Author: People love liberals, but only when they are the minority

While liberals and liberalism are often treated as a bogeyman in Malaysia’s political discourse, a Turkish journalist has reminded that liberals have stood up for the rights of Muslims in countries where they are a minority.

The award-winning author Mustafa Akyol said Muslims – and other minorities – seem to love liberal democracies a lot, but only when they are not the ones in power.

Citing the French policy of Laïcité as an example, he said liberals where the ones who had defended Muslims’ right to wear headscarves and burqinis in France, when the French government had sought to restrict the practice.

“That (headscarf ban) is illiberal, and who defends the rights of Muslims to wear burqinis in France? The liberals. The Muslims love those liberals; they defend our rights.

“But what about the right not to wear a hijab in Saudi Arabia or in Iran? Then the liberals are (called) corrupt, degenerate people, and we thrash them out. We have power. We don’t need that kind of stuff,” he said at a lecture hosted by the DAP-linked think tank Research for Social Advancement (Refsa) in Kuala Lumpur last night.

Laïcité is a form of secularism that restricts religious involvement in public affairs, as opposed to some other forms of secularism that take a neutral stance towards religion.

Mustafa said the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is an Islamist party, was also close to the liberals in the early 1990’s and early-2000’s when the country was ruled by a Kemalist government that also practised a policy similar to Laïcité.

“So there was a great love affair between the liberals and the AKP when the AKP didn’t have enough power.

“Today, go to Turkey and the liberals are – with a few exceptions who are still arguing with the government – they are (labelled) horrible people, they are traitors, they are working in the interest of the West, they are Zionists, Freemasons, or whatever evil cabals out there.

“Why? Because the liberals are saying the same things – the state should not threaten its citizens.

“It’s just that those who were threatened by the state changed sides and the people who used to like the liberals when they were oppressed, now don’t like the liberals because they say they want to limit our state,” he told the audience of about 100.

Islamic ideals, not systems

Mustafa said people should consider whether they should only cynically want rights when they are weak and want power when they are powerful, or aspire to a universal ideal.

As for Muslims, he said he believes that Islam does not provide any political systems, but it does have political ideals (maqasid syariah, or goals of syariah law) such as justice.

“We Muslims believe in justice. It is a core value for us. We should think, how do we have justice in the modern world today, where everybody has the same rights, basically.

“That you can criticise the government whether it is a Christian government or Jewish government or a secular government. The question is, do we want that?

“My answer is that we should,” he said.

He argued that this is partly a matter of principle, and partly so not to “create monsters that can harm us in the future.”

“You don’t know when power can change. Turkey’s Kemalist – the secular elite that used to run Turkey – they basically built a very authoritarian and centralised state, thinking that they will always be in power.

“Well, good morning, now you have lost (power). Somebody else has got it, and that somebody else is using it against you very aggressively,” he said, referring to the ruling AKP party.

Spaces for the different

Throughout his speech, Mustafa stressed that elections are essential to democracies, but warned majoritarian rule by itself without regard for individual rights can be problematic.

Meanwhile, when asked to comment about Malaysia, Mustafa said Malaysia is not a liberal country, and does not welcome liberalism.

However, he said it is not a tyrannical country either, as there are still freedoms.

“Should it be more (liberal)? Yes. It should be more so in political matters; it should be more so in religious matters too.

“To go there, I think we Muslims should understand what is the secret of those more developed and powerful nations in the world that we typically see as ‘The West’.

“What’s their secret? Their big secret is rule of law and individual freedoms, which allows for freedom of speech, intellectual development, dynamism, creativity, and all that,” he said.

During the question and answer session, Mustafa was also asked how to reconcile liberalism with the values held by local cultures. To this, he conceded that public visibility of lifestyles others consider offensive can be an issue.

However, he said this should not lead to an outright ban.

“If certain behaviours are accepted as normal or the norm in certain sections of society, I think society should tolerate that somehow – at least by having spaces that are more secular or more conservative, or more this and that […]

“Yes, there are limitations and notions of morality, and that’s why we don’t allow people to walk naked in the streets, for example.

“But if part of society has a certain practice as a normal part of their lifestyle – that could be drinking alcohol or wearing bikinis on the beaches – then you could have another beach that is divided (for those that don’t follow such practices).

“Then conservatives can go there and other people can go there. No one should think that the other beach should not exist,” he said.