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Liberal secularism is the answer to combatting terrorism

By Cameron Riley - posted Friday, 2 September 2005


In Muslim nations that go to the ballot box, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, extremist political parties get crushed by voters. Those extremists are not able to earn more than a small per cent of the vote. Most people want good government, the electricity to work, the trains to run on time, low crime and so forth. The people are wise, and with a proper outlet to let that wisdom flow to government, superior outcomes prevail. Voters choose secular political parties over religious ones, and moderate parties over extremists.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two best examples of failed states which breed extremist views. Both use the state to advocate an intolerant religious monoculture that is the basis for their authority. To reject the state, dissenters also reject the monoculture by choosing extremism. Lately Australia is establishing the "National Security State" and expanding the "Shadow State". In addition the Australian conservative commentariat is seeking to establish a monoculture. This places us closer to the conditions that make Saudi Arabia such a problem.

Got secularism?

Much attention has been focused on Muslims as the perpetrators of terrorism. This assumes that Muslims are a homogeneous group, dominated by violent fundamental beliefs. This is incorrect, and a lazy stereotype. It is only on the fringes of Islam that there is a conflict with modernism, but this is not unique to Islam: witness the Christian reaction to stem cell research in the United States. Democratic nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia have overwhelmingly adopted secular governments when given the power to vote.

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Indonesia contains the world's largest Muslim population in a nation-state. Nearly 80 per cent of its 220 million population identify themselves as Muslim. In the 2004 Indonesian elections the Islamic party, Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP), was only able to gain 8 per cent of the vote in Parliament and 3.1 per cent in the presidential race. In both cases losing out in majorities to secular candidates and parties. The Islamic Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) managed 10 per cent of the parliamentary vote.

Bangladesh has a population of 144 million. Approximately 83 per cent of the population view themselves as Muslim, with Hindu being the next largest religion. In the 2001 elections, the Islamic political parties were not able to gain a majority, with the conservative Bangladesh Jatiyabadi Dal and social-democratic Bangladesh Awami League earning 87 per cent of the vote combined.

Malaysia has a population of 23 million with approximately 63 per cent identifying themselves as Muslim. In the Dewan Rekyat (House of Representatives) election of 2004 the main secular party, Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, collected 64 per cent of the vote. The Islamic Party, Parti Islam se Malaysia, managed 15 per cent and the democratic party, Parti Tindakan Demokratik, got 9 per cent.

As the election results in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia show, the people are wise and choose secular government over religious government. The major problem is many nations that mix religion and state, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, is that they are either monarchies, autocracies or non-functioning democracies where voters are given no choice other than the existing ruling party.

Salafism and Saudi Arabia

Salafism or Wahhabism is an Islamic movement that traces its origins back to the theologian, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab in the 16th century. Salafism seeks to purify Islam by returning Muslims to the original principles of Islam. Salafism seeks to remove innovations in religious practice and idolatry (polytheism). Muhammad bin Saud established the House of Saud, which today rules over Saudi Arabia. Saud married bin Abdul's daughter and combined his rule with Salafism to establish wider legitimacy for the Sauds. Salafism was not a widely popular religious movement in Islam until it was propagated by the House of Saud, especially in the latter half of the 20th century with Saudi Arabia's immense oil wealth.

The 1970s saw a different dynamic enter the Middle East, many of the secular regimes, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq failed in their promise, and became single party states designed to maintain the power of the present leaders. The autocratic governments also stifled all dissent. Opposition was either forced out of the country, driven underground into silence, or into violent extremism. Iran took the third path and a Shia theocracy came to power through revolution. Iran used the wealth and power of the state to expand the influence of their religious doctrine through the Middle East.

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Salafism is based on Sunni beliefs. The Shia and Sunni denominations of Islam are the two largest and represent a sectarian split based on who the successor was to the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia used the wealth of the state to expand Salafist teachings. From the 9-11 Commission:

In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi Government, always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam's holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

The 1980s saw the expansion of the madrassa. These are Islamic schools, most of which teach a non-violent purist Islamic tradition. Unfortunately, a significant number act as recruiting agents for violent extremism. Many of the violent madrassa were in Pakistan where mujahideen where trained for the Afghan war against the Soviets.

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About the Author

Cameron Riley is founder of South Sea Republic. He authored the book, The K-fivical Cam, and has co-authored South Sea Republic Volume One as well as the recently released book, Patterns of Liberty.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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