Dispatch

Battle in Belgrade

Is Serbia Really Ready to Join the European Union?

BELGRADE, Serbia — To the 500 or so Serbian gays and their allies who marched here last weekend, the riots engulfing the rest of the city were a world away.

Sunday, Oct. 10, marked the first time that a gay rights demonstration has been held successfully in Serbia, a deeply conservative, Orthodox Christian country that is slowly moving beyond a history marred by war and ethnic conflict. Its pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, is keen on bringing Serbia into the European Union, but must first transform the popular perception of his country as one that is xenophobic and intolerant, out of step with the European Union's reigning liberal ethos.

A crucial part of that effort is to improve the status of Serbian minorities, gays among them -- an agenda that has gone over badly with the country's still-powerful right wing. In 2001, ultranationalist hooligans violently disrupted a gay civil rights march, and one planned for last year was canceled at the last minute when government authorities told organizers that they could not guarantee the safety of participants. Tadic's critics, both left and right, accuse him of pandering to the European Union, and to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to visit Belgrade Tuesday, Oct. 12, to discuss Serbia's EU accession process, the whereabouts of fugitive Serbian general and accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, and the status of Kosovo.

Regardless of the government's motives in supplying 5,000 police officers to protect the parade -- and sealing off a major section of the city to let it happen -- Sunday's event was entirely peaceful, at least for parade goers. Indeed, Belgrade was two cities: a ghost town and a war zone. Riot police set up successive cordons on major thoroughfares and side streets to monitor attendance in the march, which started with a rally in a downtown park, creating a wide radius through which one had to seek permission to pass. At some point I lost count of the number of checkpoints I crossed, showing my press credentials and undergoing a pat down at each one.

About an hour before the rally began, small disturbances began between anti-gay protesters and police just a half-mile or so from the rally. Running toward the noise (which alternated between chants of "Kill, kill, kill the gays" and other crude slogans), I was passed by two police officers, one visibly injured. Moments later, as I tried to take a picture of the ensuing chaos, a screaming hooligan ran up to me, smashing my camera hard into my face. I ran from the scene before I could see what, if anything, the police did to him in response.

The march itself was largely uneventful. It lasted all of about 15 minutes, traveled the length of a few blocks, and competed against a background of sirens and the whirring of a police helicopter. By the time marchers had made their way to a downtown event hall for a party, reports of the violence engulfing Belgrade had begun to penetrate the bubble. "There is fighting all over the city," Jasna Cicmil, a 33-year-old Serbian woman, told me between frequent checks of her cell phone for text messages. "They tried to get into the hospital where injured policemen were put."

The gay Serbians relishing in a temporary victory over their more reactionary compatriots got a reality check immediately upon stepping outside the event hall, where a line of armored paddy wagons had lined up to drive them home. Police gently escorted parade-goers into the back of the trucks, shut a metal gate to lock them in, and sent them on their way.

Hearing reports of the riots dispersed across the city, I turned down a well-intentioned Serbian friend who had invited me into one of the trucks and ventured out on my own. I soon realized it would be impossible to get back to my hotel; there was a small-scale war going on between police officers and hooligans on one of the major streets leading up to it. The pleasant boulevard of Knez Mihailova, lined with clothing shops, cafes, and fancy stores, was being used by the anti-gay protesters as a fall-back point in their war against the security forces. Bricks and Molotov cocktails crashed near my feet, and the sting of tear gas hit my eyes. Behind me, I heard an elderly woman cry, "Fight brothers! This is traditional Serbia!"

Several hours later the violence came to an end and the costly toll had come in: some $1.4 million in estimated damages, nearly 150 (mostly police officers) wounded, the headquarters of Tadic's Democratic Party burned. As for the message that Sunday's event will send to Europe and the world, it's unclear. No matter how much effort the Serbian government made to ensure the safety of the parade, the very fact that it required 10 police officers for every marcher demonstrates just how far Serbian society is from reaching the point where it could become a full-fledged member of the European community.

