Nora Boustany

An Unlikely but Eager Voice Between Islam and the West

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Nora Boustany
Friday, September 2, 2005

After serving six years in jail, Anwar Ibrahim , the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, has spent his first year of freedom reconnecting with colleagues around the world and immersing himself in books and debates about the rift between Islam and the West.

Anwar, 58, once considered the heir apparent to Mahathir Mohamad , then the prime minister, was jailed on trumped-up charges of sodomy and graft in 1998 for challenging Malaysia's longtime leader on democratic reforms. Anwar said he clashed with Mahathir "on the reform agenda, on election laws and corruption, which went out of hand during the economic crisis."

While in prison, separated from his wife, Wan Aziza Wan Ismail , and six children, Anwar tried to keep abreast of Islamic fanaticism. He agonized over "what had gone wrong," remembering moments in history when there was "active engagement and attraction between East and West."

Since he was released in September 2004, Anwar has shuttled between Kuala Lumpur and Washington, making stops in the Middle East for speaking engagements and to meet with friends. He has lectured in the United States, Britain and the Middle East.

He is currently completing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, in conjunction with Oxford University. This fall at Georgetown University, Anwar plans to lecture on several topics, including modernity in Islam, interfaith understanding and contemporary Arab politics.

A self-declared member of the Elvis Presley and Beatles generation and a college activist in the 1960s, Anwar may seem an unlikely interlocutor between the growing sea of what he calls "marginalized, bitter" and disenfranchised Muslims and Western leaders.

His commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law remains unshakable, he said Wednesday. Although he prefers that such changes be "homegrown," he doesn't mind if the United States takes the lead in promoting them.

"Look at Lebanon, even Saudi Arabia -- it took the Americans to give the right message," he said. "If Americans don't talk about democracy in the Middle East, then who will? People are not against democracy. They are victims of oppressive rule."

Louisa Greve , senior program officer for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy, said Anwar was emerging as a spokesman for "a vision of a modern and open Muslim society." He is hopeful that Malaysia and other Muslim countries will one day experience greater democratic reforms and competitive party politics.

"He charms audiences everywhere," Greve said. "He has an appealing way of talking about how to have a democratic Islam and how Muslims can participate to explore democratic futures."

Anwar grew up in a "religious and conservative" society, he said, in the northern district of Penang. Every weekend, his parents took their nine children to their ancestral village for religious instruction, teachings not offered in schools under British rule. But he also escaped to the small town of Bukit Mertajam to watch Hindi and Hollywood movies.

"We were pious, we observed religious rituals, but we also felt easy with the English language," he reminisced. "We read Shakespeare, the classics, Alexis de Tocqueville, and we learned about April Fools' Day."

Anwar studied sociology at the University of Malaya and became active in protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.

His father became a member of parliament for the ruling United Malay National Organization. Anwar himself joined the legislature in 1982, running on an anti-corruption platform, which "resonates well with Islamic constituencies."

He became a government minister in 1983, holding the portfolios of youth, agriculture and education consecutively until 1993. He was later named finance minister and deputy prime minister.

Anwar does not shy from criticizing Muslim countries for their failings. During a meeting of Islamic scholars in Dubai last year, he condemned the torture of Iraqis at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison, but he also urged participants to scrutinize their own governments for decades of cruelty in their own jails.

"We should be tough with the fanatics," he said. "Literalism in Islam is a cultural thing espoused by a few. You cannot let minorities dictate. You can push these extreme fringe groups out of the picture."

How can that be accomplished? "Simply by winning over the rest," he said. "You can take action against those who are violent and purveyors of violence. When you just go to war, then you provoke the majority as well."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity