Towards post-hegemony


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THERE are usually two perspectives on the terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre, now commonly referred to as ‘9/11’. The first holds that 9/11 was a transformative event of egregious proportions and that international relations and politics will never remain the same henceforth. The second accepts that while 9/11 was a major political event, it did not alter world politics in any significant way and indeed merely symbolised what was already an anarchic global system.

The essay by Robert Cooper on ‘the postmodern state’ (2002) is one that tries to profile the first kind of perspective and unabashedly argues for a ‘new imperialism’ as a prerogative of western foreign policy post-9/11. Cooper argues that the ‘postmodern’ European interstate system is a creature of modern civilization and, in some sense, represents a post-hegemonic break with the balance of power and Cold War politics of the past. However, he fails (nor does he want) to suggest any truly universal and non-ethnocentric approach to post-hegemony.

In my view, not much has really changed since 9/11. This era is no more ‘postmodern’ than that of the Cold War when US hegemony dominated world politics and economy but saw resistance in the form of the communist bloc and a bloc of Third World nonaligned countries. Today, with the collapse of communism and the nonaligned movement, globalisation has ushered in, as Cooper rightly posits, a ‘voluntary’ economic imperialism under the aegis of the developed zone of North America and Europe and a security order dominated almost exclusively by the US, especially post 9/11.

My interest, therefore, is how the project of ‘post-hegemony’ can be further advanced, given the current constellation of global political forces. This essay, however, will not deal with economics. Rather, I want to borrow from Robert Cox his notion of post-hegemony and see how we may be able to move in such a trajectory. To quote Cox: ‘Can there be distinct, thriving macro-societies, each with its own solidarity, each pursuing a distinct telos, which could coexist through a supra-intersubjectivity? This supra-intersubjectivity would have to embody principles of coexistence without necessarily reconciling differences in goals’ (Cox, 1996, p. 168).

Following Cox, I believe that the project of post-hegemony in contemporary terms involves more than unseating the United States, the putative hegemon of global relations today, from its perch of supreme power. While the 9/11 event itself was clearly aimed at denting the power of the hegemon, most would agree that its immediate impact has been to arrogate even more global unilateral power to the US in its so-called war against terrorism. However, the event has also unleashed a series of ramifications at various regional and national levels which has made the project of post-hegemony rather more complex and the programmes of counter-hegemony even more tortuous.

This essay tries to reflect on recent events from the perspective of Southeast Asia to see how political developments may or may not be contributing to the project of post-hegemony. It then tries to identify the imperatives for putting us back on the trajectory of post-hegemony.



Political developments and events in Southeast Asia preceding 9/11 indicated that much seemed to be happening by way of counter-hegemonic developments, especially after the financial crisis of 1997/98. Tumultuous events in Indonesia had brought about the end to one of the longest dictatorships of modern history and the Reformasi movement also ultimately propelled the independence of East Timor, an event long-awaited by global civil society. Such were the transformative impulses generated by the post-Cold War environment in the region that constructivism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also seemed to be at an optimal degree by the early 2000s.

Not only had the ASEAN brought about a rapprochement of capitalist and communist states within its fold, and thus put a seal on the Cold War, the regional body was now famously in a ‘constructive engagement’ with the rogue regime of Myanmar, its tenth and last member. Furthermore, ASEAN’s sponsorship of the 23-member ASEAN Regional Forum on Security seemed just like the right sort of open instrumentality to deal with the post-Cold War environment in Asia-Pacific.



But this is not to say that the region was without its festering insurgencies of political Islam, economic problems and persistent underdevelopment, all exacerbated by the financial crisis and meltdown of 1977-98. But here again the financial crisis, in a sense, also helped to dismantle certain sorts of political-economic hegemonies. The so-called East Asian ‘miracle’ economies were struck a mortal blow and the highly touted formula of success of the authoritarian (Asian values) developmental state was severely punctured. Along with this came a debunking of the notion that ‘performance legitimacy’ could be a real substitute for political legitimacy. The Suharto regime was a classic instance of this shift where the ‘KKN’ (corruption, cronyism, nepotism) regime, spawned by Suharto’s developmental state, faced a monumental collapse.

In Malaysia, the Reformasi movement was unable to immediately unseat the powers-that-be and the somewhat effective leadership of Mahathir, but it nonetheless led to the emergence of a much stronger opposition against his rule. Some would now argue that Mahathir’s highly unconscionable and unpopular measure of vilifying and subsequently causing the incarceration of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, was ultimately responsible for the premier’s recent decision to leave the political stage by October 2003. It seems to me that the general lesson of the episode of economic and financial volatility of the late ’90s is that economic success or performance can never be a panacea or substitute for the absence of accountability and genuine political legitimacy.

