May 9th 2014
MALAYSIA and Turkey have quite a lot in common. They are both countries where Islam is the most widely followed religion. Both countries have been held up as proof that the Muslim faith is perfectly compatible with multi-party democracy, a pro-Western foreign policy, and healthy economic growth. Last month, they signed a free trade agreement, designed to bolster an already healthy commercial relationship. Both countries are active in the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation, and they are considered as moderating influences within that body.
But as of a few days ago, they have something less happy in common. Both were rebuked for violating religious liberty by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, one of two agencies (along with the State Department) that are mandated by American law to monitor restrictions on faith around the world. In the commission's latest annual report, the two countries were newly placed in "Tier 2". In other words, they are not quite on the list of "countries of particular concern (CPC)" as egregious violators are described; but they are subject to close monitoring in case existing infringements of liberty should grow worse.
The Commission has been volatile, and internally divided, in its assessment of Turkey. In 2012 it listed Turkey, after a split vote, as a CPC; last year, it did not even place Turkey in Tier 2. In its 2014 report, the commission gave a measured assessment of the Turkish record. It said the secular political system did not give a full legal status to any religious group, a situation "particularly detrimental" to religious minorities. While there were ongoing moves to restore or compensate for property which had been seized from religious groups, many people thought these steps lacked urgency or substance. The report said some people were "extremely disheartened" by rumours that the great religious monument known as Haghia Sophia (pictured), now a museum, might revert to being a mosque.
As for Malaysia, the report found that "friction continues between non-Muslim ethnic populations, the Islamic-influenced moderate Malay government, and those advocating publicly for more conservative interpretations of Islam." In plainer language, the stridently Islamist PAS party is lobbying hard for the right to impose harsh Islamic punishments in places where it enjoys local control, and Najib Razak, the prime minister has dismayed non-Muslims with his seeming reluctance to resist this proposal. Disputes over family matters and religious conversion, as the report noted, were already heard by Islamic courts, and there were seven provinces where conversion from Sunni Islam was a crime. The report also cited the persecution of minority forms of Islam, such as the Shias; and court decisions which prevent Christians from using the word "Allah" even if it is the normal term for God in their language.
Since the report was drafted, disputes within Malaysia over Hudud—harsh Islamic penalties—have grown even sharper, with some ethnic Malays (assumed by the state to be Muslim) engaged in angry public arguments with ethnic Chinese compatriots. Meanwhile it has been reported that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, plans to say prayers at Haghia Sophia—an intensely controversial move, which he might balance by accepting the long-standing Greek Orthodox demand to reopen a seminary which the authorities shut in 1971.
Does all this mean that Malaysia and Turkey are turning aside from their aspiration to be multi-party democracies where many people practice Islam? In some ways, it means the opposite of that. Because both countries have messy, noisy, flawed electoral competitions, there is a strong temptation for office-holders and would-be office-holders to play the Islamist card. In both countries, there are important segments of society that respond well to public gestures, whether symbolic or substantial, which affirm the Muslim faith. And in both countries there are other constituencies which feel horrified by those gestures. Majoritarian democracy won't be enough to keep them stable, unless it is underpinned by respect for the rule of law and civil and individual rights. Compared with that, holding elections is the easy bit.