Southeast Asians must value the cohesive elements of society, embrace diversity and not allow political differences to destroy the pluralistic fabric of society if they are to avoid the disinetgration and conflict that has ensued from the Arab Spring, writes Michael Vatikiotis.

To understand the comparative success and failures of political transition in Asia and the Middle East, it is important to say from the outset that in neither part of the world has political transition worked very well.

The Arab Spring soon turned into Arab fall and winter, destroying the former countries of Libya, Syria and Yemen and leading to stronger military rule in Egypt. Here in Asia, there has been more of a rolling transition; it started at the back end of the so-called third wave of democratisation in the mid-1970s and ultimately led to the People Power revolt in the Philippines a decade later.

For different reasons and in different ways, this wave of political liberalisation stalled and then got started again after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. While Indonesia has undeniably embarked on the path to democracy, it is still regarded as only partly free. Prevailing democracy deficits in the region, suggest that Southeast Asia’s rolling transition still has not completely delivered effective change.

There are lessons each region can learn from the other. And perhaps counterfactually, I tend to think there is more that Asia can learn, specifically Muslim society in Asia, from the Arab context.

Today the Arab world is beset by a tangled mess of repression, radicalism and violence emanating from the failed uprisings of the Arab Spring that got underway in late 2010. As the struggle between oppressive regimes and people seeking liberation unfolded, larger powers stepped in and unleashed centrifugal forces that have divided Arabs along lines of tribe, faith and sect.

Arab society is now eviscerated, the last vestiges of cosmopolitan life purged as Sunni Muslims are subjected to the extreme compulsions of Salafi or Wahhabi doctrine, which in turn pits them against Shiite and Sufi minorities, as well as Christians and Jews.

These struggles, which have played out most violently in Syria and Iraq, have reduced ancient cities that are central to our civilisational DNA to rubble that can probably never be salvaged. Set against this epochal tragedy, Arabs are today searching for ways to salvage what is left of their civilisation.

In this regard, Jordan and Malaysia can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Both are Muslim nations that have achieved a measure of progress and stability, which rests on the assurance of government that fosters a peaceful pluralist setting. But while Jordan strives to protect diversity as a hedge against the violent conflict and extremism afflicting the region, Malaysia’s government seems to be accelerating away from tolerance and moderation in a bid shore up legitimacy with the majority Muslim community.

Tunisia is another country in the Arab world that has made strenuous collective efforts to protect the unity and stability of society by fending off radicalism and strengthening the democratic process. Tunisia, which was ground zero for the Arab Spring, has managed a fragile political transition, which has built a national consensus for the sake of democracy and stability. The Tunisian Constitution passed in 2014, and the inclusive national elections that followed the formation of a coalition government of the winners (Nidaa Tounis) and losers (Enahda) have helped protect diversity and pluralism.

Both Jordan and Tunisia’s efforts to foster and protect diversity and communal harmony in a Muslim majority setting are admirable. Malaysia’s apparent move in the opposite direction is a grave concern in a region where Muslims live side by side with sizeable non-Muslim communities.

We see in Malaysia a trend towards reinforcing Islamic orthodoxy based on literal readings of Islamic law. At first, these impulses were confined to local, state level politics and reflected factional fights within the Malay community. But more recently a move to have Shariah Courts impose punishments recommended by the Islamic penal code, known as Hudud, has managed to find its way to the Federal Parliament and win support among some government MPs. The non-Muslim community in Malaysia has argued this is unconstitutional because the federal constitution provides all Malaysians with equal treatment under the law.

This kind of orthodox advocacy easily finds support in a society where government-controlled media and an increasingly powerful Islamic enforcement bureaucracy propagate the view that the ummat is under threat from non-believers and needs to be protected by enforcing arcane and intolerant aspects of Islamic law and tradition. This, in turn, has started to eat away at the Malay culture and seek to replace it with something that more resembles Arabia in the seventh century.

For many honest Muslims, this, of course, is an ideal path to realising a better Islamic way of life. However, it is also undeniably a path to conflict.

Therefore, in the interests of peace, I argue here that instead of learning how to emulate Arabian life in the seventh century in a misplaced desire to be better adherents to Islam, Muslims in Southeast Asia would be better served learning the lessons of how to avoid the decay of cosmopolitan plural societies in the Arab world that have brought war and destruction to the grand old societies of the Levant in Lebanon, Syria and also to Iraq as well as Yemen.

The signs are not all that good. Far from pushing for more freedom and the guaranteed rights enjoyed by government grounded in popular sovereignty, Muslims in Southeast Asia are instead falling victim to repressive visions of prejudice and intolerance in a misguided quest for a more Islamic way of life.

These past few weeks in Indonesia illustrate the point very well. A constellation of Islamic hard-line groups is doing its best to unseat an elected Governor of Jakarta on the basis that he insulted the Quran, but in reality, it is because he is a Christian and Chinese. A sizeable protest on 4 November brought more than 150,000 people onto the streets of Jakarta calling for the Governor’s resignation.

Now as it happens, many of these people have real grievances; they are poor, often denied access to services or evicted so the government can acquire their land. But was this the reason they were mobilised to protest? No. This was a play by politicians to intimidate elected leaders and undermine their position for purely selfish reasons. They think that by displacing elected leaders, using these fraudulent means, they will open space for their own bid for high office.

Similarly, in Malaysia, Muslim sentiment is being harnessed to crush a multi-racial movement that is highlighting corruption in high places and protesting for fairer elections. In order to protect itself, the government has encouraged conservative elements to rally and accused the protestors of being a threat to Malay culture and Muslim propriety. This clash between pro-government red shirt thugs and the yellow-shirted Bersih Movement threatens to turn violent.

Far from emulating the Arab Spring, which began in 2010 as a bid for popular liberation, Southeast Asian Muslims are allowing the freedoms that underpin their rights to be eroded in the mistaken view that this will protect them. It won’t.

In fact, they are being fooled and misled by selfish politicians and power holders who are seeking only to advance or protect their positions. There can be no political liberation if minds are closed and rights are constrained. The current trajectory is only breeding conflict. It will result in the consolidation of strong repressive leadership and the denial of rights.

If Southeast Asians really want to learn the lessons of the Arab Spring, watch the drone footage of the wreckage of Aleppo. Muslims in Southeast Asia don’t know how lucky they are to live in societies that are still broadly tolerant and inclusive and how healthy it is to have cultural roots that embrace other myths and creeds.

The good news is that mainstream Muslim scholars are increasingly cognisant of the threat to Islam as a civilised way of life. In Indonesia, there are now efforts to inculcate the values of Islam Nusantara in a bid to reinforce pluralism and diversity.

The same kind of transaction between culture and religion needs to happen in Malaysia as well. Southeast Asia needs a cultural spring, one that recognises the polarisation that outside ideological influences and social pressure is generating, and recovers something of the natural equilibrium that has made this part of the world a peaceful home for people of all the major religions.

The primary lesson of the Arab Spring is to value the cohesive elements of society and not to allow political differences to destroy the pluralistic fabric of society.

So how should Asia do its own version of the Arab Spring? Value the cultural moorings of society, respect the institutional safeguards of justice and freedom, and prevent anyone from convincing you that life as a Muslim is better without diversity. If you have doubts, look at the situation in Benghazi, or in Aleppo today.

Based on a presentation to the Third World Forum for Muslim Democrats (WFMD) Tokyo, 24 November 2016.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.