Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Islam in Southeast Asia

Washington, D.C.

Anwar Ibrahim has been called a leading force for reform in Malaysia and has written extensively on the political influence of Islam in Southeast Asia. After serving from 1993 to 1998 as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Anwar was considered the heir apparent of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad until he was abruptly fired and imprisoned on what several human-rights organizations characterized as trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy. Outrage ensued, prompting one of the worst political crises in Malaysia’s history.

In 2004, Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sodomy conviction and freed Anwar from prison. Since the fall of 2005, Anwar has been a distinguished visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The Pew Forum interviewed Anwar following a roundtable on Islam in Southeast Asia co-sponsored by the Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations. He discussed the relationship between Islam and the West, the prospects for democratic transition in the Muslim world and the implications for U.S. foreign policy.

Featuring: Anwar Ibrahim, Distinguished Visiting Professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Interviewer: Julia Kirby, Research Assistant, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life


You have said that you spent much of your six years in prison contemplating the rift between the Islamic world and the West. How would you have characterized the rift when you entered prison in 1998 and how would you describe it now? If the relationship between Islam and the West has changed, would you say that the change has been one of degree, or has the fundamental nature of the relationship changed?

If we look back since 1998 it is clear that the situation has grown worse. There is tremendous distrust and, I would say, rage and anger in the Muslim world. Some of it is due to the perceived biases of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and, of course, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. But we must also recognize that authoritarian leaders and dictators in the Muslim world are exploiting the situation. I have often cited an interesting example that in countries where demonstrations are never allowed, demonstrations against the United States are encouraged; and in countries where the media is not free to criticize the excessive policies of their own governments, the media is encouraged to criticize the perceived excesses of the U.S.

One example is Abu Ghraib. We have every right to criticize the American military forces involved in the prisoner abuse scandal. But this does not preclude our criticism of our own excesses. In Malaysia I was assaulted not by the Americans in Iraq; I was assaulted in police custody in Kuala Lumpur. My mistreatment was minor compared to the thousands of others who are incarcerated on a regular basis. So I must say that the Muslims might also be encouraged to view this as a consistent moral issue and not be sidelined or deflected from the injustices in their own societies.

Shortly after 9/11 you wrote an essay from prison, “Who Hijacked Islam?” criticizing the Muslim response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. What is the root of the inadequate Muslim response that you criticized in that essay?

I state in the article that one can understand the strong feelings against U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world, including Muslim grievances over the fate of the Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel and other such double standards and inconsistencies. But such grievances are no excuse to rationalize brutal acts of terror. In my understanding of Islam and the interests of the Muslim community, Muslims must be very clear on their position against the perpetrators or purveyors of violence as a method. As we all know, terror will only breed violence, and rationalization of violence will only aggravate and exacerbate the issue.


When we refer to democracy, we are talking about the institutions of civil society and governance. When we talk of freedom, we are talking about all the paraphernalia — a free media, an independent judiciary, a viable opposition, and transparent election procedures — that allow for open and vibrant debate and discussion. In a democracy the people will not fear reprisal from an authority issuing edicts that certain issues cannot be questioned. Such excesses would be met with public protest and outrage, and those calling for reform and greater accountability would not be forced underground, fleeing from arrest and oppression, and driven toward extreme positions. A dogmatic regime cannot survive when the people are empowered with information and protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech.

So more than elections.

Absolutely. We are talking about more than just elections, though transparent and fair elections are essential. In Iraq for example, it was encouraging that elections which were widely accepted as being free and fair took place. However, they took place at a time when violence, rage and anger had engulfed the country. The Iraqi people were more concerned about their own survival, about bread and butter issues. Therefore the election results reflected sectarian and tribal orientations that people had fallen back on for security. When we contrast the need to establish political legitimacy with the presence of American troops and the involvement of American officials in every step of the formulation of the Iraqi government, elections alone cannot satisfy the democratic aspirations of the people. We need independent and legitimate voices in Iraq who can articulate the issues, and who are also capable of talking about universal democratic ideals, about Jeffersonian ideals, about the discourse of Tocqueville. Right now that is a major challenge because the situation is so precarious.

So what would you say in a situation like the recent Palestinian elections, where democratic elections have brought a so-called “extremist” government into power?

[A writ ordering a person in custody to be brought before a court. It places the burden of proof on those detaining the person to justify the detention]

Do I agree with the position of Hamas on many issues, particularly the ambitions stated in their charter? Of course, I do not. But I have to respect their rights since they have been democratically elected, and I believe that engaging with them and persuading them to moderate their stance — particularly in reviewing their charter — is a necessary step. We cannot completely marginalize them by ignoring their position, harassing them, and placing impossible conditions on them. Why ignore their plight and the predicament that they are living in abject poverty, completely ignored after decades of living in destitution? Many parts of the Palestinian-occupied territories and Palestinian lands are economically worse than sub-Saharan Africa.

