda in the Muslim world and the Arab world in particular. For whenever there has been a democratic system in any Muslim country—from the time of Mossadeq’s government in Iran to the rise of Islamic advocates in Algeria and Turkey—we have seen how the people began to condemn not only the corruption of their own élites, but also their craven collusion with the power centres of the West.

Judging by what you have said, it seems that the path towards democratic reform in the Muslim world is a hard and trying one indeed. If, as you said, the Muslim world is still under the heel of powerful domestic and foreign interests, how then can there ever be a new school of progressive Islamic thought in the world today? Has Islamic reform breathed its last and is there no alternative except for the radical fundamentalism of the likes of the Taliban?

I certainly hope and pray that the struggle is not over. Indeed all the indicators seem to point to the fact that it isn’t. Globalization has both helped and hindered the process of reform and development in the Muslim world. What we call globalization today may well be in the service of vested interests in the more developed and prosperous North. This we cannot deny and everywhere we see evidence of this being the case—from ‘business English’ becoming the global lingua franca to the growing popularity of American consumerist culture, which has become a standard bearer of progress and development. But apart from that, globalization—which has broken down traditional patterns and structures of communications and movement—has also opened up new avenues for communication and cultural exchange. So thanks to the developments in modern transport and communication technologies, groups like Muslim intellectuals, Muslim feminist activists, Muslim students and social workers, have also been able to forge new cross-border alliances via new media such as the internet. This makes our struggle more complex, but it does not necessarily restrict us in any major way.

Today we see more and more progressive-minded Muslim writers, intellec- tuals and activists coming to the fore. Thanks to the breakdown of traditional modes and channels of contact and communication, new actors and agents for change have emerged. It is encouraging to note that there are so many Muslim women intellectuals, for instance, who are openly questioning the dogmatic interpretations of Islam as put forth by the ulama. But this does not mean that the struggle is over or that the game is won. There are strong reactionary ele- ments that have come to the fore in the Muslim world—the Taliban being one of them—but their rise must be understood in the context of the intellectual and political bankruptcy of other regimes and political systems. Then there are the ostensibly Muslim states and governments that have tried to demonize the Islamic opposition in their midst, in an attempt to curry favour with the West by playing up their fears of a global Islamic resurgence.

But in the end all of this boils down to the fact that Islam is a living reality for more than one billion Muslims the world over, and that for many of them Islam is still a point of reference for everything in their daily lives. The challenge that awaits the progressives is to harness this Islamic discourse and to recreate the conditions in which an open, tolerant and pluralistic society might emerge. The Muslim world needs intelligent and coherent solutions to real-life problems that affect ordinary Muslims today—poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, economic dependency, the culture of violence and gangsterism in politics, neofeudal values and religious extremism. These are contemporary problems that need modern solutions, and the answer lies in part in the creation of a modern and progressive school of Islamic thought that is firmly rooted in the politics of the here-and-now, and which works through the democratic process. What the Mus lim world needs more than ever is a living, vibrant culture of dignity consonant with one of the most vital concepts in the Qur’an: the status of the human being as khalifatullah, the vicegerent of God.


1- Dr Chandra Muzaffar is a Malaysian academic and human rights activist. He has taught at several Malaysian universities and was until recently the Director of the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya. He is also the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian-based NGO that promotes an understanding of human dignity and social justice through religious discourse. In 1998 he was removed from his post at the University of Malaya for what were apparently political reasons. Shortly after that he made his transition to the world of politics and is now Vice President of the National Jus- tice Party [Keadilan] of Malaysia. Here he talks about the role of religion in the politics of Southeast Asia and the prospects of developing a modernist and pro- gressive framework for Islam in the contemporary Muslim world.

2- Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. This interview was conducted at a workshop on Muslim intellectual trends in 2000. It is part of a series of interviews published under the title “New Voices of Islam” (Farish A. Noor, (ed.) ISIM institute, Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.)