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An Asian model of politics to help shape the Middle East

The Malaysian-sponsored Global Movement of the Moderates is a good idea that can't seem to gain much traction outside that country.

As soon as dictators started falling in the Middle East last year, a scramble began to fill the vacuum of ideas. The conversation has often veered towards the extremes, as an all-out battle between seculars vs Islamists, or Sharia vs constitutional law. Proponents have made their cases on the streets and on Twitter and YouTube, each claiming to be the legitimate representatives of their countries.

Yet as the debate has polarised, basic political science insists that there must be some middle ground. In fact, moderates - who make up the middle portion of the voting bell curve - should theoretically be the most numerous citizens. And in recent months, an unlikely player - the wealthy Southeast Asian country of Malaysia - made an unlikely play at owning that middle.

The idea is summed up in Malaysia's "Global Movement of the Moderates", first dreamed up by the country's Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak in 2010. "We need to hear more from moderates of all religions from all countries and all walks of life," proclaimed Mr Najib in an opening address at a conference on the subject in January in Kuala Lumpur. "We come together at a particularly troubled juncture of history. ... We cannot allow this moment to be taken by extremists."

The idea of owning the middle is hardly a new one amid the Arab Spring, nor is Malaysia the first to claim it. Nearby Indonesia is perhaps the most obvious competitor; it is the world's most populous Muslim country and has won accolades from US President Barack Obama as an exemplar of how Islam and democracy can coexist. Turkey is also often brought up in conversations about how to balance a secular state with the values of the Muslim faith.

Malaysia offers its own compelling case. This country of roughly 29 million - 60 per cent of whom are Muslim - is run by a nominally Islamic but fundamentally capitalist government. Its three main ethnic groups - Malays, Indians and Chinese - live in peace, with relatively few disturbances to speak of among them. Various religions flourish - Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and increasingly, Christianity. And everything from the neighbourhoods to the cuisine shows signs of mixing.

The diversity of people who have praised a message of toleration worldwide suggests its appeal is real. Yet somehow, the middle seems not to have caught on yet. And I find myself wondering why the conversation is still dominated by extremes.

In Malaysia, I began to see one reason: moderation has a PR problem. It's a hard sell in difficult times; it comes across as almost passive in the face of sweeping change. And so far, no person or message has emerged to prove otherwise.

Just take the conference in January as an example. Elections are coming up in Malaysia soon, a fact that may explain the who's-who of the government in attendance during the week's events. The prime minister, foreign minister, a former prime minister, deputy prime minster and crown prince of a local state were all among the speakers. Just one non-Malaysian diplomat spoke: the foreign minister of Indonesia. Although the Global Movement of Moderates is a cornerstone of foreign policy for the government, it was hard to see who - other than Malaysians - the message was geared toward. There was scarcely a mention of how "moderation" could even be implemented outside a South Asian context.

More telling is the similarity that the ideas of the Global Movement of Moderates bear to those of Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered leader of the opposition who was recently acquitted of sodomy charges he claims were politically motivated (the prosecution has since appealed the acquittal). As early as the mid-1990s, when he was deputy prime minister, Mr Anwar began arguing that "Muslims [in Malaysia] have come to terms with modernity" and reconciled Islam and democracy.

The proclaimed intention for moderation alone is perhaps why western allies have bought into the arguments of not just Malaysia, but Turkey and Indonesia as well.

Yet herein lies the problem with marketing the middle. In truth, Malaysia is an impressive model of how to balance citizens' diverse beliefs and demands. In practice, however, that system has been coopted for political ends.

The loss is truly everyone's, as there are real lessons to be learned from Southeast Asia. Malaysia's approach to counterterrorism, for example, has shown impressive results. Economically, too, Malaysia is prospering - and has argued that minimising economic grievances is key to preventing terrorism before it starts.

This is not to say that there are no problems, of course. For example, although religious and ethnic differences coexist in relative calm, they are highly regulated by strict economic and social laws. Human rights groups, both local and international, have also often raised concerns about freedom of the political opposition. When the Saudi Arabian blogger Hamza Kashgari was arrested and extradited earlier this month it was hard not to notice the irony; Kashgari was in trouble for several Tweets he posted that were seen as offensive to Islam, but the country of moderation showed him little compassion.

Globally, moderation is still an idea in search of a leader (or leaders) - someone who can speak forcefully of its virtues without succumbing to the temptation of political gain. Until arguments more powerful and empowering arise, it will be far easier to listen to the ends of the spectrum than anything in between.

In Malaysia, the conference concluded optimistically. The hundreds of delegates who came from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas would all say they are members of the middle. None can point to exactly what that means, but what they can say for sure is that they are not alone in looking for a way to define it.

On the sidelines, those aspirants of moderation met one other. And that's how real movements start.

 

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist and author of the blog UnderReported.

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