"This is a test case for Serbia," Marije Cornelissen, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament told me Sunday in Belgrade. "Tadic has decided that this is one of the things he's going to show the EU that we are a mature democracy, and that has worked wonders." She was joined at the event by several international figures, including the Dutch and U.S. ambassadors, both of whom commended the Serbian government's support for the parade as a positive example of its embrace of Western, liberal values. Earlier this year, Tadic met with gay activists in his office, and he publicly expressed his support for the event on numerous occasions.

Some activists, however, see a more cynical motivation in the government's newfound embrace of public expression for gay rights. "Tadic said that there haven't been any meetings with the EU in which [gay] pride wasn't mentioned," Milica Djordjevic, the head of an NGO that works with Roma street children, told me. When I asked her whether she thought his support for the parade was genuine, she said it was a concession to economic reality: Serbia has a nearly 20 percent unemployment rate, something that closer links with Europe would certainly alleviate. "If it was really a change, Tadic would come to pride," she said.

It's clear that Tadic faces enormous resistance to his support even for gays' right to associate, opposition often couched in religious language that will be familiar to veterans of gay-marriage debates in more mature democracies. The day before Sunday's march, I happened upon a small vigil organized by Orthodox clerics, at which a few dozen people bearing giant crosses chanted prayers and voiced their opposition to the march. Over the past several days, individuals I interviewed who opposed the march repeatedly invoked arguments about how homosexuality "destroys" the family and is forbidden by the Bible.

But in Serbia, a place where nationalism still runs strong, opposition to homosexuality often takes on a distinctly chauvinist tone as well. Sunday's march inevitably became wound up in the broader question of whether Serbia should join the European Union and other Western institutions, which many here still resent due to the NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s and the subsequent international war-crimes prosecutions of former Serbian leaders.

On Saturday, Oct. 9, a group called Serbiaki Dveri held its own rally and march to protest the next day's gay pride event. Many Serbian flags were on display, and patriotic music was sung. One woman, Lozanka Radojcic, standing at the front of the crowd, held a photo of her son in military uniform. When I asked why she was holding it, she informed me that he died in the Kosovo War. "We can't have a family because he was killed," she told me. The name of one of the ultranationalist organizations opposing the march -- 1389, named after the year in which Serbia lost to the Ottoman Empire in a battle for the then-province of Kosovo -- underscores how history (even ancient history) is still a potent force.

What the battle over Kosovo had to do with civil rights for gays was beyond me, but it was the sort of sentiment to which numerous speakers at the event appealed. "We are here because we want to defend family values and the territorial integrity of Serbia," Nikola Marinkovic, the organizer, said to loud cheers. "The government's project needs to be a family project and not support for a pride parade." He went onto to denounce Tadic's decision to spend money on extra policing for the gay rights march and proclaimed that his government had "destroyed everything and now they want to destroy the only thing we have left: our family values."

Though Sunday's parade has been overshadowed by the violence, that the event took place was enough for gay activists. "This is important because nobody, after this, can forbid the next one," Djordjevic, the NGO leader, says. "This is the first step." Some Serbians are already declaring victory. "I'm sick of sitting at home and being afraid," Danilo Milic, a 32-year-old lawyer told me. "We had enough people against these idiots and we won."

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Dispatch

Values Voters

How Malaysia's right-wing Islamist party became the country's best hope for political reform.

On Dec. 31 of last year, a Catholic newspaper with a circulation of less than 15,000 found itself at the heart of a major controversy in Malaysia. In 2007, the government had ordered the Kuala Lumpur-based Herald to stop using "Allah" to refer to a non-Islamic God, as the paper -- located in a majority-Muslim country -- had been doing for years. The paper sued, and when the case finally made its way to the High Court, a judge sided with the Herald and overturned the ban.

Protests followed immediately, with masked men on motorbikes firebombing several churches and demonstrators taking to the streets. Tension between the country's Muslim Malay majority and its Chinese and Indian minorities was already at a low boil, thanks to Malaysia's ruling coalition and its dominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Through policies such as pro-Malay affirmative action, the government had attempted to exploit the country's ethnic divisions in order to deflect attention from its economic mismanagement and corruption.

