Ahmed, Bangkok Post
Interview with Chaiwat
October 17, 2003
PERSPECTIVE - Sunday 28 September 2003
Conservative Muslims have so sidelined moderates and
liberals that an Asian-style economic miracle is needed
to break their grip on Islamic politics and religion
Neither a lackey of the United States nor historically
an oppressor of Muslims, Thailand nevertheless finds
itself on the frontline of the War on Terror.
The arrest in July of al-Qaeda suspect Hambali in
Ayutthaya - and reports suggesting that the Jemaah
Islamiyah terrorist network has over 100 recruits here -
exposed the indiscriminate violence planned by Islamic
Like football hooligans, Muslim terrorists are said to
ruin the match for all the real fans, the mainstream
Islamists who claim to be peace-loving democrats. But a
recent Economist survey of Islam and the West describes
how ostensibly nonviolent Islamic groups such as the
Muslim Brothers in Egypt create an "atmosphere of
militancy in which the men of violence flourish.''
More insidious is that these mainstream parties
routinely propose legislation that restricts the rights
of women and religious minorities in their countries, in
contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. Perhaps Muslim terrorists are more like the
violent skinheads of Europe who tarnish the reputations
of "clean racists'' such as Le Pen and Haider - who are
The causes to which all Islamists lay claim are well
known: the continuing injustice committed against
Palestinians under Israeli occupation, independence
struggles against bigger powers in Chechnya and Kashmir
and (increasingly since 9/11) the open hostility
displayed by the US establishment towards Muslims and
Arabs, with Afghanistan and Iraq at the sharp end.
Dr Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a professor of political
science at Thammasat University, argues that these causes
are a large part of the popularity of Islamist
"Whether these grievances are true or not is a
separate issue. People feel that they have been treated
unfairly. The umma (worldwide body of Muslims) that they
identify with is under siege.''
As director of the university's Institute for Peace
Studies, Dr Chaiwat has recently published articles on
non-violent resistance and studies of terrorists'
He said that Islamists tap into this widespread
feeling that outsiders are inflicting injustice. "They
feel that the world is not confronting the truth. For
example, the killing of Palestinian children is not
reported on TV to the same extent as the killing of
But it can't be denied that, with the stagnant
economies and the gaping inequalities between rich and
poor, the failures of governments in Muslim countries to
meet the aspirations of their people create the
conditions where the rhetoric of an Islamist solution is
The much-cited 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report
focuses on the lamentable performance of Arab economies,
particularly in comparison with their East Asian
"I don't think that Islam is a religion for Muslims.
The Prophet was sent to this world as the Rahman
(merciful or compassionate). And not Rahmat almoninoon
(for Muslims only), but Rahmat alameen (for the whole
world). Total compassion. The notion of citizenship on
this basis needs to be more inclusive and not exclusive."
- Dr Chaiwat Satha-Anand, Professor of political science
at Thammasat University in Bangkok.
In 1981 China was producing half the output of the
Arab world - it now produces double their output: between
1975 and 1998 GDP in the Arab world grew at an average
annual rate of 3.3 percent, whereas the countries of East
Asia and the Pacific grew at 7.4 percent.
The total GDP of all Arab countries in 1999 was less
than that of Spain.
As Dr Chaiwat puts it: "If a nation-state is able to
give you a home, then the tie to the umma will not be
very strong. But if that nation-state and its government
and society abuse you, this creates a sense of
homelessness, and naturally one will seek another
Fortunately for Islamists, neither the United States
nor former imperial powers - nor present-day occupiers -
show signs of acknowledging their wrongs or seeking
forgiveness. No unilateral offers of territory or vast
compensation sums are forthcoming.
So the question remains: how can Muslim societies
recapture the political discourse from the domain of
There are two fronts: the economic, where Muslim
states must provide their citizens with a home worth
living in, and the intellectual, where the tolerant
version of Islam (wherever it is) finally has to get its
"I don't avoid confusion, I create it,'' reads a sign
in Dr Chaiwat's office, amid stacks of political
philosophy and religious theory.
As a Thai Muslim with a Western education who attended
Catholic school and has many Chinese friends, he has a
term for the intellectual shift that is needed in
Islamist politics and elsewhere: "creative
He explains: "Creative confusion is what is needed in
this world. Destructive confusion causes a lot of
problems. I am confused by who I am at times.
"That puts me in an advantaged position. I'm not quite
sure who I am and therefore I cannot make enemies. So in
a state of creative confusion I create peace with the
"A lot of people try to reduce the complex roots of
who they are, they try to avoid all kinds of confusion.
