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July 22, 2011

The Kuala Lampur Crackdown

The response of the Malaysian government to the recent protests in Kuala Lampur raises several concerns, not the least of which is whether it will be followed by retaliatory arrests of political opponents. The announcement of a further inquiry on the part of Suhakam, a human rights commission with a semi-official imprimatur from the government, is certainly welcome at getting to the bottom of police overreaction - though it may have the effect of stoking tensions:

At a press conference on Thursday, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, better known by its Malay abbreviation Suhakam, announced it will hold a public inquiry into the allegations. During the rally, organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, protester Baharuddin Ahmad collapsed and died of a heart attack, and other participants said the police were too aggressive in their use of tear gas and in detaining more than 1,600 people temporarily.

“Suhakam feels that in view of the number of complaints on excessive use of force, the incidents of tear gas, the death of Baharuddin Ahmad and the denial of access to lawyers, various violations of human rights could have happened,” said Suhakam Vice Chairman Khaw Lake Tee. The group said in a statement that further details of the inquiry would be announced in two weeks’ time.

Police Deputy Director of Management (Public Relations) and Assistant Commissioner Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf said the police cannot comment in advance of the report. Malaysian authorities have previously said they believe Baharuddin Ahmad died of natural causes unrelated to the rally, and that police used the minimum force necessary to subdue demonstrators they believed were threatening public order.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has talked a good game when it comes to the importance of elevating moderate governance within the Muslim world, and I've written in the past about the significance of building on our Southeast Asian Islamic alliances (getting beyond viewing the Muslim world as the Arab world, and only that). But this is a significant test of whether he will also govern within his own nation as a moderate, and retain the authority to speak to these matters on the international stage.

Protest in Malaysia of this nature is a very rare thing, and it's likely the rarity of it which engendered an overreactive response from the police force. Najib's political opposition has explicitly compared him to Mubarak and Qaddafi - a false comparison, by any measure, when it comes to brutality and institutional oppression - and sought to foment a similar level of outrage among their followers. But there are institutional reasons why this is unlikely to take hold, not just attitudinal: as Jason Abbott, an expert on Asia and professor at the University of Louisville, pointed out recently, unemployment levels remain low in Malaysia compared to international averages (it hovers around 4%, according to most measures). As we all know, people are less likely to take to the streets in anger when they are gainfully employed.

Najib said in an interview with The Star earlier this year when asked about Tunisia and Egypt: "Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here." The best way for him to achieve that goal is avoiding an overreactive post-Kuala Lampur crackdown, and pursuing policies that push economic growth out to a wider populace.

May 18, 2011

Malaysia's Najib Goes West

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is in New York City this week meeting with potential investors in his endeavor to seek further outside support for his efforts to raise his nation's standard of living, followed by a trip to Washington for the diplomatic round of meetings. Earlier this week, Najib delivered remarks in Oxford which built on his speech last year to the Council on Foreign Relations, expressing a further push for moderation in the Muslim world and specifically referencing his religious opposition to acts of terrorism:

When four young men headed south from Yorkshire one morning in July, six years ago, maybe they thought the home-made bombs they carried in their backpacks made them “real Muslims”. Maybe they thought that by blowing themselves up, they were acting in accordance with the will of Allah, that they were following the teachings of the Quran. How wrong they were.

I would like to emphatically state that those who strap explosives on their bodies and blow themselves up are not martyrs. They do not represent Islam. Unknowingly, they are misguided into committing a grievous sin. So too, all those who preach hate and stoke the fire of intolerance in leading to this most blasphemous act, they too are as guilty as the perpetrators. Our heart goes out to their victims who are innocent, defenceless civilians going about their daily life. Islam never condones such a vile act. Neither is it part of the teachings of Islam.

...

A world free from terrorism is possible. It is not beyond our reach. It needs men and women of goodwill among the faithful of all creeds; it requires a vanguard of the moderates, it demands us to stop being a silent majority and to start reflecting the courage of our conviction. We must address the underlying causes of global violence. Merely going after specific individuals, dismantling their organisations, disrupting their finances and discrediting their ideologies is far from enough. We must be able to differentiate between the symptoms and the root causes. Only then, can we achieve a lasting solution.

