Lifesaving dialogue past due between Islamic world and West

Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Pref. — The relationship between the West and the Islamic world is worrisome. Recent events in Western and Muslim countries show the tension between these two civilizations.

Last year the Swiss People’s Party, backed by a popular referendum, proposed a construction ban on mosque minarets. In neighboring France, the rising fear of Islamization has been reflected in the political debate on prohibitions against wearing the burqa. In the Netherlands, far-right politician Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party gained a significant number of votes in recent local elections.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, thousands of sympathizers attended the burial of Dulmatin, the suspected terrorist, and the planned visit of U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized by Hizbut Tahrir, who argued that Obama is a colonizer and war criminal.

Why are these things happening?

It is true that Obama decided to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan and that terrorist groups keep mushrooming, but does it mean there is no room left for dialogue?

The problem is mind-sets. First of all, both sides mistakenly adopt binary logic in their policymaking. This logic leads to a black-and-white, right-or-wrong perspective: One is either with us or with them. Consequently each side triggers fear toward the other. The ultimate manifestation of this belief is hatred and the desire to conquer the other.

Differences are seen as threats that deserve to be excluded and, if necessary, extinguished. Most people in the West and Islamic world aspire to and share similar basic needs. This reality, however, is diluted by the rise of rightwing populism in the West and extreme conservatism in the Muslim world.

Although these conflicting sides seem very different, they share the same need to exploit fear toward the other. They also make tactical use of populist jargon to target and grab the attention of the lower and middle classes — those who have a say in daily politics.

Unfortunately their rhetoric and activities bring both sides excessive media attention. They work hard to keep the spotlight and dominate public discourse about what society should be like.

The situation today is especially ironic when we consider that Islamic and Western societies contributed so much to the development of human civilization in the past. When the age of darkness and close-mindedness prevailed in the West, Muslims were working to enlighten the world with their culture of tolerance, openness and freedom of thought.

Thanks to the efforts of Islamic scholars and intellectuals, the great works of classical Greek philosophers and the introduction of Aristotelian logic triggered enlightenment, liberating the minds of Western citizens who had been oppressed by the state or religion.

Ibn Rushd (commonly known in the West as Averroes), a devout Muslim philosopher and jurist, is considered the father of secular modern thought. He is famous for the idea that the peaceful coexistence of religion and philosophy, faith and reason is the way to God: To move forward, we need to promote a culture of tolerance, openness and freedom.

As the West started to grasp and accept humanist principles of enlightenment, the Islamic world took a backward step by closing doors to reason and inquiry. The situation became more chaotic as shortsighted Western foreign policies focused more on political and economic expansion than on promotion of human values and cooperation.

More problems arose with the appearance of populist politicians and violent groups with neither the historical consciousness nor willingness for dialogue.

What should we do then?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most influential American presidents, was correct when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear paralyzes and prevents us from thinking rationally. To prevent the plague of narrow-mindedness and feelings of inferiority, we must not let ourselves be trapped by illogical paranoia.

Practically speaking, mental, intellectual and spiritual reform should translate into sound foreign and security policies. The failures of Western foreign policy should remind us that waging war is no longer an option. We must bring antiwar politics to the fore of discourse, and change it into cooperation-based tactics of moderation, to promote democratization in the Muslim world.

Counterterrorism measures are the key to making this policy work. Instead of shooting terrorists dead, we must bring suspects into court and subject them to official judgments so that society can see their mistakes. Education plays an important role. Schools and universities should be the place to foster tolerance and cooperation so that our children can interact with each other and respect different cultures and opinions.

We must stop acting as a silent majority. Moderate and progressive voices of Western and Islamic communities must unite and show to the world the real face of civilized and mature societies. We should convince the world that many avenues still exist for dialogue. After all, we know whom to blame for the current mess: Western and Islamic hardline conservatism.

Iqra Anugrah, a third-year student at College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is active in various Islamic and student groups.

How (not) to drop the Bomb

How (not) to drop the Bomb

The Obama administration recently has just restarted the process toward nuclear warheads reduction in the world. Following his speech last year in Prague, Obama tried to put his commitment against the threat of nuclear weapons into action by organizing the Nuclear Security Summit last week. With the introduction of New START-stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty-between the US and Russia, the number of nuclear warheads will be gradually reduced to 1,550, which is about two-thirds from the original START treaty.

Indeed, this might be the sign of new approach of security and foreign policy of the US, especially in terms of the usage of nuclear weapons. Under Obama administration, the US has step by step tried to eliminate the role of nuclear in its national security. Classical approach of nuclear deterrence will not be applied even though some particular states attack the US using chemical and biological weapons – the Bush administration, on the other hand, still upheld the right to use nuclear weapons against such actions. Nuclear option will only be launched if the attacking state is a nuclear state, or a violator of the NPT.

This is why the latest summit still left unanswered questions of North Korea and Iran-the former definitely owns and possesses nuclear weapons while the latter is alleged to develop nuclear weapons.

The biggest challenge for this talk, then, is to proof itself how different it is compared to previous treaties. This will also define the future of nuclear states and the role of nuclear-centric security policy, especially in the era of changing global constellation.

Some complexities have been added to the discussion process in regards to the inexhaustible issues of North Korea and Iran. What should be taken into consideration is the fact that North Korea and Iran are the by-products of Western unilateral foreign policy.