It is necessary to engage with Hamas, to persuade them to review their charter, but also to persuade Israel to view their engagement with the Palestinians not in a unilateral manner, but with the proper respect for the lives of the Palestinians. This strategy is important not only for the security of Palestine and Israel, but also for the security of the entire region and the entire Muslim world.

You have also suggested that America will and should play a crucial role in the democratization of the Muslim world. At the same time, you argue that Muslim nations themselves must take the lead in the transition from autocracy to democracy. What role do you see for the U.S. in aiding and encouraging political reform in the Muslim world?

It is critical that Muslim countries undertake political reform and we are more likely to witness success if these reforms are regarded as indigenous and home grown efforts. I often cite the example of Indonesia — a country that successfully reformed and democratized without the presence of a single foreign troop. What role can U.S. policy play in this situation? There are still many ways to support and encourage the process without being perceived as an imperial force. Instead of troops, the U.S. can provide resources. Instead of hectoring, the U.S. can support the strengthening of institutions that will lead to better governance. It can promote a freer media, and its engagement with countries should include strategies that will weed out corruption and promote greater transparency, for example by assisting and training the judiciary on how to sanctify its integrity and independence. One should work to strengthen civil society, not in a crude manner by expecting the unconditional support of an entirely pro-U.S. agenda, but rather in a more nuanced manner that allows room for differences of opinion so long as the underlying democratic values are respected and honored. In my mind, these issues are more meaningful and effective in assuring the success of the democratic experiment.

That is what you suggested in your presentation today, that countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and India really should take the lead in encouraging reform in the Muslim world rather than the U.S. — it’s more palatable coming from them.

Precisely. This means that if we want to promote freedom, democracy and justice in the Muslim world and in the developing world, countries such as Indonesia and Turkey should take the lead. And, furthermore, they must be given latitude. It is absurd to suggest that a free, democratically elected government must be seen to adopt policies coherent and consistent at all times with the United States. Though some in Washington would expect no less, to my mind, this is untenable. But there can be no compromise on the fundamental issues, including the free media, the rule of law, representative government and establishing the institutions of a civil society.


I think it was commendable on the part of Erdogan, but he has been severely attacked on this issue — an issue, which, to my mind, is a major contribution, not only in terms of Turkey’s interests, but also in terms of the interests of the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S. foreign policy.

So far, you have discussed what role you think the U.S. should be playing in addressing the rift between the West and Islam. What role, if any, can U.S. Muslims play in addressing this rift? Is there anything specific that you think they could do to help?

This is a very sensitive issue because Muslims in the United States have been identified as a threat and are perceived to be agents of foreign or un-American interests. I believe they should be given the latitude to express their views openly, whether you agree or disagree. In a democracy we can expect no less. I think that you will find among them credible and fair voices who can help to bridge the widening gap between Islam and the West.

The Muslim community in the United States, compared with other minority communities in the U.S. and compared to Muslims all over the world, is doing exceptionally well. Education and income levels among American Muslims are generally quite high. I think they can be natural allies, but the perceived distrust of Muslims will drive a wedge between them and the broader American community.

I know of organizations being harassed, and people are worried that they are identified as a threat simply because of their religious beliefs or cultural background. The government can work to moderate and build trust with the people. I have cited organizations, such as USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Peace Corps and various other think tanks that take the more liberal, open view without compromising the fundamentals. You see, there is always this difficulty that one small incident will dismantle the entire fabric of our agreement, and this is really difficult for us to accept.

You have given some interesting indications of the kind of democracy you believe should be established in the Muslim world. In your 1996 book, The Asian Renaissance, you write that, “Asians would find greater affinity with the precepts of the Founding Fathers of America in marrying civic republicanism with the Puritan religious heritage. This is because religion and spirituality run deep in the Asian psyche. Religion has been a source of great strength to Asian society and will continue to be a bulwark against moral and social decay.” What would an application of the American model you recommend, marrying republicanism and religion, actually look like in the Muslim world?

I made a distinction between the Enlightenment that refers to moral release or education, and the American experience in which there are no patterns of clear antagonism toward religion and religious practices. This was expressed clearly in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which he was very perceptive in understanding the strong religious affinity of Americans and the ability to plant a political order that does not impose religious will on the people. This debate is ongoing and we see it resurface on issues such as Darwin and the teaching of Creationism in public schools. I expect these issues will also take root in the Muslim world and we will have to find constructive ways of addressing them that are consistent with our commitment to democratic principles. But right now, the moment there is a debate in Kuala Lumpur that we must teach Darwin in the schools, it will immediately be seen as a criminal act and will be suppressed.

