Obama, Islam and Illusions

By Terry Lacey – Jakarta

In Cairo President Barack Obama has to show if he can make a break with the illusions of the Bush legacy as far as the Muslim world is concerned.

Arief Munandar, recently reviewed The Illusion of an Islamic State: Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia, and concludes that its lumping together of  Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the Council of Indonesian Jihad Fighters (MMI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is “simplistic, unfocused and runs counter to historical fact.” (Jakarta Post 31.05.09).

Arief rejects the simplistic categorization of Muslim ideas and organizations into two camps representing “Wahabism” or “moderation”.

He argues the Muslim Brotherhood (IM) is not monolithic and you cannot simply equate IM with Sayyid Qutb. Hassan Al Banna, IM´s founder said his followers should be moderate and wise in accepting differences, since IM did not claim to be a group embracing all Muslims, but one among many striving to restore the glory of Islam.

There is little evidence that modern political Islam is a systemic threat to the West.

Political Islam in Egypt and the Gaza Strip is home grown, not made in Iran. In Egypt a growing parliamentary opposition is pro-economic and social reform, while in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas won a democratic election in 2006 on a platform of reform, against corruption and resistance to Israeli occupation.

In Turkey the  Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in power, pro-Western, pro NATO, pro liberal economy, and aside from some understandable anger over the Gaza war, normally has economic, political and security co-operation with Israel.

In Malaysia the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is politically Islamic, but allied with non Muslim ethnic minorities and parties in a rainbow coalition to promote economic and social reform in a majority Muslim society and to contest the 50 year monopoly of national political power of the politically conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

In Indonesia the PKS leads four Islamic parties in a coalition led by the Democratic Party of the incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in support of a joint political program based on reform of international economic institutions, anti-poverty measures, support for small and medium enterprises and continuing reform of public administration alongside an anti-corruption drive. This coalition will probably win the direct presidential elections on July 8h and rule Indonesia for five years as of October.

Israeli and Western attempts to pinpoint Iran partly reflect determination to prevent it becoming a nuclear power, but Iran also seeks recognition for its strengthening regional role. After all it the US and the West that installed a pro-Iranian government in Iraq and Syria is also closer to Iran now.

But the demonization of Iran is central to an Israeli diversionary strategy to hold off US pressure against the continued growth of Israeli settlements and for a compromise on the twin state solution and the status of Jerusalem. In the Iranian direct presidential elections on June 12th, Mirhossein Mousavi, standing for economic liberalization and detente with the West, while continuing the nuclear program, is a serious contender against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

What Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really fears is that the US government may reach a rapprochement with Iran and then continue to press his government on Palestine.

The latest clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Qalqilya on the West Bank confirm we are unlikely to see Palestinian reconciliation anytime soon. Israeli, PLO and Western moves to bring Hamas down by political and economic blockade of Gaza and repression in the West Bank are likely to continue until its obvious this will fail.

Clearly Hamas is a threat not because of a narrow Islamic agenda but because of its broader nationalist appeal. To demonize Hamas as simply terrorist or fundamentalist is not convincing. World opinion is not fooled by this, despite absurd court judgments in the US. This is a political struggle. Politically Hamas is getting stronger and this conflict is strengthening other Islamic movements.

Meanwhile the recent visit of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Indonesia brought a breath of fresh air on Islam and politics as well as a trade and investment package to Indonesia  including LNG gas, investment in telecoms and backing for Indonesian  infrastructure via a joint fund with state enterprises.

Qatar is strongly influenced by Wahabi ideas, but the Emir himself donated the land for the first new Christian church catering mostly to migrant workers, and there are now at least six of them (Jerusalem Post 16.03.08).

Qatar also lined up with Saudi Arabia, across the supposed radical-conservative divide after the Western-backed summit in Egypt to try to plan post-war aid to Gaza, when both preferred to push their economic support into Gaza directly and not via the Palestinian Authority, which does not rule Gaza.

So where, in practice, are all these rigid categories differentiating Wahabi extremists from Muslim moderates?

Where does this leave the naive black and white categories that the Report Islam and Illusions sought to impose upon Indonesia and the Muslim world with its “carefully structured interviews with 591 extremist figures, belonging to 58 different organizations”. Who decided who was extremist and who was not?

Perhaps we should follow the innovative example of statesmen like the Emir of Qatar and let constructive realities based on modern Muslim experience supplant divisive definitions representing the illusions of yesterday instead of the realities of tomorrow.

Hopefully President Obama in his Cairo speech will open the way to a more substantive and flexible dialogue with the Muslim world and put aside the illusions, prejudices and caricatured categories of the Bush legacy.

– Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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