A conversation with Anwar Ibrahim

A conversation with Anwar Ibrahim

Late last year, my colleague Blake Hounshell and I sat down with Anwar Ibrahim here in Washington, where he was attending a conference on inter-religious understanding. The Malaysian opposition leader (who is #32 one of our Top Global Thinkers of 2009) is today in a very different setting: the beginning of his trial for charges of sodomy that he says are politically motivated. Here are a few excerpts from that interview, including his thoughts on democracy, religion, and being an opposition figure.

FP: One criticism in the United States of the Muslim world is, people will say: the Muslim world is not addressing its own problems; The Muslim world is more likely to blame America for what is going on then to do soul searching about the state of discourse in Islam today. What is your response to that?

Anwar Ibrahim: I just answer, be equally responsible. You can’t just erase a period of imperialism and colonialism. You have to deal, you can’t erase, for example, the fault lines, the bad policies, the failed policies, the war in Iraq for example, and ambivalence you support dictators inside the top democracy. …This night [in Malaysia], [there are] emails [circulating within] the national media, the government television network. They will  start a 5 to 7 minute campaign: Anwar is in the United States, he is a lackey of the Americans, he is pro-Jew. Period. And they go on with impunity, [as they have done] for the last 11 years. Because they want to deflect from the issue of repression, endemic corruption, destruction of the institutions of governance.

There is a difference. You [the United States] have Abu Ghraib and it is exposed — and the media went to town. The atrocities in the Muslim world, in our prisons, [and I am] not talking about my personal experience, [are] all knitted up.

What we need is credible voice in the Muslim world, independent. Some liberal Muslims become so American in their views, so Western. I don’t think you should do that. Americans need to appreciate the fact that I am a Muslim, there don’t need to be apologies for that. But at the same time we must have the courage to address the inherent weaknesses within Muslim societies.

FP: When was it that you first decided this debate between religion was something you wanted to be a part of?

AI: In Malaysia, [this] is so critical. [It’s] a multi racial country, a religious country. [There is a] Muslim majority of 55 percent, then Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians of various domination. I grew up being involved in the Muslim youth work, even when I was a student, engaging in this.  The Vatican supported the East Asian Christian Conference at the time and we started having these discussions. My initial work in the youth work when I was leading the Malaysia youth counsel which is an umbrella of all the Hindu youth and the Buddhist youth and the Christian youth. I benefited immensely … we started engaging them. … Then of course there was tolerance when we hosted a conference; they were mindful of the Hindus were strictly vegetarian or if the Christian organized, they were aware we did not eat pork or drink.

When I was I government the Muslim Christian dialogue was promoted, in fact I supported the program. There was a Muslim Christian center in Georgetown and we went to New Manila University. The majority of the Malaysians non-Muslims are not Christians but Confucianists, so we brought in Professor Tu Wei-ming one of the Chinese scholars of Confucianism from Harvard to come and tell us about Confucianism and we tell him about Islam. There is so much in common between Confucianism and Islam.

FP: How do you balance your life as a thinker and a politician?

AI: People do suggest that, but I quite disagree. Of course you simplify the arguments but the same arguments, the central thesis remains constant but the way you articulate it may differ. People say, Anwar you are opportunistic, how can you talk about Islam and the Quran here and then you talk about Shakespeare there and then quote Jefferson or Edmond Burke. I say it depends on the audience. [If] I go to a remote village, of course I talk about the Quran. In Kuala Lumpur ,and you quote T.S Eliot. If I quote the Quran all the time, to a group of lawyers, I am a mullah from somewhere.

[Some] think because I do court [Islamic votes] these days they think I am a Islamist. [But] you ask the question — is it true, Anwar, that you are sound and consistent in your views and you are not actually a closet Islamist? I say, Why do you say that? [The] six years [I spent in] prison is not enough? And they say no, but you engage with the Islamists, and I said yes.