Just like in the United States, right?

We should allow this, and we must expect that in a democracy these issues of faith will be debated. Even in America ethical values derived from religion are one aspect of public policy. Same-sex marriage is generally not allowed and I am certain that it will remain a very contentious issue. But you must allow people the latitude to decide. You will likely find the vast majority opposed to it, but you have to allow them to decide. We have to allow democracy to emerge without the crude imposition of rules and institutions. There will always be people who tend to be more tolerant and liberal, and the system must be able to handle those views without resorting to repression and censorship. This is the reality of the era in which we live. I used to tell my children how I responded to my parents — whatever they said was law. My children, on the other hand, argue.

A democracy.

It is natural to fear that once some latitude is given, then your views will not be carried through. This is the great leap of faith that emerging democracies must take. They must embrace the possibility of compromise.

Back to the Moorthy case. The recent controversy surrounding the burial of M. Moorthy, a Hindu and a member of the first Malaysian team to climb Mount Everest, highlights the debate within Malaysian society concerning the role of Islamic law in the government. What role do you see for religion in the public sphere in Malaysia? What do democratic norms, such as religious freedom and freedom of expression mean in this context?

I agree that there is a role for religion in society, and people should be given the choice of observing their own religious practices. The environment can be created to encourage tolerance on the issue of faith, spirituality and moral values, and I don’t see this to be in juxtaposition or in contradiction of our views on governance, democracy and freedom. But in the specific case of this Hindu man, Moorthy, the government claimed that he converted to Islam before his death, and therefore buried him according to Muslim rituals through the Sharia court. Moorthy’s wife challenged the ruling and said that she had incontrovertible evidence that he never converted. The law, however, stipulated that a case involving a Muslim must be referred to a religious court.

My belief is that his wife’s appeal should been heard in a civil court. No matter what, the religious court is going to be perceived as biased. It is my personal belief that it is within her rights to refer the case to the civil court if she so desires. This incident highlights the failure of the Malaysian government and illustrates the hypocrisy of their propaganda about moderate Islam. They clearly have abdicated their responsibility by denying the right of the Hindus to be heard in the civil court. I have consulted Muslim scholars, religious leaders and organizations and I believe there is a fair way to resolve a situation such as this. We do not question the right of Muslims to be referred to the religious court. But we must grant the right of non-Muslims to have their cases heard in an unbiased arena by amending the constitution. And, unfortunately, this is not being done.

This is one of many examples illustrating that, although some of the provisions in the constitution are quite clear and have the support of politicians, there is still a considerable amount of intolerance. Issues such as the Murthy case have caused a great deal of anger and hatred, and also tension among non-Muslims, and Hindus in particular. The leadership should have handled the situation more gracefully. I have discussed this with the Muslims, including the so-called more extremist groups; none has questioned the rights of non-Muslims to be referred to the civil court. So why is Malaysia waiting? Why is the government denying the Hindus this basic right?

In much of your writing you discuss the future of Islam in Southeast Asia. What role will the development in your own country, Malaysia, play in the future of Islam as a whole in Southeast Asia? And, what lessons should global Islam learn from Malaysia’s experience? You’ve also made frequent reference to Indonesia’s experience as being a model for Southeast Asia and the Muslim world as a whole.

Indonesia and Turkey, as I said, are exciting examples, because the change in both places has been phenomenal. But both represent Muslim-majority cultures. Malaysia is quite unique in the sense that it’s multiracial, multicultural –pluralistic by nature. I grew up in the province of Penang, which was even more multiracial and multireligious than other parts of the country. The majority of my neighbors were non-Muslims, and they were all uncles and aunties to us, which was odd to some of my Muslim friends. Later, they would ask me why I had so many Chinese and Hindu uncles. But that experience shaped our understanding of tolerance and pluralism.

Malaysia has rich a heritage of being a multiracial, pluralistic society, and, at the same time, it has been relatively tolerant, although there have been instances in the past of racial riots, etc. We have demonstrated sustained economic growth for decades. Compared to most Muslim countries, Malaysia is a success story. My concern is that we are not moving forward; we are not maturing as a culture. We are not prepared to shift both the political philosophy and the economic policy. For example, look at freedom in the media; we are about the lowest in the world. Look at corruption; it is not being addressed. And corruption can be endemic and cancerous.

A new economic policy and a concerted effort to help the Malays is required. Billions of dollars have been squandered by corrupt officials to improve themselves, their children and their careers. And that is why there is a resistance to change in the government. If this resistance to change persists we will lose our competitiveness, and we will not be as attractive to foreign investors compared with our more active neighbors, such as China and India.

So these are my concerns, and I think I owe it to my many Malaysian friends who have suffered imprisonment, police assault and alienation from their jobs to continue to fight for reform in Malaysia.

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