The fear of so-called nuclear terrorism is another hot topic of the summit. When nuclear weapon goes into the wrong hand, then the world might face a catastrophic future. But, we should remember that it takes an industrial capacity of state to create and maintain nuclear weapons and facilities in a sustainable way. Global terrorist networks, unless publicly and formally supported by some particular states, have little to no possibilities of acquiring or producing nuclear weapon. It should be noted that in the battlefields, conventional weapons are far more popular in the circle of terrorists. In fact, probably the only actor that can kick-off the establishment of nuclear warheads is military-industrial complex of a particular nation.

Nevertheless, the strongest argument against nuclear weapon is its uselessness. Post-WW II world has never witnessed any war using nuclear weapons. The principle of “use by non-use” itself has no direct effect except to perpetuate fear.

Moreover, what the world really needs right now is a sound and carefully-researched foreign policy of the West. Dialogue should be at the forefront of foreign policy, as well as cooperation with international institutions.

Therefore, the latest Nuclear Security Summit deserves to be praised as a concrete solution towards a nuke-free world. Yet, it takes more than a summit to accomplish this goal. A firmer political commitment is essential, not merely to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, but to abolish the existence of nuclear warheads.

This principle should not merely serve as a slogan of be taken for granted. We have seen enough of structural violence in international politics. In order to address this issue, progressive and radical change of our worldview is the key.

First of all, tactical and pragmatic foreign policy strategies are needed in dealing with the NPTS non-signatory states. With its strategic allies in East Asia and the Middle East, the US should be able to handle the nuclear issue more effectively. North Korean case might be a bit difficult, especially talking about the extremely authoritarian nature of the regime, but for Iran the process might be different, especially considering strategic interests of Arab states who do not want to see Iran possessing nuclear warheads.

Secondly, regional issues, especially in the Middle East, should be settled at the same time. While the Western powers are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nation-building process of these countries must continue. Western policymakers, especially US, should also pay attention to the current issue of Israeli settlements which potentially can be another obstacle of the peace process and interests of involving states. If these two challenges can be resolved, then the possibility of growing terrorist groups which may try to get nuclear weapons or Iran’s ambition to be a nuclear power can be significantly lowered.

Thirdly, Obama should clearly show and explain his position while at the same time take a firmer stance toward unnecessary disturbances caused by lobbying groups at domestic levels. Lobbying groups do not represent the voice of citizens, but rather vested interests of some groups within society. It requires a committed leadership for nuclear abolition against domestic political pressure.

This policy is not an attempt to create utopia or earthly heaven. This is simply an attempt to create a better world for humanity and our children. Even though it is not possible to achieve the goal, at least we can make a difference for a more peaceful, tolerant world, no matter how small it is.

Iqra Anugrah (APS3, 2011) Published in The APU Times, 8 May 2010

The Decline of the West, the Rise of the Rest?

Book Review: The New Asian Hemisphere by Kishore Mahbubani

By Iqra Anugrah, APS3, 2011

Looking into our daily life, it seems that world is moving very fast. The winner today might be the loser tomorrow. Since the future is always uncertain, the dominator has always to be careful because the other may catch-up the position. In this kind of situation, new order will emerge, and cooperation will be the answer. This narrative is exactly the condition of our global politics today, as eloquently presented in The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani, Former Singaporean Ambassador for the United Nations and Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

Coming from Singapore, Mahbubani knows how Asia tries to develop and catch-up with Western power. Mahbubani argued that the strategy is to mix the best practice of the West within the framework of Asian values, something that he called as ‘Asian Pragmatism’ in his words. Nevertheless, as the rest of the world increase the speed of progress, the West feel challenged. In Mahbubani’s view, this is the proof of Western inconsistence and incompetence. In his words, the West should be happy that their mission to “civilize” other societies is successful. However, this mission brings another unexpected consequence: rising geopolitical power of Asian countries.  The West, particularly US, reluctant to see this, is massively trying to stop others from taking its position as the leader of the world. In other words, Western values are often not in the line with Western interests. This is why the high-speed growth of China and India is seen as threat.

In response to this phenomenon, Mahbubani answers with a very convincing statement: the West should respect other values and see the rest of the world as its partner. The failure of democratization of the Middle East for example, is happened because of Western ignorance to establish election without necessary democratic institutions and cultures such as rights of minority and rule of law. For Mahbubani, Asia already succeeded in applying best practices from the West, such as free-market economics, meritocracy, rule of law, culture of peace and education. Thus, it is the time for Asia not to dominate, but replicate Western success, and be the co-driver of human civilization. The solution, then, is to apply the three Ps: common principles for peaceful co-existence, partnership for the future, and pragmatism in solving the problem.

Until now, probably we can say that Mahbubani is one of the best representatives of the East to Western world. In his book, he showed the arrogance of the West, particularly US in dealing with other nations in international context. He showed how the West has been incompetent in answering today’s problems, and how Asian competence could be the answer to that problem. However, there are some things that we should keep in mind: although we probably have been successful, we should not close our eyes to lack of freedom in the so-called Asian societies. If we can have an open market, that why don’t we have open politics? If we can have free flow information, then doesn’t it mean that we should have free society? Recent movements and reforms in several Asian countries for greater freedom are the real proof. We already accomplished great achievements, and we can do even more. Mahbubani’s thesis brings a clear message for us: aim higher, and never abandon our hope.

*Published in The APU Times 21 January 2010,-the-rise-of-the-rest%3F&catid=2:insight&Itemid=189&lang=en