Then came 9/11. The event has unleashed yet another set of political legitimacy questions for Southeast Asia. Secular political regimes have always been the order of the day for most of Southeast Asia and while democratisation may have been given a fillip by the impact of the economic crisis, a new challenge has also reared its head since 9/11: that of political Islam.



For decades now political Islam has been simmering in the cauldron of Southeast Asian politics. Paradoxically, the global counter-hegemonic event of 9/11 has brought the struggles of political Islam to the fore and into clearer relief than ever before. Let me take just two striking examples from the region – the perennial struggle of the Moros and Acehnese for independence and an Islamic state.

The Bangsa Moro struggle for statehood in the southern islands of the Philippines dates back more than 300 years to the 16th century when they first resisted Spanish colonisation and then American imperialism for almost half a century. In the contemporary period resistance to the Philippine government has persisted right through the 1950s till today. The initial struggle was for an Islamic state but developments, especially since the 1970s, have seen the Moro National Liberation Movement led by Nur Misuari, settle for Bangsa Moro autonomy inside the Republic of the Philippines.

However, the other significant player, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) persists in its quest for an independent Islamic state, even if outside of the Philippines. Although other groups have also been active in the past, political Islam has been pushed to the brink by the militant Abu Sayyaf group which has carried out dramatic kidnappings and killings in recent years.

While the Fidel Ramos government went some distance in peace negotiations with the MNLF and succeeded in setting up an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and a Regional Consultative Commission (RRC) to draft the legislation for the ARMM, the process was deeply flawed not only because the MILF did not participate in it, but when the required plebiscite was held in 1989, only four of the 13 provinces and none of the nine cities proposed by the ARRM, were involved.



A new process was set in motion by the Fidel Ramos administration since 1992 culminating in the Peace Agreement of September 1996 between the Philippine government and the MNLF. Unfortunately, the Peace Agreement involved no other Moro liberation groups, in particular, the MILF. Meanwhile, Nur Misuari and the MNLF have been sidelined in the new efforts by the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration entering into a peace accord and negotiations with the MILF. The situation is further complicated by the presence of American troops in Southern Philippines since 9/11 in the hunt-down for Abu Sayyaf militants.

The Aceh struggle for an Islamic state seems even more intractable since no peace process has been put on track. Situated at the north-western most part of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, Aceh was a veritable centre of Islamic civilisation from the early 17th century onwards until Dutch subjugation was more or less imposed by the turn of the 20th century.

Continued resistance to Dutch rule was manifested in outbreaks of violence throughout Aceh in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. However, during the Dutch period, Islamic education through madrasahs flourished and during the Second World War the Persatuan Ulama Seleruh Aceh (All-Aceh Scholars’ Association) considerably expanded its activities and influence. By the time the Dutch and leaders of the new Indonesian Republic were ready to negotiate independence in 1949, Aceh was virtually an autonomous region.

Though the sympathetic interim government of Sumatra established a new province of Aceh in place of the military region of the war, the new Indonesian Republic refused to recognise this arrangement and ended Aceh’s autonomy in 1950. Subsequently, the ‘Darul Islam’ (house of Islam) challenge to Indonesian pancasila secularism by Javanese Muslims provided a good basis for Aceh to join in the failed Sumatran-based rebellion against the Indonesian Republic in 1953.



In the aftermath of Reformasi politics and Suharto’s ouster, the Aceh struggle for independence has perhaps been given a new lease of life. GAM, headed by Hassan Tiro, who lives in exile in Sweden, is said to now command a force of several hundred thousand soldiers. A GAM splinter faction, called MP-GAM (Majelis Pemerintahan Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), is led by Don Zulfahri aka. Don Malindo, reportedly based in Thailand. MP-GAM favours Islamic Democracy rather than an Islamic Sultanate presumably favoured by Hassan Tiro, a direct descendant of the Aceh royalty. A new group called Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) has also been formed under the leadership of the students. Its demand is that Jakarta permit a referendum on Aceh’s independence.

Former President Abdurrahman Wahid’s conciliatory, though ineffective, approach towards Aceh is likely to be replaced by a more hardline stance by the new President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. It is unlikely that any new policies will assuage the angst created by the mounting levels of violence and death or accommodate any demand for an Acehnese future that is not locked into the Indonesian Republic. It is patently clear that the national policy and strategy of Indonesian ‘unity in diversity’, whether of the New Order or present order, has comprehensively failed in Aceh.



Ironically, political Islam also got a boost from 9/11 in the sense that Islamic contenders for national power are now better poised for political success. Let me take the case of Malaysia. To be sure, the immediate impact of 9/11 was to allow the Malaysian government to instantly crack down on so-called extremist Islamic elements, thereby enhancing and refurbishing a ‘national security’ state. One of the first acts by the government after 9/11 was to arrest 14 KMM (Malaysian Mujahidin Group) members under the repugnant Internal Security Act (ISA) in April 2002. No evidence was given for the existence of such an organisation nor had it ever been mentioned in the past by government or police spokespersons.

