Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Notes from Anwar Ibrahim’s last visit – part I

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister, is back in Australia to deliver lectures in Canberra, Melbourne and other Australian cities.

I was fortunate enough to see him speak during a visit in early 2005. My thoughts on that visit can be found here.

Since that time, I’ve had the benefit of visiting Malaysia as part of a delegation sponsored by the Australia-Malaysia Institute. Our delegation met with people across the cultural and political spectrum. Many continue to speak warmly of Anwar, while others (generally UMNO activists) tow the party line.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance in the coming weeks to share with readers notes I took during meetings with both Anwar supporters and detractors. Suffice it to say that Anwar still seems to exercise considerable support from young educated Malays and from members of Malaysia’s minority communities (particularly Indian Muslims).

In the meantime, Anwar’s current visit provides me with a good excuse to provide some highlights from his previous visit.

On one occasion, I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner hosted by Dr Abdul Rahim Ghouse, the current CEO of the Muslim Community Co-Operative (Australia) Limited (MCCA), a close friend and former campaign manager for Anwar.

In introducing his old friend, Dr Ghouse highlighted Anwar’s ability of bringing otherwise opposite sides together. He described how Anwar’s release saw a rare discussion between the ambassadors to Australia of both Iran and the United States to share thoughts on what this might mean for relations between the West and the Muslim world.

Dr Ghouse mentioned that Professor John Esposito, a prominent American author, commentator and expert on Muslim affairs, listed Anwar as one of the top 9 makers of contemporary Islam, both as an activist and an intellectual.

Anwar spoke at some length during the dinner. The notes I took of his speech at the time can be summarised as follows:

[01] Anwar was first arrested on 20 September 2998. At the time, the Malaysian government tried to send a message to the world that Malaysians had all but forgotten about Anwar, that he was deemed irrelevant to the Malaysian political scene. But Anwar and his family soon learnt that people of goodwill from the outside world, both Malays and non-Malays, didn’t want to forget him.

[02] Anwar quoted from historian Arnold Toynbee about the past achievements of the Islamic world. He said that this was history, and that the Muslims’ present was hardly something worth boasting about. Anwar said that the Muslim world at the moment was at the lowest ebb of its history. Its political and economic position has never been so low.

[03] In facing and addressing the rot in the Muslim world, Anwar said that Muslims shouldn’t blame Europe or the United States. Instead, Muslims need to act to place their own house in order.

[04] Anwar noted that Muslims have a tendency to blame governments for their predicament. Yet the sad reality is that governments can get away with murder in the Muslim world because the institutions of civil society are so weak and so poorly managed. Even the smallest groups within Muslim communities are characterised by disunity and unprofessionalism.

[05] Anwar noted a common feature of Muslim societies - the Rule of Law is almost absent. People can be detained for months and years on end without charge and without facing any trial. Fundamental principles of democracy and liberty are sacrificed.

[06] Anwar expressed his particular concern about similar trends in Western countries. He had read about the then-proposed Anti-Terrorism laws designed to give ASIO broader powers of arrest and detention. Citizens of all faiths and no faith in particular need to speak out about the danger of such laws being misused as has happened in Malaysia with the Internal Security Act.

[07] Anwar said it was absurd for Muslim countries to complain about the West when Muslim governments are allowed to get away with fleecing billions of dollars from the state exchequer. On what basis could Muslims criticise others when they find themselves unable to improve their own lot?

[08] Anwar gave the example of Abu Ghraib. He said it was admirable that Arab media are free to expose the American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. But he asked why those same media outlets are not free to expose the many Abu Ghraibs that are run by Arab governments and that are used to detain and torture political prisoners across the Arab world.

[09] Anwar said that Muslims keep asking and expecting tolerance, yet are often content to live inside their own cultural cocoons. Muslim ethnic and sectarian groups find it hard to tolerate each other, let alone tolerate non-Muslims.

[10] If anything good has come out of September 11, it has been an increased sense of social maturity among Muslim minorities and from Muslims in general. Muslims now seem much more comfortable about engaging in dialogue. Muslims are learning that, in order to be understood, Muslims need to understand others. Parts of the Muslim community which used to insist on isolation are now opening themselves to other influences and to other people.

[11] Anwar reminded us that the Qur’an tells Muslims that God created human beings in tribes and nations so that they could recognise and understand each other. God did not create us in this way so that we could merely tolerate each other. Tolerance isn’t the goal of our interaction. We want to understand and be understood.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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