It's encouraging to see a Muslim ally engage this issue with such directness and at such a prominent venue. Of course, these words are unlikely to be heeded by those in the Arab world - but it's unquestionably a step in the right direction. More of this, please.

May 14, 2011

The Gulf Cooperation Council Expansion

Suleiman al-Khalidi writes on the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and what the newly formed club could look like if Jordan and Morocco - two countries which are certainly punching below the weight of GCC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar - decide to join in:

Ali Anouzla, editor of independent Moroccan news portal Lakome.com, said: "This looks like an alliance that will be against both geography and strategic common sense."

"Amid the popular revolts demanding democracy, it feels more like a political alliance aimed at preserving the stability and the continuity of Arab monarchies, the majority of which are led by prominent tribes and clans in their respective countries."

Reactions from other corners of the Muslim world were overwhelmingly supportive of the surprising step. Speaking from Riyadh after a meeting with King Abdullah, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak voiced his support for the steps, particularly focused on Bahrain, saying, "Malaysia fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times."

The question is just how much of this expansion has to do with safeguarding, and how much of it is reactionary crackdown. Elliott Abrams outlines the consequences for the Arab world of such a step:

An enlarged and well financed GCC can provide real leadership to the Arab world. The members are all countries with good relations with the United States, including in most cases close intelligence and military ties. The trick will be to prevent the GCC from becoming a reactionaries club, trying to avoid “carefully considered reform” and instead to preserve royal roles that make constitutional monarchy and democracy impossible. The legitimizing principle of government in the 21st century is popular sovereignty. The GCC monarchs can adjust to that, as many European monarchs did—or in the end disappear as did many other European kings and princes, ending up living in exile in rented mansions with plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.

As we move into a new period in the Arab world, whether we answer these questions in a way that allows for less bloodshed and more smooth transitions may be up to the newly expanded GCC.

April 5, 2011

Bibles and Moderate Muslims

The continued protests in Afghanistan over the burning of the Quran reminded me of a minor flareup over religious tension that was getting coverage in Kuala Lumpur when I was traveling there recently, where the pleasant resolution of Christian-Muslim tension provides another illustration of how a truly moderate Muslim nation behaves.

The spark, in this case, was the confiscation of roughly 35,000 copies of Bibles in Port Klang and Kuching Port, all meant to be used by local Christians to proselytize to the population. Last week, the Malaysian government decided to release the Bibles back to the missionary groups involved and widely published a 10-point list detailing the rights protecting the missionaries and their books, including an olive branch to allow Christians to print the Bibles within Malaysia - something they were not previously able to do.

There is a small but significant Christian population in Malaysia (concentrated particularly in the state of Sarawak, where they are actually the majority of the population, followed closely by Sabah where they account for roughly 1/3rd) but the Muslim hierarchy is still the dominant force. Local tension has sometimes risen up thanks to government policies - in 2003, then Prime Minister Badawi revoked a ban on the Iban language Bible, used by missionaries to minister to Borneo's former headhunter tribes, after a backlash from the local Christian population.

In this case, the government seems to have responded in a thoroughly civilized manner, opening the door wider for the missionaries to go about their business. Now if only other Muslim countries would have such an attitude toward religious freedom - in Saudi Arabia, of course, this sort of thing remains very illegal.

March 28, 2011

Sex, Lies and Videotape: Malaysia's King of Scandal

Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Larry Craig. Gary Hart. Elliot Spitzer. Mark Foley. Bill Livingston. Marion Barry. A litany of political leaders who bring to mind scandal and straying, grainy videos and uncomfortable tabloid headlines. Political scandals in America are a rich and entertaining tableau, all the way back to the era of the Founders - sometimes sad, often incomprehensible, and occasionally amusing (Craigslist, anyone?). But the names cited above are all pikers compared to Malaysian politics, where what seems like a conglomeration of all the above scandals are gathered around just one person: Anwar Ibrahim.