But as Muslim anger with the Allah case boiled over, an unlikely ally came to the paper's defense: Malaysia's opposition Islamist party, the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). PAS President Abdul Hadi bin Awang (above) publicly supported the paper's right to use the word. "PAS would like to state that, based on Islamic principles, the use of the word Allah by the people of Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism is acceptable," he said.

It was an odd turn for Malaysia's competing political parties: The ostensibly secular UMNO was stoking Muslim outrage, while PAS, which was founded half a century ago with the stated goal of transforming Malaysia into an Islamic state guided by the Quran, was calling for interfaith understanding. Yet it fit an emerging pattern. In the last five years, PAS has been moderating its onetime deeply conservative stance in order to reach out to non-Muslim Indian and Chinese voters, who account for nearly a third of the population.

The tactics have paid off. PAS has attracted more than 20,000 non-Muslim members, astonishing for a country where political parties are strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines. The support helped the party, along with its partners in the opposition People's Pact coalition, win an historic one-third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 national election, denying the UMNO a two-thirds majority for the first time since Malaysia's independence in 1957. Many Malaysian political observers are predicting that the opposition will finally wrest power from the UMNO-led ruling coalition in the next election, due by 2013.

But that victory is contingent on PAS's ability to perform a delicate balancing act. The party must convince its Muslim base that it is not abandoning its religious principles while quelling fears among non-Muslims that it is a radical party bent on scrapping Malaysia's secular constitution.

"I've always looked at the Islamic basis of the party as inclusive in nature," Khalid Samad, a PAS reformer and member of parliament, told me recently. "The party is for the benefit of all, not just Muslims." I had traveled to Kuala Lumpur's predominantly Indian neighborhood of Brickfields to have lunch at a local hotel restaurant with Khalid and Hu Pang Chau, the Chinese head of the non-Muslim wing of PAS. The two men are a driving force behind PAS's recent transformation, the second major shift in the party's history.

Originally a branch of UMNO, PAS broke away as an independent party in 1955 as a challenge UMNO's secularism. It was the first Islamist party in Southeast Asia -- and one of the first in the world -- to come to power through elections, winning more than a dozen parliamentary seats and control of two state governments in Malaysia's first election after independence. But while PAS officially supported the establishment of an Islamic state, in its early years it did so only vaguely, preferring instead to emphasize Malay identity over religion.

Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which convinced Muslims around the world -- including Khalid, who at the time was studying in Britain alongside Muslim peers from the Middle East and India -- that Islam could be a political force. Following the Iranian example, PAS replaced its professional leaders with ulama, or religious scholars. By the early 1980s, the party was openly calling for an Islamic Malaysia.

The agenda sat poorly with UMNO's Mohamad bin Mahathir, who won election as prime minister in 1981 and proceeded to rule for 22 years. Mahathir was openly contemptuous of PAS and often had its members -- including Khalid -- arrested under Malaysia's Internal Security Act. At the same time, he worked to co-opt the Muslim vote, in part by enlisting popular Islamic activists to help the party. The tactics had the effect of pushing PAS further to the right in an effort to distinguish itself from the ruling party. By the early 2000s the party was once again aggressively touting its Islamist credentials.

By the 2004 parliamentary election, however, PAS's piety had become a political liability. Mahathir had stepped down as prime minister, but PAS was ill-placed to fill the vacuum he left behind; Malaysia's moderate Muslims and non-Muslims had come to embrace the progressive, development-focused Islam touted by Mahathir's replacement, Abdullah Badawi. The party took a drubbing at the polls that year, winning only seven seats.

