Religious extremism: How to reclaim the centre?

The way forward lies in peaceful co-existence, and the state as neutral arbiter. Western liberalism is proving inadequate in dealing with today's challenges

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's initiative to establish a Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) is even more crucial today than when he first proposed the idea at the United Nations General Assembly some five years ago.

There has been ready acceptance of his proposal, not just by Asean, but also by the Non-Aligned Movement and Asem (the Asia-Europe Meeting). I believe the concept has rapidly gained widespread endorsement because the problem of extremism is undoubtedly global - not confined to any particular region and certainly not peculiar to any particular religion.

PM Najib has described the purpose of the GMM as being to "take back the centre".

But what is the centre and how do we get there?

The "centre" cannot just be the common ground between different confessions. That immediately leads only to futile arguments over what is the core and what is the periphery and what ought to be the area of overlap. Neither can it be the centre to be located in so-called universal principles such as are enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also not the centre to be found in protean concepts such as "democracy", or "justice" or "equity".

The world was rightly outraged by the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, as nothing justifies murder. But neither is it right to constantly lampoon a religion in defence of liberalism and freedom of speech. PHOTO: REUTERS

Such concepts and that of "human rights" are still contested concepts where a superficial consensus - often no deeper than over vocabulary - masks fierce and unresolved debates over meaning and implementation; the very sort of debates that too often lead to extremism and bloody consequences. Locating a sustainable centre requires us to discard the myth of universality. Diversity, not universality, is the most salient characteristic of the world we actually live in.


The myth of universality could be maintained only by a structure of power that is now being rearranged by the pressure of geopolitical developments. This is true, not only internationally in relations between sovereign states, but also internally within states.

The "centre" cannot just be the common ground between different confessions. That immediately leads only to futile arguments over what is the core and what is the periphery and what ought to be the area of overlap... Locating a sustainable centre requires us to discard the myth of universality. Diversity, not universality, is the most salient characteristic of the world we actually live in.

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration - legal and illegal - from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested - and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe's political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing - sometimes neo-fascist - movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism - an ideology derived from liberalism - is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.


The world was rightly outraged by the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. The West has predictably cast this in terms of freedom of speech, and this is certainly an important aspect. And, of course, terrorism is a global problem that the world should unite to fight.

But what struck me most was the similarity of the thought processes of the murderers and their victims. Both held their values to be so absolute that it justified anything. The fact that the terrorists had a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is irrelevant. The point is that they believed in it; believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in their right to freedom of expression, which they foolishly interpreted as the right to denigrate Islam.

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

When an American friend posted an article on the attack on Charlie Hebdo on his Facebook page, I commented that the modes of thought of both sides was similar. The response was as I expected. The Westerners were outraged. Many posts condemned me. There is no one as rabid and intolerant as a liberal in full bray in defence of liberalism. Ironic, no? They didn't seem to think so.

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

Whereupon ensued silence. It was amusing but the larger point, which the Americans and Europeans who responded to me didn't - or refused to - understand, is a serious one. This is not just about tolerance or respecting other religions, but something far more fundamental.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

Charlie Hebdo recently announced that it will not draw any more cartoons of the Prophet. Some have decried this as a betrayal of values and surrender to terrorism. I see it as the belated dawning of common sense.

Europe will adapt its value system because it must; because the costs of not doing so will eventually be too painful to bear.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

I am not arguing that coercion is always the answer or the only answer. Clearly it is not. But the capacity to coerce or the threat of coercion - through adequate laws enforced by an honest and impartial judiciary and an efficient police and an alert internal intelligence service - is a necessary and irreplaceable complement to the fostering of understanding through education and dialogue.


Allow me to conclude with some brief personal observations on the specific case of Islam in South-east Asia.

All religions struggle to various degrees with such questions as the role of women and the family, the respective loyalties and duties owed by the faithful to the nation and the religion, and open versus conservative interpretations of faith. There is nothing particularly unique about the Muslim world in this respect. But, for the first time, information technology and social media have enabled a truly global Ummah (Muslim community) and given it an unprecedented immediacy, including in South-east Asia.

As the language of the Quran is Arabic and, as few South-east Asian Muslims understand Arabic and have done little more than memorise the verses, this has given an almost automatic legitimacy to what emanates from the Arab world, at least among some sections of South-east Asian Muslims. This is changing the texture of Muslim societies in the region. Some South-east Asians have even been inspired to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The converse direction of influence is, however, not true.

Although there have been suggestions that the relatively more harmonious and successful Muslim countries of South-east Asia could serve as a model for the Middle East and North Africa, I doubt that any Arab would take any non-Arab state as a model in matters of religion.

Of course, I am not Muslim and could be entirely mistaken. If so, I apologise. But what is observable is that sectarian and inter-religious tensions are being imported into our region from the Middle East and are being cynically manipulated for cynical political advantage. This is dangerous and reinforces my convictions about the crucial roles that strong and impartial states and regional organisations like Asean need to play in South-east Asia.

•The writer, a former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, is now ambassador-at-large. This is an extract from his opening remarks on Wednesday at a roundtable organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMMF), Malaysia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Religious extremism: How to reclaim the centre?'. Print Edition | Subscribe