Like Edwards and Clinton, Anwar's scandals have put his wife, a prominent political leader, into increasingly difficult and precarious public positions. Like Livingston and Hart, Anwar's scandals have arrived at the key moments in his political career, frustrating his attempts at gaining power. Like Craig and Foley, Anwar's scandals have allegedly involved not just other women but other men - a far more controversial issue in a nation where sodomy is illegal. And like Barry, Anwar now faces a challenge involving grainy video footage from a hidden camera, which could spell the end of his career for good.

As the newspapers in Malaysia cull through the current allegations, the question is whether, like Spitzer and others, Anwar will once again endure the uncomfortable sexual nature of his scandals in the public eye -- or whether these persistent explosive situations, just one of which might have claimed the scalp of an American politician, will eventually drag him down for good.

Continue reading "Sex, Lies and Videotape: Malaysia's King of Scandal" »

January 31, 2011

Austerity and the Malaysian Model

Lost in the mix of attention this month to Tunisia and Egypt, another part of the Muslim world which has a slightly more peaceful way of doing things was focusing on the proper method of achieving economic growth. The Malaysian opposition released a 100-day reform plan which is meant to push back against the ruling party's New Economic Model and Prime Minister Najib Razak's Economic Transformation Plan. It's little surprise that Najib has dismissed the plan along with other political analysts as an unrealistic aim, but I found one branch of criticism from the prime minister to be particularly interesting:

"If we want to buy a new car or a new house, we must first ask ourselves whether we are capable. Where would we get the money from? But what I find surprising and strange is, when they tabled all those measures which are populist in nature, not a single word was mentioned about the financial sources. So, how could they deliver all those they promised to the people?” Najib said addressing his staff during the Prime Minister’s Department’s monthly assembly here this morning...

Describing the opposition’s plan as being "too good to be true", he said it was dangerous to be too populist to the extent of putting the country’s future at stake.

"We cannot so irresponsible until our children and grandchildren suffer. In fact, we do not have to wait that long. According to our calculations, in two years time the country will become like Greece if the promises (in the 100-day programme) were implemented without considering the country’s actual capacity," he said.

The explicit comparison of the reform's plan to a dangerous upsurge of the kind of populism which led to Greece's economic disaster are certainly fighting words, and Najib foe Anwar Ibrahim responded by demanding a debate on the proposal. That smacks of more posturing - but of course, all politicians posture.

Continue reading "Austerity and the Malaysian Model" »

December 27, 2010

Malaysian Election Schedule: Q2 2011

Contrary to some expectations, it now appears that Najib Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional authorities in Malaysia intend to hold off on the next election until the second quarter of 2011. Via Malaysian Insider:

Anwar has used his suspension as campaign fodder in several ceramahs around the country, saying it was related to snap polls that could be held as early as March 2011. Several other opposition leaders have also echoed his prediction.

But Johor Baru MP Datuk Shahrir Samad hinted last week that the election will be held in the second quarter and said that Najib wanted to see more results from the policies that he had introduced before calling for an election.

“Thus, it (the general election) will not be held so soon, maybe it will be held in the later part of 2011 or even beyond that,” the former Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister told reporters.

In terms of timing, this would come as Anwar Ibrahim is finishing up his six month suspension from parliament.

December 24, 2010

Balancing China

One argument made by proponents of the U.S. foreign policy status quo is that absent a strong American presence in key regions of the world, democratic allies will wilt under the oppressive influence of autocratic powers. But if we have learned anything in 2010 is that precisely the opposite happens, at least in Asia. China's "assertive" behavior hasn't precipitated a bout of regional appeasement but has instead catalyzed regional states to bulk up their defenses. As Barbara Demick reports:

Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has reversed the alliances of the Vietnam War, with Hanoi now edging toward the United States as it seeks protection. Vietnam is investing in submarines and long-range combat aircraft because of dozens of incidents over the last year in which Chinese vessels have harassed its fishing and oil ships. China's territorial claim to 1 million square miles of the sea has also unnerved Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, pushing them closer to the U.S.