What they are left with is: I am a Muslim and you are a
The remedy for this destructive-reductive view of the
world is "cultural literacy,'' understanding the roots
from which the world, others and oneself arrive.
Islamists need to develop this sort of literacy sooner
rather than later if they are to have a hope of dealing
with the realities of 21st century societies.
A spanner in the works for the umma is that they all
happen to be citizens of nation-states with mixed
populations that include religious and ethnic
In Dr Chaiwat's view: "A Muslim theorist will say that
you ask them to pay taxes and he will provide examples of
how Muslim civilisation treated non-Muslims, such as the
12th-century Muslim rule of Spain. Now I think that the
nature of population and citizenship has changed a lot
and we are looking at having political participation for
all members of society.''
In fact, Islamist parties such as Jammat-e-Islami in
Pakistan hold the view that religious minorities cannot
participate in making the rules that govern the lives of
the Muslim majority.
This is despite the fact that Muslim minorities in
non-Muslim democracies demand and receive these rights as
a matter of course. There are even state-funded Islamic
schools in Britain.
It is inspiring that Chaiwat does not feel that a
democratic system need be antithetical to the spirit of
Islam: "I don't think that Islam is a religion for
Muslims. The Prophet was sent to this world as the Rahman
(merciful or compassionate). And not Rahmat almominoon
(for Muslims only), but Rahmat alameen (for the whole
world). Total compassion. The notion of citizenship on
this basis needs to be more inclusive and not
However, it is on this crucial point of interpreting
Islamic principles that Islamic politics come unstuck. If
reverence for the Quran, Hadith and Sunna co-existed with
an atmosphere of genuine inquiry, there might be
acceptance that no single interpretation can claim to be
correct. A reformed, tolerant Islam could be built on
accepting this uncertainty, which is at the heart of all
After all, even if the Quran is the verbatim
revelation of Allah, who are mere mortals to tie God's
hands with a single interpretation? Unhappily, there are
numerous examples across the Muslim world of the
conservative Islamic establishment tying God's hands in
this way, and rendering the critical study of the Quran
Christoph Luxenberg, a German expert on Middle Eastern
languages, has completed a study of the language and
history of the Quran.
It is based on the thesis that the Arabic in which the
Quran was revealed to the Prophet was a spoken Arabic
closer to ancient Aramaic than the classical Arabic in
which it was eventually written down.
He reinterprets Sura 33, commonly taken to name the
Prophet Muhammad as the "seal of the prophets,'' as
naming him as the "witness of the prophets.''
What appears to be a piece of theological trivia is
actually at the heart of a religious dispute that has
seen a large group of Muslims declared non-Muslims. The
Ahmadi sect believes that Muhammad was the last
law-bearing prophet and that a promised Mahdi (or
Messiah) was sent to reinforce his message.
Ironically, one of only two Muslims to have won a
Nobel prize in science - Professor Abdus Salam (physics,
1979) - was an Ahmadi who, despite his protestations and
exemplary lifestyle, was not even permitted to call
himself a Muslim.
In his native Pakistan, Ahmadis were declared
non-Muslims by a "secular'' government under pressure
from mullahs in 1974, with all the restrictions in rights
that that entailed.
Another example is the prohibition of interest in
financial transactions by the Sharia Advisory Board of
the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia. Despite
continuing debate over whether the precise meaning of the
Arabic term riba is "interest'' or "money-lending,'' the
board has ruled that this question is not subject to
While conservative self-styled Muslim leaders make
arbitrary and highly politicised decisions in the name of
Islam, another paradoxical feature of the Muslim world
strengthens their hand.
The Westernised elites at the top of the economic heap
sit idly by - out of misplaced solidarity with Islamists
on common issues such as Palestine and Iraq, sheer
stupidity, or abject cowardice? - mugs of whisky hanging
from their limp wrists, murmuring assent. Maybe they
don't want to rule out the afterlife virgins?
They might be gravely disappointed to read Luxenberg's
study, which suggests that the virgins are actually
raisins. What a bore.
Against such odds, liberal Islam has been unable to
mount much of a defence. However, Dr Chaiwat observes
that while the worst religious extremism is found in
parts of the Middle East, the situation is different in
outposts of the Muslim world.
For instance, a South African Muslim scholar has
argued that homosexuals have a place in Islam. And in
Malaysia, the government protects the rights of the
Chinese and Indian minorities.
In fact, the governments and Muslims of Southeast Asia
often prove to be inspiring examples of how Muslims can
join the wider world without losing their identity.
Relations between successive Thai governments and Thai
Muslims are a good blueprint for how Muslim states might
treat their own minorities.
The Muslim communities of southern Thailand have
accepted the development of many of their islands for
tourism purposes, and have seen a return in improved
employment and standards of living.
