Kuala Besut — the long ‘Road to Damascus’

Zaid Ibrahim

When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were recently toppled by the military (whose actions were supported by a fairly large segment of Egytptian society), I was not surprised.

Morsi’s handling of the economy was poor. His relationship with Hamas and the Hezbollah alienated him from the Saudis and the Emirates. Morsi even alienated himself from America, the county that feeds Egypt with annual billion-dollar donations, too early in the day to secure a strong footing for himself and the Brotherhood. In other words, Morsi thought that winning the popular vote was enough to ‘implement the Islamic agenda’ and still remain in control.

Actualy, Islamists all over the world have long been grappling with what to do after they come to power. The experience in Algeria in January 1992, when the army went head-to-head with the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front), did not help anyone at all. Likewise, Iran has not been a good example of a democracy for anyone to emulate. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been a structured theocracy found nowhere else in the world, and its homogenous Shia culture has had almost no exposure to the Western world for 40 years.

The only reasonably successful Islamist government in the world today is probably Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—but there are historical reasons for this. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, was a military dictator but much revered by people. He established a military-led Government that removed all traces of religious involvement in the laws of the country.

In other words, Atatürk established a secular military government that gave Turkey a solid foundation for its transformation in later years into a popular democracy in which the Constitution and the institutions of state were well embedded and accepted by the people. So when Erdoğan came to power by popular means, he was able to implement and inject into the system Islamic rules and values without breaking the Turkish legal and constitutional framework. Turkey is still a secular democracy, although governed by an Islamist party.

Before Erdoğan, Turkish religious schools were neglected and graduates had some difficulty getting top jobs. Erdoğan changed all this by offering better training and better teachers, and so graduates are now well integrated into the mainstream of the working environment.

Before Erdoğan, Muslim women in the civil service and the universities were not allowed to wear the headscarf or hijab, but now many Turkish women look like their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim world. The freedom to lead the life of an observant Muslim was recognised without affecting the norms of democracy and without injuring the interests of other Turks who wanted to lead a secular lifestyle. So, personal freedoms and the freedom of choice have been protected.

In Malaysia, I see the rejuvenation of an Islamic party like PAS in the coming years. But even if PAS wins in the upcoming Kuala Besut by-election (and this is a big if) it is still not ready to govern the country as a democracy. The speeches given by some PAS parliamentarians show a total rejection of the Constitution and of our democractic way of life. They still talk of an Islamic state although, to this day, no one is really able to comprehend how it will work. The way forward is  to accept the Constitution and democracy as the operating framework. If they are thinking of creating a new structure and destroying  the present one; they are no different from Osama and Aiman Alzawayhri. They will be opposed.