Japan, too, recently announced that its new defense strategy will not entail becoming a satellite state of communist China but instead will be revamped to reflect China's emergence. Arms purchases in Asia are on the rise.

None of this is to suggest that the U.S. should "disengage" from Asia. But it is a telling reminder that if the U.S. were to disengage from, say, Europe, the result wouldn't be the collapse of Western Civilization.

December 22, 2010

Parliamentary Suspension for Anwar Ibrahim

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It's been an incredible week in Malaysian politics with Anwar Ibrahim's six month suspension from parliament, which prompted a walkout by supporters and resulted in "pandemonium" among members.

Anwar's position as opposition leader in Malaysia has been weakened, to say the least, over the past several months. The public relations damage of the departure of the respected Zaid Ibrahim, flagging poll numbers, growing attacks from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and other incidents have all contributed to sustained internal strife within the opposition groups.

Anwar's role at the center of this maelstrom took a new tone with the decision to levy this suspension. The background is fascinating and odd: essentially, Anwar claimed that the 1Malaysia slogan used by the ruling coalition (primarily to send a PR message of unity for an ethnically diverse nation) was devised as an imitation of a slogan used by Israel's Ehud Barak roughly a decade ago.

This prompted a series of paper-waving incidents, climaxing with this one by Nazri Abdul Aziz, who presented a letter from political adviser Bob Shrum (who created the Israeli campaign) as evidence to refute Anwar's claims.

Yet the question now becomes: is suspension really all that bad for Anwar? Will he be able to connect with his constituents as a weakened leader, or will they gather to his side as a martyr for the cause? He and his allies are currently fighting the matter in the courts, but that may be needlessly messy. For a political leader who has based much of his appeal on a degree of victimhood, some of it real and some not (we have those in America, too), this could turn out to be, as Joe Fernandez suggests, a blessing in disguise.

Of course, that may require a large degree of political patience, and only time will tell if that is something Anwar is willing to embrace. But one thing we know from history is that how politicians respond to censure (even politically motivated censure) by their peers can determine a great deal about the future of their careers.

(AP Photo)

December 13, 2010

WikiLeaks on Malaysia

WikiLeaks' latest dump was not without relevance to Malaysia - it includes a cable that deals with Anwar Ibrahim's much-discussed sodomy case (sodomy is illegal in Malaysia), with an opinion expressed within a conversation between Singapore and Australia. Excerpts here:

"The Australians said that Singapore's intelligence services and [Singaporean elder statesman] Lee Kuan Yew have told ONA in their exchanges that opposition leader Anwar 'did indeed commit the acts for which he is currently indicted'...

The document says the Singaporeans told ONA they made this assessment on the basis of "technical intelligence", which is likely to relate to intercepted communications.

The ONA is also recorded as saying that Mr Anwar's political enemies engineered the circumstances from which the sodomy charges arose.

"ONA assessed, and their Singapore counterparts concurred, 'it was a set up job and he probably knew that, but walked into it anyway','' the cable states.

Emphasis mine. Anwar responded via Twitter, saying "Source? Polis SB Msia. Bukti tak ada. (The source? Malaysian police special branch. There's no proof of any such thing)." But now he's taken an additional step of filing a court appeal against the newspapers printing the story:

Anwar's lawyer Sankara Nair told AFP he will file a complaint with the court hearing Anwar's sodomy case over articles in the local media which could affect the former deputy premier's ongoing trial.

I think there's little question that Anwar's jailing in 1999 was mere persecution by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad -- that conviction was later overturned. When it comes to the more recent case, it's interesting at least that global intelligence services had an opinion that this did indeed take place, but was from its inception a "set up job."

November 11, 2010

Internal Strife in Malaysia

There's a good deal of domestic political strife going on at the moment in Malaysia, most of it coming in the form of a movement to "oust Anwar," targeted against Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim.

