Europe must remain a safe place for Muslim reformers

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Liberal democracy is in a parlous state. In America, Donald Trump is making his mark even before he enters the Oval Office. In Europe – despite heartening news from Austria – demagogues have the wind in their sails.

Meanwhile, free-thinking, liberal Muslim thought leaders and reformers are struggling to live and work in peace at home. Muslim-majority nations are either ruled by nasty autocrats, military strongmen or flawed and fragile democrats. In many places, to speak up is to find yourself dead or in prison. If you are lucky, you can go into exile – but perhaps not for long.

Escape routes to the West are closing fast. Islam-bashing has become the favourite sport not just of Trump but also of populist parties across Europe. Rants against Islam unite members of the ‘populist international’ on both sides of the Atlantic. As the far right looks set to perform well in elections in many Western countries in the coming months, expect the anti-Islam vitriol to get nastier.

Europe should indeed focus on keeping out Muslim extremists. But it must not ignore the plight of Muslim reformers who are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Speak up at home, and they are likely to be branded ‘kafir’ (unbeliever). Head for shelter abroad, and they turn into potential troublemakers or even terrorists.

“Space for freedom of expression has been shrinking in the Muslim world,” says Surin Pitsuwan, Thailand’s former foreign minister and a much-respected former secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Speak up at home, and you are branded ‘kafir’. Head for shelter abroad, and you turn into a potential troublemaker or even a terrorist

“Muslim intellectuals cannot pursue their examination of laws and principles at home… they have to do that outside the Muslim world,” he told a World Forum for Muslim Democrats meeting in Tokyo last month. “Academics have to migrate in order to do their job. Muslim democrats feel the space for exercising their role is being limited… they cannot visualise their future.”

The Muslim world is suffering from a severe democratic deficit. Muslims long for freedom, the rule of law and representative government, said Nurul Izzah Anwar. She is Vice-President of the People’s Justice Party of Malaysia, which was set up by her father, Malaysian opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim (who is still in jail).

“There is confusion about how Muslims relate to democracy and to the challenge of facing extremism,” said Nurul Izzah. Muslims have to deal simultaneously with “fanatic ideologies and kleptocratic regimes”.

For many Muslims also, the struggle centres on efforts to reclaim their religion from the stranglehold of Saudi-based Wahhabist interpretations of Islam.

“It’s a fight that is long and difficult. Wahhabism is a dirty word in Indonesia. It is considered to be primitive,” said Indonesian scholar of Islam Azyumardi Azra. Unlike other countries, Indonesia is not dependent on money from Saudi Arabia, he said. “Our flowery Islam is embedded in our local culture.”

Yet for all its traditional tolerance and openness, Indonesia faces the challenge of protecting its minorities. Indonesian police has opened a criminal investigation into Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as ‘Ahok’, for alleged blasphemy.

Ahok, a Christian, is the first member of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community to be elected as the capital’s governor. The investigation shows the authorities are “more worried about hardline religious groups than respecting and protecting human rights for all,” according to Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

As the extremists gain traction, the welcome for Muslims will wear even thinner in Europe

What happens in Indonesia is particularly relevant given the country’s reputation as a role-model for other Muslim countries.

Muslim reformers and intellectuals could once find shelter and asylum in the West. And while many have benefited from such protection and continue to do so, extremists in the United States and Europe are making clear that Islam is their new enemy.

As the extremists gain traction, the welcome for Muslims will wear even thinner in Europe. As former Egyptian member of parliament Abdul Mawgoud Dardery told the conference, “We feel betrayed by the US and Europe”.

Tragically, such betrayals are likely to become the norm. The US President-elect is likely to side with fellow ‘strongmen’ in the Muslim world. Europe’s populists can be expected to be just as indifferent to the plight of Muslim human rights defenders and democrats.

But Europe must keep its doors open to those in the Muslim world who want change, reform and democracy. As Surin underlined, “Muslim democrats have to face a dual challenge: we have to fight extremism in our midst and Islamophobia outside”.

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