After some soul searching, the PAS leadership attributed the poor showing to its overtly Islamist stance and failure to attract young and non-Muslim voters. "Most non-Muslims, especially those in the Chinese community, would tell you that PAS are fundamentalists and extremists," Hu told me over lunch, as we looked out over a tangle of high-rise construction sites in Brickfields. "If you support PAS, everyone will have to convert to Islam and give up speaking their mother tongue." PAS's political niche sat awkwardly with the multiculturalism of modern Malaysia: "If you are interested in governing a nation that only has mosques and doesn't have temples or pig farms or alcohol, then you are restricting yourself to governing Mecca or Medina," Khalid said, to booming laughs from Hu.

So just as it had in the early 1980s, PAS again began replacing its leadership -- this time with younger, more progressive activists. The party turned accordingly from religious purity to pragmatism. Party leaders toned down their Islamist rhetoric and began speaking instead about civil liberties and electoral reform. In 2005 it formed a multi-ethnic coalition with the secular People's Justice Party and the Chinese Democratic Action Party.

But PAS's reputation for conservatism is hardly unfounded. It has sent mixed signals about the compatibility of democracy and Islam over its 50-year history, most recently in its "2003 Document," a communiqué designed to clarify the party's definition of an Islamic state. While the document notes PAS's commitment to working within the framework of parliamentary democracy, it states that sharia must be the "law of the land" and that "Islam is the solution to all human problems." While PAS leaders later privately admitted that the brief had become a political liability, the party has never publicly disowned it. "They have quietly allowed the document to fade into the background of party politics," said Dr. Joseph Liow, a Malaysia expert and author of Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia.

The party's political base remains the Malay belt, a group of states with an overwhelmingly rural and Muslim population. In Kelantan, where PAS controls the state government, it has tried to implement the Islamic hudud penal code, which calls for adulterers to be stoned and thieves to be punished with amputation. No one has been sentenced as such -- the federal government would likely intervene if they were -- but strict social controls are enforced, including segregation of the sexes in public and restrictions on alcohol and gambling.

The UMNO-run government has stoked Malaysia's non-Muslim minority's fears of this kind of rule, linking PAS to radicalism in the government-controlled broadcast media by, among other things, running a prime-time television commercial that showed PAS leaders interspersed with text about the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan. In response, PAS has made some very public displays of tolerance, including supporting the Catholic Herald. Hu does outreach work in the Chinese community, where he says fear of PAS has softened, and Khalid has made public visits to churches, temples and pig farms -- sometimes to the outrage of Muslims.

These controversies point to a very real contradiction at the heart of the party as it attempts to adapt to the realities of modern Malaysia. Conservatives in PAS see the Malay belt as the party's natural constituency, while reformers like Khalid are attempting to court voters in Malaysia's rapidly expanding cities, where religion and ethnic identity matter less than concerns about jobs and government corruption. This has created fissures within the party. "Some say that we must highlight the Malay agenda" -- the concerns of ethnic Malays irrespective of religion - "and the Islam agenda," Khalid told me. "There are still some differences of opinion on this issue today. It's an awkward situation."

Who wins the argument hinges largely on how the party does in the next national election, the first since PAS's major gains of 2008. If PAS and the rest of the opposition perform as well as expected, reformers like Khalid will be vindicated. If not, the party's conservatives will no doubt look to reassert their authority. The ruling coalition has complicated things with its prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim, an UMNO politician turned opposition leader. In 2008, the government charged Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who is now head of the People's Justice Party, with having sex with a male aide. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison and the probable end of his political career. The PAS-led opposition would lose its most credible candidate for prime minister, and most likely its short-term political hopes as well.

Even if UMNO wins the next election, however, the party's long-term prospects for holding onto power are dim. "Malaysia is on the cusp of major change," Liew Chin Tong, an essayist and parliamentarian for the opposition Democratic Action Party, told me. "The ruling party is refusing to live in a competitive environment, and the atmosphere has become very poisonous. The major shift is that non-Muslims no longer feel that PAS is an extreme party." For the first time, voters in Malaysia have a viable -- which is to say multi-ethnic -- alternative to UMNO, and confidence is high that the opposition's time has finally come. "For all of UMNO's talk of being secular, it practices a very bigoted form of Islam," Khalid said. "This can only go on for so long."

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