I've mentioned in the past my opinion that Anwar's views get a far friendlier airing in the Western press than they deserve, perhaps because of his (legitimate) victimhood in the past as the target of political and legal smears. Yet such a victim status shouldn't make the Wall Street Journal editorial page ignore his intonations about "the Jewish lobby" and support for the Israel-bashing International Institute of Islamic Thought. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the right decision, in my view, to just call Anwar during her recent Malaysia visit after a planned sit-down meeting raised a few eyebrows. But regardless of any external critiques, Anwar's role as the head of the opposition (Pakatan Rakyat consists of a coalition of three parties, the PKR, DAP and PAS) has not been an item of significant disagreement in the past.

You can read this piece by Lim Sue Goan to see several reasons why this has changed. Internal battles and fractures have emerged within his constituency - Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who's called for Anwar and Azmin Ali to step down, is now bent on challenging him for leadership of the PKR, and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won two by-elections last week.

In response, Anwar has promised to field younger candidates in the elections anticipated early next year, in an attempt to bolster the pro-reform branding of his coalition. This may work as a play to younger voters, but, on the whole, it seems a weak response to "the biggest crisis the party has faced since its inception in 1999." In any parliamentary system, this kind of upheaval is not what you want to see in the lead up to an election where voters must have confidence in your leadership abilities.

November 9, 2010

Open-mindedness in Southeast Asia

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Whenever the president travels overseas, journalists tend to be surprised by at least one or two things they find in the nations they visit. No matter how cosmopolitan the observer, there always seems to be an anecdote or moment from a presidential visit that gives professional journalists pause, usually buried in the middle area of an article. Oftentimes it's an indication that a perceived third world country is more progressive than they had thought - such is the case today in the New York Times concerning their report from Indonesia, which contains this surprising note:

[Obama's] nanny was an openly gay man who, in keeping with Indonesia's relaxed attitudes toward homosexuality, carried on an affair with a local butcher, longtime residents said. The nanny later joined a group of transvestites called Fantastic Dolls, who, like the many transvestites who remain fixtures of Jakarta's streetscape, entertained people by dancing and playing volleyball.

Matt DeLong notes this item with a degree of surprise. While I can't speak for Indonesia, nations like Malaysia have an interesting and surprising feel, without being overtly westernized in the way of, say, Singapore. Of course, this also leads to clashes between the old Muslim guardians of culture and a community that is by its nature more multi-ethnic and relaxed - but the good news is that the theocrats, for the time being, are getting the short end.

In any case, "surprisingly open minded" is a positive phrase to use when applied to Muslim countries, especially as the mix of culture with Hindus and Christians reaches a point where the minorities hold positions of authority.

(AP Photo)

October 7, 2010

Progress and Muslim Women in Afghanistan

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It was on this day in 2001 that the United States and Britain launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which seems as proper a time as any to note an interesting contrast concerning our continuing conversation about the moderation of the Muslim world. This contrast comes from the Council on Foreign Relations transcript of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's remarks last week, where he repeated some of his prior calls for a movement of the moderates. But what stood out to me is this interesting story, which he notes in passing:

Malaysia is also a country that can play our part in terms of providing some leadership role in global affairs. For example, as part and parcel of the new engagement with the United States, we have decided that we should contribute in a positive way by being present in Afghanistan, because Malaysia has -- or Malaysia is one of the very few countries in the world that has something unique that other countries don't have: We can provide female Muslim doctors. That is much needed in Afghanistan, a society like Afghanistan.

So I promised President Obama that I would do it. And on the invitation of the Afghanistan government, as this is part of our help to reconstruct Afghanistan, in two weeks' time, the doctors will be in Afghanistan.

This is obviously a laudable step for Malaysia and the women involved. It's also a positive sign in terms of paired U.S.-Malaysian security interests in Afghanistan (though of course, the medical mission is headed there at the request of the Afghan government), which will hopefully continue. Najib spoke to several writers during his time in New York, including myself, and while a longer piece will come shortly concerning his responses to several questions on security and economic policy, his remarks on this mission are worth sharing in full:

I committed to agreeing that we should have a presence in Afghanistan, and the advance party is already in Afghanistan -- the main body will be there by the middle of October, because we had to construct accommodations for them.