Despite this open admission of the presence of a militant Islamic group, the government was at great pains to deny that Malaysia was ever used as an important site for meetings by Islamic terrorist cells. In point of fact, at least one of those involved in 9/11 had been seen in the country some time before the incident. The government arrests may have gone down well with the general public but cut little ice with the Islamic opposition.

More important than the strenuous efforts of the Mahathir government to distance itself from any hint of supporting terrorism1 has been its contest with the Islamic party, PAS, for supporters and votes. In his eagerness to ‘up the ante’ vis-a-vis the opposition, Mahathir made the stunning announcement on 29 September 2001 that Malaysia was ‘already an Islamic state’ thereby suggesting that it was unnecessary for PAS to ask for such a state. In fact, the Malaysian Constitution merely states that Islam is the ‘official’ religion and freedom of worship and religion is guaranteed. Indeed, the first head of the Malaysian judiciary, the late Tun Mohamed Suffian, in a judgement had already ruled that Malaysia was a ‘secular state’.



A recent test of Muslim support for UMNO came on 18 July 2002, after the passing away of PAS’s President Fadzil Noor, when both the Malay ruling party (UMNO) and PAS had to contest two by-elections, for a federal and a state seat, previously held by the PAS president. PAS won the state seat by 508 votes and UMNO the federal seat by a mere 283 votes in two predominant Malay constituencies. The writing on the wall for UMNO was clear, that the Islamic party continues to command at least half of the Muslim support in the country.

The challenge becomes even more serious when one considers that PAS, which now controls two state legislatures, has introduced an enactment of criminal Syariah (Islamic) law in both these states, in one case just prior to the two by-elections. The passing of the Hudud and Qisas Bill in Terengganu has been the subject of heated debate by women’s groups and other civil forces and UMNO has indirectly encouraged criticism of the Terengganu action. However, the by-election results show that PAS has not suffered any major loss of support for its policy.



It would seem that in the struggle for post-hegemony one must confront hegemonies of various kinds. The post 9/11 world, all would agree, has once again brought to the fore the military and political might of the foremost hegemon with the prospect of more US unilateralism in world politics in the years to come. However, whether we have arrived at a unipolar era remains highly contestable. I believe there are sufficient putative hegemons and would-be hegemons in various regional situations – in Europe, in the Indian subcontinent and in the Asia Pacific – to counter purported US unipolarity today and in the future.

More important is that the post 9/11 world will witnesses the challenge of political Islam in various regional and national contexts. We have seen that national states which are unreflexive, unresponsive and insensitive to minority Muslim populations do so only at their peril and face the perpetual prospect of instability. Conversely, Muslim majority states that are insensitive to the presence of non-Muslim minorities are also doomed to step into an untenable political future, given the presence of non-Muslims in their midst.

A post-hegemonic trajectory for the post 9/11 world cries out for the recognition of certain global realities of the changing world, which at the same time must place enough faith in human agency to institute appropriate post-hegemonic programmes on various fronts of multicultural struggles. Let me end this essay with three broad propositions for change:

* That the so-called war against terrorism, which essentially targets political Islam, rides roughshod over the injustices perpetrated by the current globalised world order in which a hegemonic ‘West’ still dictates the terms of social, political and economic engagement in most societies. The underlying problems of economic, social and political injustice across the globe cannot be ‘fixed’ by a new imperialism.

* That virtually all territorial states (or so-called nation states) are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural in composition and differ on these ontological dimensions only by degrees and thus the imperative for multicultural political practices is self-evident and axiomatic. Models of multicultural practices in liberal states, while addressing the problem, are flawed on ethnocentric grounds, as exhibited in intellectual positions such as Cooper’s.

* That the imperative for majority and minority ethnic, religious and cultural communities to negotiate democratic and inter-communal political frameworks of coexistence is ever more urgent. Such negotiations have to be accomplished without the intervention, imposition or the political manipulation of hegemonic global forces and powers.



1. The efforts included the meeting of Mahathir with George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. in June 2002 and Mahathir’s hosting of the 52-member Organisation of Islamic Countries meeting in Kuala Lumpur in early April where the attempt to get agreement on the definition of ‘terrorism’ met with no success.



Robert Cooper, 2002. ‘The Postmodern State’ in Reordering the World: The Long-Term Implications of September 11, The Foreign Policy Centre, reproduced in Observer Worldview,

Robert W. Cox, 1996. ‘Towards a Post-hegemonic Conceptualization of World Order: Reflections on the Relevancy of Ibn Khaldun’ in Robert W. Cox with Timothy J. Sinclair, Approaches to World Order, Cambridge University Press, pp. 144-173.