International: 'To see Muslim discourse in politics as a vicious anachronism is to see very little'

The Guardian

Last month in Kuala Lumpur I met the Malaysian politician Nurul Izzah Anwar. Just 30 years old, and formidably well-educated, Nurul Izzah is an MP as well as the mother of two children. Thrown into the political fray by the persecution of her father – Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister – Nurul Izzah has risen rapidly within the opposition People's Justice party. Admiring glances and whispers from other diners bounced off our table at a fusion restaurant in the smart suburb of Damansara Heights as she spoke frankly and persuasively about Malaysia's frustratingly racial politics, its restless youth population, the changing role of Islam, and the country's foreign relations. Towards the end of our conversation, she said: "You haven't asked me the big question." Puzzled, I asked: "About what?" Laughing, she replied: "Many western journalists only want to know why I wear a headscarf."

Nurul Izzah is of course not the first to suffer this distaste for cultural difference. Few 19th century ideas have been as unexamined as the one that secularisation is inevitable, indeed imperative, for all non-western peoples. This expectation that societies entering the modern world will and should grow less religious has always rested on the narrow experience of a tiny minority of Europeans. Even the outpost of Europe in the New World has failed to banish religion from public as well as private life. Nevertheless, a great part of the world's population is still routinely exhorted to go through the allegedly secularising phases experienced by a few European countries – Reformation, Enlightenment, whatever.

Needless to say, the world's diverse peoples show no sign of doing a rerun of western Europe's history, or of abandoning own belief systems that provide an ethical basis for life, sustain hopes and account for pain. Islam, in particular, remains defiantly vital, in economically resurgent and democratic south-east Asia as well as among the Middle East's struggling despotisms.

Cheer-led by western leaders, Turkey's Kemal Ataturk and Persia's Shah Pahlavi imposed brutal regimes of modernisation and secularisation on their populations. Their successors have presided over a popular revival of Muslim self-consciousness and self-assertion. The object of secularist sympathy, Iran's Green movement, which has supporters and sympathisers among even very conservative Iranians, is far from disowning the Islamic revolution. All major political parties in Indonesia uphold Islamic causes. According to Karim Raslan, one of the most astute observers of south-east Asia, "there is no need for avowedly Islamist parties" as Islamic issues are now part of mainstream political discourse.

This may be disquieting news in the same week that Muslim fanatics slaughter Christians in Egypt and a leading secularist politician in Pakistan. But then Islamic groups and parties in Indonesia were also crucial in democratising the country after decades of a corrupt, pro-west military dictatorship.

Political Islam has long been developing in south-east Asia in ways very dissimilar from the Middle East and south Asia. This has to do a great deal with the history of Islam in the region, where it was profoundly marked by pre-existing religions and traditions – performing arts, for instance, was often the primary vehicle for spreading Islam.

Over time, however, Muslim identity shifted in line with broader social and economic changes, incorporating, during an age of intensified transport and communications, elements gleaned from far-off countries as well as neighbours. Visiting south-east Asia for his book Among the Believers (1981), VS Naipaul was surprised to find an increasingly Arabised Islam exported to Malaysia by missionaries from Pakistan. In Indonesia he found Muslims made uneasy by their pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

But the winds of religious reformism had long been blowing into south-east Asia from Arabia, especially as national movements against colonial rule took hold. Founded as early as 1912, the social welfare organisation Muhammadiyah emphasised a literalist understanding of Islam. Students and scholars from the Malay peninsula, too, had long been returning from the Middle East with new religious ideas.

These entered a widening public sphere as political awareness grew. Colonial rule had institutionalised racial divisions. The mobilising imperatives of anti-colonial nationalism – the raised banners of "we are one country and one people" – made them more tense. As in all colonised multi-ethnic societies, anti-colonial nationalists asked themselves the question: "Who are We?"

"Muslim and Malay" was the answer often given. Far from being effaced, religion and ethnicity became a marker of political identity; and after centuries of un-selfconscious pluralistic practice, Islam turned into one political "cause" among many. As Malaysia's old patrician and Anglophilic elite faded, devout Muslims from the countryside and small towns emerged into prominence.

Anwar Ibrahim, one such young "firebrand" of the 1970s and 1980s, invoked Islamic ideals against the challenges of poverty and corruption. According to Naipaul, who met Anwar Ibrahim then, Islam expressed the "rage" and resentment of people who had no choice but to embrace the modern world.

Many westerners stunned and bewildered by the Iranian revolution quickly embraced this very big idea. The eruption of Muslim extremism in the west in recent years has made it even more influential; "sexual frustration" now contends with the idea of rage in a thousand screeds claiming to explain Islam. But such grandiloquent psychologising ignores not only the unique histories of Muslim countries, but also the protean nature of political and religious identity in multi-ethnic democracies.

As it turns out, Malaysia has not become a clone of Saudi Arabia. Anwar Ibrahim, never quite a firebrand, is now an even more fervent advocate of postracial politics. His party's political partner, the traditionalist PAS, which has long called for an Islamic state, is reaching out to non-Muslim Malaysians with a promise of efficient and honest governance.

Of course, Muslim politicians invoking Qur'anic ideals of justice and probity can be deeply hypocritical – and ineffective. Corruption blights both Malaysia and Indonesia, despite the clear condemnation of it in Islamic scriptures. Moreover, sharia-minded groups have grown more aggressive in Indonesia, sometimes threatening reflexively tolerant Muslims as well as non-Muslim minorities.

Nevertheless, to see Islamic discourse in mass politics as a vicious anachronism is to see very little. embroiled as it is in the internal politics of multi-ethnic countries, Islam moves in many directions in south-east Asia, and only occasionally against the west or liberal values. Unlike south Asia and the Middle East, the region has no "failed states", to use the thought-annihilating term so loved by geopolitical experts; Indonesia happens to be the third largest democracy and one of the fastest-growing market economies in the world.

It is no doubt comforting to cover a vast socioeconomic terrain and its baffling particularities, oddities, and discontinuities with a blanket explanation like "Muslim rage". But in a multilayered world of restless identities, the vocabulary of description and analysis must expand. This is less difficult than it sounds.

Most of us have an instinctive understanding of how our own societies work: how differences in ability, income and status play out in public life, how material interests are negotiated and racial-religious conflicts managed, or how Lib Dems come to work with Tories. It may not be asking too much to credit other societies with at least some internal complexity while acknowledging that they might do things differently out there. The only other option seems to consist of an unattractive moral narcissism, and a rather weird obsession with headscarfs.

By Pankaj Mishra