We decided to be part of the reconstruction in Afghanistan, specifically sending a medical team, because we have one thing very few countries in the world can provide: Muslim women doctors.

In a very conservative society there, the women would rather be treated by Muslim women doctors, and Malaysia is one of the very few countries that can provide this. We'll be sending one doctor, one dentist, and five medical orderlies now and more as part of a larger contingent. And that's a very good start I think...

There's a need for us to be part of the global community in addressing these concerns, and this is the advantage of where Malaysia is positioned, being a moderate Muslim nation, to lend support to a variety of global initiatives.

This is, indeed, a good start. Yet at the same time, it's a sign of how much the Muslim world in general lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to the plight of women. Contrast the plight of Muslim women in Afghanistan - an area where some small progress was made in the past several years, and much is now at risk - with the experience of women of the same faith in Malaysia, according to Najib's answer to Brooks Entwistle of Goldman Sachs:

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. Brooks Entwistle, Goldman Sachs, based in India, in Mumbai. We as a firm were doing for many years in Malaysia; in fact, just opened a KL office, which we're delighted about.

My question today is about the role of women. You mentioned doctors from Malaysia to Afghanistan. There was a very interesting piece this week in the Herald Tribune on women leadership in Islamic finance and chairing some of the major banks. And I'd ask you just to comment further on that topic, but just more specifically the role of women in other leadership roles in Malaysia, and how that can play a leadership role in the Muslim world.

NAJIB: I would consider Malaysia in the forefront. In fact, the male species feels rather threatened in Malaysia now. If you look in terms of the entrance to university, 62 percent of undergraduates are women in Malaysia. I don't think any other Muslim or even non-Muslim country has that kind of record.

And major financial and economic ministries and agencies are held by women in Malaysia. Of course, the governor of central bank, our economic union, the top echelon of the Ministry of Finance, Treasury, they are all women. So women play a big part in Malaysia.

And in fact, we want more women as part of the labor force in Malaysia, I think, and also a greater role for women in Malaysia. And we have been wanting to have 30 percent of women to hold strategic and decision-making positions in the public and private sector. I hope we can -- we can achieve that in the near future.

The fact that Malaysia is at the forefront of women's rights in the Muslim world is of course a good thing for them. Yet one hopes that other notes of progress can be achieved under other Islamic regimes - and hopefully through softer methods, without the cost in lives and treasure of prolonged military engagement. The day when Afghanistan has no need for Malaysia's Muslim women doctors, because they have plenty of their own, will be a good one for all involved.

(AP Photo)

September 27, 2010

A Global Movement of Moderates?

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In New York City this past weekend, discussion surrounding the US-ASEAN summit has inevitably turned to the topic of moderate Islam, and what role nations like Malaysia will play in the future as relates to the foreign policy interests of the United States. I've written about this issue before, and it's worth noting the remarks made by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly today, in which he called for a "Global Movement of the Moderates" to reclaim the public square from, as he sees it, radicals and extremists who misrepresent the ramifications of their faiths:

"It is time for moderates of all countries, of all religions to take back the centre, to reclaim the agenda for peace and pragmatism, and to marginalise the extremists.

"This Global Movement of the Moderates will save us from sinking into the abyss of despair and deprivation," he said.

Expressing concern with the increasing trend in some parts of the world to perpetuate or even fuel Islamophobia, the prime minister said it had intensified the divide between the broad Muslim world and the West.

"The real issue is not between Muslims and non-Muslims but between the moderates and extremists of all religions, be it Islam, Christianity or Judaism."

He said all religions had inadvertently allowed "the ugly voices of the periphery to drown out the many voices of reason and common sense".

Najib is staking some progressive ground here in making this call for stability and moderation, and he's one of the few leaders in the Muslim world who can do so. The question that this raises, assuming you agree with his view, is how this public square might be reclaimed without rough tramping over free speech and other individual rights. It is far more appealing for the news cameras, after all, to talk to the lone pastor who wants to burn books than the thousands who do not.

Finding this balance is important. The fact that such a call can be made now - not by the West, but by a key Muslim political leader - is at least a positive sign.

(AP Photo)