Primal, Nomocratic, or Pluralist politics

“KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — An umbrella coalition of Muslim groups held a protest today and declared they were willing to shed blood against ‘extremist’ Christians that insult and ridicule the position of Islam in the country.”

The cause for this protest, a description of which can be found at, is the release of Malay language Bibles to the Christian community in Malaysia, after months of having been illegally held by Malaysian immigration officials and having been released only after being defaced. For these Muslims the mere Christian possession of their own scriptures is somehow an offense against the privileged place of Islam and Malay Muslims in Malaysian society. Their spokesman announced: “Pembela believe that despite the bible issue there is a hidden mission to open the Muslim community in Malaysia to apostasy, or at least inject religious pluralism, secularism and extreme-liberalism which can erode the integrity and identity of Muslims in Malaysia.”

The political game being played here, and which is unfolding across the world, is primal politics: an appeal for solidarity on the basis of ethnic, tribal, or sectarian loyalties. Such politics are primal because they stem from the oldest and most primitive of human forms of identity – forms of identity which no individual can escape, and which no individual can change. It happens that in Malaysia, as in many other places in the world, ethnicity and religion coincide, resulting in primal political parties that claim both identities and exclude from participation all who lack either one or the other. It should be noted that Malay Muslims are not the only Malaysians with a primal political party. Two other raced base parties, Chinese and Indian respectively, likewise exist – and likewise express hair trigger umbrage at any apparent attack on their identity, solidarity or privileges.

Primal politics and primal political parties are the source of political instability and eventual violence in any ethnically, tribally, or religiously plural state. This is a truth being played out across the Middle East, West Africa, Central Asia, the Sub-continent, and now Malaysia as parties based on tribe or religious sect muscle their way into power. Such parties have interests strictly limited to their own people and agenda. Where they are able to exercise sovereign power they inevitably oppress every other primal group, whether the difference is based on ethnicity or religion. Where they cannot exercise sovereign power they are inevitably part of unstable coalitions (as in Malaysia) that exist to promote primal interests rather than national interests.

At the other end of the political spectrum are nomocratic parties, parties that claim to represent universal unchanging law. They claim to represent not the interests of any particular group of people, but of God (or Destiny) first and all humanity second. Most religion based political parties are essentially nomocratic. Both Islamist and Jihadist parties are  invariably so. They don’t represent Muslims, or even bother to give Muslims a say in their policies and tactics. Rather, because they claim to represent God they demand that Muslims conform to their agenda, along with everyone else. Where they have gained power (the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Guard in Iran) the inevitable result is oppression of both their co-religionists and everyone else. After all, when you represent God’s interests it is hardly possible to compromise to account for any sort of pluralism. Nor is this problem limited to developments in the Muslim world. Mark Lilla in his book “The Stillborn God” has written eloquently of the danger of the “theological sanctification of a single form of political life” in the U.S. context. (p. 308)

The only viable alternative to primal and nomocratic parties in shaping the political life of contemporary pluralistic societies are what some Indonesian theorists call “modern” political parties but which might more accurately be called “pluralist” parties. Such parties are based on the belief that no legitimate political interest is based in either primal (ethnic or sectarian) interests, or in claims to represent God or human destiny. Such parties understand that the interests of their individual members and the nation as a whole are constantly changing and always negotiable. And only from this standpoint, a standpoint the privileges neither God nor tribe, is it possible realize authentic human freedom and peace in our contemporary world. Only from this standpoint is democracy possible. Whether in Malaysia, and across the Muslim World, democratic governments and human freedom will depend on an end to primal and nomocratic politics, and the rise of pluralist parties to suit pluralist nations.

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