The Thai government also retracted a regulation
requiring Muslim women (among others) to be photographed
with their heads uncovered on identity cards.
Dr Chaiwat cites the 50,000-strong demonstration by
Thai Muslims in the southern province of Songhkla after
the US attacked Iraq: "This society provided a space for
these people to express their dissension. This is one way
to construct that sense of home.''
That sense of home is shared by Abdul Rahman Karimee,
a member of the Muslim community at the Annsorissunan
Mosque in Bangkok.
The community is over 200 years old - his ancestors
came to Bangkok from Ayutthaya, fleeing the invading
Burmese. They then fought alongside King Taksin at Thon
Karimee, who rehabilitates young drug addicts, says he
is proud to be a Thai Muslim.
Dr Chaiwat admits that it will be a great challenge
for liberal Muslims to get their message across: "This is
what I am trying to do by talking to the media.
"The media is important but the more important thing
is religious education. That is beyond my capabilities
because I am not trained as a religious scholar.
"As a social scientist I can say that we have to start
questioning the authority of current Islamic teachers and
"How to do it politely - that is the art.''
His personal bone of contention is the weak response
to terrorist acts: "I would like to see Muslim
intellectuals and communities call into question the myth
of violence, to reveal the causes of atrocities. Call a
spade a spade - if something bad is committed by Muslims,
accept it, then try to resolve it.''
Miracle Part Two
The relatively peaceful co-existence, on an equal
basis, of Muslims and non-Muslims in Singapore, Thailand
and Malaysia has to be viewed in the context of the leap
in economic prosperity that these societies have made
over the last 30 years.
Economic growth, with most citizens sharing the
benefits, is the only possible basis for a sustainable
social contract between state and citizens.
In economic growth and its precursor - building a
productive and well-educated labour force - the Muslim
world has failed miserably.
The UN Human Development Report exposes the lamentable
state of education in the Arab world; education in other,
poorer countries must be even worse.
In any case, the Muslim world has no world-class
university. While China collaborated with America and
Britain on the human genome project, Arab funding of
scientific research and development is among the lowest
in the world.
The cumulative total of translated books since the
time of the Caliph Maa' moun (the ninth century) is
around 100,000, about the average that Spain translates
in one year.
The Report is clear about the link between quality
education and economic growth, and the implications for
Arab countries. Forty years ago, Arab countries had a
higher per capita output than the three Asian Tigers
(Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea).
However, workers in the Tiger economies possessed on
average three more years of education - a differential
that has since risen to six years.
At the same time, per capita output in South Korea has
risen to double that in the Arab world. As a result, the
Report states, Arab countries find themselves "isolated
from global knowledge, information and technology.'' They
need to develop "high-quality human resources in order to
compete in the global economy.''
Of course, UN economists are excited at the prospect
of lifting millions out of poverty, as has taken place in
However the example of China shows that economic
power, more than military power, is also a key to
Muslim economies that lock in Western firms and
consumers will find it easier to bargain for a favourable
resolution of conflicts such as Palestine and Iraq.
On the question of Palestine, lessened dependence on
the American oil market might even precipitate some of
that elusive pan-Arab coordination on which so many hopes
Governments that fail to deliver the goods have no
power base of their own. From Morocco to Pakistan they
find themselves dependent on the support of a
"culturally-illiterate'' Islamic establishment -
conservative groups that persecute liberal Islamists.
Economic growth must get started first to break this
deadly tango before issues of political participation can
Intellectuals can say what they like and the media can
report what it wants, but it will not make much of an
impact on struggling, disenfranchised populations. Dr
Chaiwat and others like him will be rowing against the
Unfortunately, developing "high-quality human
resources to compete in the global economy'' is much
easier said than done, requiring as a start massive
investment in education, of the right kind, over a
The chances of this materialising against a backdrop
of poor governance and corruption - other problem areas
identified by the UNDP - are slim. Sadly, poor governance
means poor policy decisions across the board: by
politicians, heads of industry and public servants. A
miracle of leadership is required.
The disingenuous ruling elite and rag-tag religious
establishments of the Islamic world have failed in the
leadership stakes, and there is no good reason to think
that they will change.
Certainly, the United States, a global superpower with
deteriorating social services and appalling income
inequality, a presidency for sale and foreign policy
featuring violent regime change in self-defined rogue
states, is no example.
But nor should it be a convenient excuse.
Taking in this motley crew of incompetents charged
with leading Muslims, and the world, out of the current
morass, bearing in mind that establishing a functioning
democracy requires even more hard work, despondency seems
to be the realistic response right now.
TFF & the author 2003
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