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SO here’s a question: in this interconnected, global and interdependent world, where can free-thinking, liberal Muslim thought-leaders and reformists live and work in peace?

They can’t do it at home. Most of the Muslim world is a mess. 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.

Not for long, however. Escape routes to the West are closing fast. Islam-bashing has become the favourite sport not just for Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States and his friends, but also among populist parties across Europe.

Rants against Islam unite members of the “populist international” on both sides of the Atlantic. And as the far right rides to victories in many Western countries in the coming months, expect the anti-Islam vitriol to get nastier.

So critical thinkers and outspoken Muslims are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Speak up at home and you are likely to be branded a kafir. Head for shelter abroad and you turn into a potential troublemaker or even a terrorist.

“Space for freedom of expression has been shrinking in the Muslim world,” Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) told a “Forum for Muslim Democrats” held in Tokyo last week.

“Muslim intellectuals cannot pursue their examination of laws and principles at home...they have to do that outside the Muslim world,” he said, adding: “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, rule of law and representative government, said Nurul Izzah, vice president of the Peoples Justice Party of Malaysia, set up by her father Anwar Ibrahim who is still in jail.

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

The meeting, organised by the Sasakawa Foundation of Japan in cooperation with think tanks from Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, heard from an array of Muslims desperate to ensure political, economic and social transformation at home.

For many also, the struggle centres on efforts to reclaim their religion from the stranglehold of Wahabi interpretations of Islam.

It’s a fight that is long and difficult, 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.”

And yet, for all its traditional tolerance and openness, Indonesia faces the challenge of protecting its minorities. Amnesty International has asked the Indonesian police to immediately drop a criminal investigation into the Jakarta’s governor for alleged blasphemy.

The organisation’s call came as the Indonesian police named Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of Jakarta who is better known as ‘Ahok’, as a suspect in a blasphemy complaint filed by some religious groups. Ahok, a Christian, is the first member of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community to be elected governor of Jakarta.

“By carrying out a criminal investigation and naming Ahok as a suspect, the authorities have shown they are more worried about hard-line religious groups than respecting and protecting human rights for all,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The announcement of the police investigation comes after more than 100,000 people demonstrated against Ahok earlier this month, calling on the police to charge him with defamation of Islam. They also called for voters to not re-elect him next year for these purported comments.

Ahok has denied making any defamatory remarks. He is currently barred from leaving the country and could face up to five years in prison if he is ultimately charged and convicted.

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

Muslim reformists and intellectuals could once find shelter and asylum in the West. And while many have benefited from such protection and continue to do so, far-right extremist groups in the US and Europe are making clear that Islam is their new enemy.

There is talk of a plan for the incoming US administration to impose sweeping Islamophobic policies, including the revival and expansion of a Bush-era Muslim registry, as well as forced interrogations and ideological screenings of immigrants “regarding support for Sharia law”.

With far-right parties in Europe set to gain more traction in the coming months — perhaps even winning elections in the Netherlands and France — the welcome for Muslims will wear even thinner in Europe.

Egyptian former member of parliament Abdul Mawgoud Dardery voiced disappointment at the West’s lack of support to Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president of Egypt who was overthrown in a military coup by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “We feel betrayed by the US and Europe,” he said.

But such “betrayals” are likely to become the norm. Sisi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump. Both men share a disdain for human rights and have no qualms about using torture against terrorists. Europe’s populists can be expected to be just as indifferent to the plight of foreign human rights defenders and democrats.

As Surin underlined, “Muslim democrats have to face a dual challenge: to fight extremism in our midst and Islamophobia outside.”

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2016

Comments (22) Closed

Sovereign Nov 26, 2016 11:19am

It is too late now. The world has waken up.

PK Nov 26, 2016 12:02pm

It is relieving that the right sensing individuals understand the dilemma of a rightful believer. But , to bring in change in the community more such people have to come forward otherwise the future is fraught with more violence,anarchy and human rights violence.

Peshawari Nov 26, 2016 12:47pm

Really enjoyed this article. Concern about Trump is understandable, but we have to give him some time. I think it would really make sense for representatives of selected Muslim countries to meet with Trump sooner than later, and explain to him the concerns of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

Fahim Nov 26, 2016 05:24pm

We must ask our lord for forgiveness. He is almighty and most forgiving! We need to join hands and help all humanity. Whatever each can do even on his/her own, drops will flow a river soon!

Iftikhar Husain Nov 26, 2016 05:51pm

This article is based on facts the islamic community is in perpetual sleep and nobody has the vision to see what is coming. If this goes on as it is the future is very bleak.

COOL BREEZE Nov 26, 2016 06:23pm


Sampath Nov 26, 2016 06:25pm

Very disturbing.

Ashok Kumar Nov 26, 2016 06:52pm

Very thought-provoking article, indeed!

Bittu teNdulkar Nov 26, 2016 07:10pm

What can't moderate Muslims take charge of their own countries and marginalized the extremists and dictators?

Pak-Kiwi Nov 26, 2016 07:42pm

Absolutely correct.

Waqas Shaikh Nov 26, 2016 08:31pm

Pakistan is moving in the right direction. Other provinces should also follow Sindh.

zubeen Nov 26, 2016 08:33pm

thought article is real story of current situation in Muslims, but also anti bashing of Saudi regime, i would have love to hear about IRANIAN Sectarian policies which are also creating rift between Muslims.

Extremist Nov 26, 2016 08:36pm

Extreme times call for extreme measures.

SUMA Nov 26, 2016 09:24pm

Issue lies in freedom of critical thinking which is lacking in Muslim world practically......

ISRA Nov 27, 2016 12:06am

@Sovereign : That is similar to what once Hittler and his comrades said onces, but that was for the followers of different religion !

susanta majumdar Nov 27, 2016 12:26am

A very timely article. The tragedy happens not only in Muslim majority countries, it is prevalent in countries like India also. Arif Mohammad Khan who defended the Indian Supreme Court judgment in Shaho Bano case ultimately had to leave Congress party. Taslima Nasreen was hounded out of West Bengal. Even the liberals in the name of not hurting others sentiments did not support them. However, from my experience in living in a state where 27% of the population is Muslim, I find that even today majority of the educated Muslims support an interpretation of their religion which is absolutely anachronistic. A small minority who are truly liberal at their heart are fearful to express their views openly. And the tragedy of Muslim brethren lingers on. In a way it may bring a positive change in Muslim countries, as the liberals will be in greater numbers within those societies. Only hope for the best.

Chango Nov 27, 2016 12:46am

@Fahim Almighty might be all forgiving but his followers are not. It is unfortunate that people who leave their oppressive regimes and settle in West,then try to recreate what they left behind instead of blending into local culture.

Ovais Nov 27, 2016 05:00am

@Bittu teNdulkar Easier said, then done !!

Zak returns Nov 27, 2016 05:56am

Call of the times is to stand up against Fundamentalism. Stop running and fearing clerics and terrorists.

Jawaid kamal Nov 27, 2016 08:14am

@Peshawari why do not these representatives meet their own muslim rulers to express their concern.That will be good start.

Sara Nov 27, 2016 11:12am

Where are the moderate Muslims hiding? Why are they not taking charge. Get rid of terrorism and extremist out once and for all. This is the 21 st century not the stone ages.

Sara Nov 27, 2016 11:25am

All Muslims should stand up for what's right. Get rid of terrorism and extremist. There is no place for this. We are not living in stone ages.