Sunday, March 8, 2009

Implications of Anwar Ibrahim’s promotion of a moderate and west-friendly Islam

From fan club FB group:

Since his release last year after spending six-years in a Malaysian prison, Anwar Ibrahim has become a darling of the West for his promotion of an understanding of Islam that is regarded as ‘moderate’ and West-friendly. ABDAR RAHMAN KOYA in Kuala Lumpur reports.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia who was freed in September last year, is almost synonymous with contemporary Malaysian politics. He was once a student-leader, well known among Islamic circles throughout the world; his rise and fall have been followed closely by his friends and by activists. When he was dismissed, arrested, jailed and convicted on contrived charges, many Muslims in Malaysia and those concerned with the Islamic movement saw the process as the nature of secular politics. Even more, many in the global Islamic movement were not surprised by the drama that engulfed Malaysia’s political scene from September 1998, when he was dismissed, to his release from prison exactly six years later.

During these tumultuous times Anwar Ibrahim has emerged as an icon whose personal and political experience brought together all types of people – the Islamists, the ‘moderates’, and even some parties whose anti-Islamic agenda is difficult to conceal or deny. One fact has to be acknowledged: Anwar is politically very skillful, and quite capable of making a comeback. Whether this is because of his charisma and leadership, his political shrewdness, or even due to his attention-capturing oratory skills, is another matter. He is now increasingly hailed as a “moderate” in some western circles; his diary is filled with speaking engagements in academic and political institutions that are either in the West or funded by the West. Not surprisingly, “inter-civilisational dialogue”, the subject that has no risk attached for politicians seeking a good image among Western leaders, is one of his themes wherever he goes.

Probably as a result of this development, many in the Islamic movement have doubts about Anwar’s sincerity to the movement, despite his background as a ‘radical’ Islamic student leader whose impact on the Malaysian political scene has been immense in the country’s recent past. These doubts are valid, and his recent statements and actions have further fuelled these suspicions. His recruitment by Mahathir in 1981 for the latter’s “Islamization policy” earned him friends and foes: many saw in him a mastery of political skill, in other words a man for all seasons, wearing the right hat for every occasion. Considering that he was touted in the seventies as a “radical Muslim” leader, and his supporters once stormed the US embassy, Anwar Ibrahim’s plunge into a different mould of ‘Islamicity’ has been as dramatic as his rise in Mahathir’s cabinet. With such a history, it is difficult for the Islamic movement to ignore him, and even more difficult for the Islamic movement – or the ‘Islamists’, as the current parlance is – to not know him.

These days, Anwar Ibrahim is globetrotting, with most friends in high places (governments and thinktanks in various countries) welcoming him, despite the fact that he has no official post in Malaysia’s government at the moment. In the US he has delivered many lectures in his newfound capacity of spokesman for “inter-civilizational dialogue”. Immediately after his release he was greeted in Munich, Germany, where he was being treated for spinal injury, by none other than Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the US war on Iraq. Thus began the repackaging of Anwar Ibrahim: he ceased to be the rousing leader that he had been until 1998, and has become someone whose friendship with western mentors – to whom many would-be leaders in southeast Asia link their political destiny – is invaluable to Westerners in their desperate search for “agents of change” in the Muslim world.

At the very least his image-building, from the way he dresses to the cautious statements he makes about the US and western hegemony, has earned him the status of a Western “darling”. In typical fashion, a variety of words is being used in western circles to describe him: he is a moderate, a thinker, a reformist; he is a liberal Islamist, an Islamic democrat; terms that Anwar himself might be uncomfortable with, but for whose use on him he has no one to blame but himself.

Who Anwar’s friends really are remains the biggest question since his release: such a question could be ignored in the spirit of international diplomatic realities when he was at the top echelon of government. But now that he has no political post, one is left wondering why he is meeting with people like Wolfowitz, and being welcomed at the Pentagon. Clearly, he is being groomed both in Washington and by western journalists as a “voice of moderate Islam”. On April 11, at a conference in Qatar, organised by the US-Islamic World Forum (a body funded by several American interests) Anwar Ibrahim said that he had “conceded” that the US attack on Iraq heralded a new beginning for the “voices of freedom”, and disagreed that it was a war against Iraqis or Muslims. As if that were not enough to please Uncle Sam, Anwar is on record as expressing support for Paul Wolfowitz’s nomination to head the World Bank, against which even the US’s European allies have protested. His various ‘self-critical’ statements, now fashionable among Muslim ‘moderates’, side by side with mild chiding of American policies, lend credence to the supposition that this is the man that the West is grooming to head one of the most vibrant Muslim governments in the world.

Dr Muzaffar Iqbal has best described this phenomenon: ‘moderate Muslims’ of the “self-critical type”, who, as he wrote, “repeat their favorite mantra: ‘we must stop blaming others for our misfortune, the problem lies within us.’ This is precisely the kind of ‘openness’ and ‘inward-looking approach’ desired by the US. These ‘Muslim intellectuals’ are the darlings of Washington because the Americans want us to believe that we are being bombed back into the stone age because of our own faults.” (See “The West’s intellectual agents in the Muslim world”, Crescent International, October 2004). Anwar Ibrahim now appears to be a leading “agent of change”, as far as the West permits: he is talking about democracy in the Muslim world but stops short of criticizing his friends in the Arab world, especially the Saudi ruling family, with whom he has enjoyed cordial relations since the days when the Saudis were campaigning in the Muslim world against the “Shi’ite” Revolution in Iran.

For the Malaysian opposition, particularly for the Islamic Party (PAS), which is aligned closely to the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan), led by Anwar’s wife, this stance chosen by the man whom they have endorsed openly as prime-ministerial material poses problems, with many leaders in the opposition (and even Anwar’s wife) choosing to brush it aside as Anwar’s “personal views”. The opposition is at a crossroads of a sort: Anwar is an asset because of his ability to bring in extra votes, but could become a liability because of his ties to western political interests, coupled with his pro-US opinions. For PAS, long seen as the flag-bearer of the Islamic movement in Malaysia, Anwar should have been no different from many ruling-party leaders campaigning to counter PAS by propagating “Islam Hadhari” (“progressive Islam”) – the political theme of prime minister Abdullah Badawi. Anwar is busy promoting “democracy and change” among Muslims, and thus jeopardising what remains of his Islamic credentials.

The implications of all this on Muslims in Malaysia are already visible: western thinktanks and local NGOs funded by western interests are already engaging the opposition, particularly PAS, in various issues which do not concern ordinary Muslims directly. These include such things as “personal freedom”; some sections of an emerging class of secular elites have called for the powers of Islamic enforcement-officers (mild compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts) to be abolished. This non-issue came up when children and relatives of some politicians were arrested recently for consumption of liquor and other unIslamic behaviour at a discotheque in Kuala Lumpur. These groups have also tried to persuade the government to establish a so-called “inter-faith commission” so that all religions will be consulted on national policies.

The sudden rise of these ‘liberal’ demands has to do with the steady emergence of secular elites among the Malay Muslims, most of whom have ties with ‘royal families’ and powerful politicians in other countries, in much the same way as Pakistan’s disco-generation and Turkey’s secular elites have tried to justify their unIslamic lifestyles, while at the same time curtailing the Muslims’ freedom to choose their own destiny.

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