Interview with Anwar Ibrahim: ‘What Do You Think Youre Fighting for?Ғ
By Farish A. Noor
Farish Noor conducted this interview with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim during Ibrahims recent visit to Germany. Ibrahim was released by MalaysiaҒs Federal Court on September 2, 2004 after having been jailed since 1998 on politically motivated charges of abuse of powerӔ and sodomy.
MWU!: Today we live in the age of the War on Terror.Ӕ The American government now seems terrified of the monsters it has created and unleashed, like the Taliban which it supported in Afghanistan but now cannot control. What role can Muslim leaders like you play in addressing these complex realities?
Anwar Ibrahim: It is not just the American government that should be terrified. We too in the Muslim world should be deeply concerned. We should be worried about how this form of mindless savagery can appear in our midst, grow among us and recruit its members among our own. The emergence of groups like the Taliban raises many important questions and challenges for us in the Muslim world. How could our values and beliefs that we hold so dear have been twisted and brought down to hell like this, and take root in our midst.
There is a pressing need for us to look closer at ourselves and ask how and why our societies and political systems could have allowed this to happen. For me the absence of democracy, transparency and dialogue within the Muslim world is one main reason. But external factors are also obviously responsible: Clearly the Americans have been playing with fire, heedless of the dangerous blowback that is bound to occur if and when they (the Americans) attempt to manipulate and utilize Muslim groups and get them to fight against one another. This is also why it is crucial for the Americans and the West to engage in constant, open dialogue with the Muslim world: Manipulations of this sort (Americas support for the Taliban) have led to the mess we see in Afghanistan today. I fear for the future of Afghanistan as there appears to be no simple solutions to the problems there, which have been made worse by decades of conflict, subterfuge, intrigue and manipulation.
MWU!: Southeast Asia has been designated the ғsecond front in the so-called ԓWar on Terror dreamt up by Washington. Indonesia has been particularly badly hit, with the Bali, Marriott, and now Australian Embassy bombings recently. It is hard to believe everything we hear about the Jamaah Islamiyah because we know that much of this information has come from the military and secret police of ASEAN. But in case it turns out that the JI is really responsible for these attacks, what would you say to the members of such groups? How would you appeal to them? What would your message be to such groups in ASEAN and the rest of the Muslim world?
Anwar Ibrahim: I, too, have no answer to the question of the extent of the involvement of the Jamaah Islamiyah, as so much of the information we have received is questionable and from non-transparent sources. But my message to the perpetrators of these vile acts, whoever they may be, is this: In the name of God, what do you think you are fighting against and what are you fighting for? Because what you are really doing is neither war nor jihad. This is just the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians who have done no wrong. Such actions have no place in Islam and as all the scholars of the Muslim world have stated, it is simply haram. So what do you think you are doing? How are you helping Muslims and the good name and image of Islam by these actions? I address these words to the perpetrators of these acts, for as I have said, there is little that we actually know about these groups and the governments of the ASEAN countries have not been open in their investigations. Nonetheless I am deeply appalled and moved by these painful events.
MWU!: Following from that point, the war on terror in ASEAN has incurred a terrible cost in terms of the loss of human rights and the erosion of democratic values. This is evident in the laws that are being used in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. What is your own response to these developments and how would you deal with the situation?
Anwar Ibrahim: The horror that we have seen in ASEAN over the past few years is really a wake up call for the moral majority in the Muslim community. As I have said, we can no longer ignore these questions and developments in our midst. But we cannot fight against these anti-democratic groups and tendencies with repressive laws and other draconian means. The governments of ASEAN cannot and should not use repressive, undemocratic tools or the ԓWar on Terror discourse of the United States as a pretext to further impose their will or to stifle dissent. We need to seek the root causes of such problems, and for me again it is the absence of a democratic culture and a vibrant, tolerant civil society that contributes to these problems. What we need is to create a dynamic, open and inclusive civil society that can deal with difference and dissent. That is how one wins the battle for hearts and minds. You cannot win the hearts of these people by using ruthless methods like arbitrary arrests and repressive laws.
MWU!: Since you have mentioned the need for democracy, civil society and reform several times, I would like to ask you this: Many in the world see you as a moderate progressive Muslim leader and that remains your greatest asset till now. Can you spell out your vision of progressive Islam and its future? What should be the core issues of such a progressive Islamist project? Anti-racism? Anti-corruption? The struggle for democracy?
Anwar Ibrahim: I am worried about such labels like ԓmoderate Muslim, ԓprogressive Muslim, etc. because I think such labels are misleading and can sometimes be used to contain, define and subsequently control Muslims for political reasons. Such labels may actually lead to dividing the Muslim community even further, and we should be careful of such categorization. But having said that for me one of the best examples of a model Muslim leader was Sayyiduna Abu Bakr, who, upon being given the responsibility of serving as the first Caliph of Islam, stated continuously that the real power of the Muslim community lay in the people themselves, and not him. He insisted that he was merely the executor of the peopleԒs will and that ultimate power resided with the people and not their elected leader. Thats how we should look at the question of power from the Islamic point of view. Now to measure the success of any Muslim form of leadership we need to look at the results and what it manages to deliver. The success of a Muslim ruler lies in his ability to positively transform the real life conditions of the people who have chosen him/her. What does this mean today, in the context of present-day realities? Well for a start it means having to transform the socio-economic conditions of a populace and to improve their welfare and living conditions. Added to this is the social environment they inhabit and this in turn brings in other questions like the culture of tolerance, pluralism and the problem of prejudice and discrimination. I agree with you that racism has been an issue that has been neglected for some time. Islamists talk a lot about equality and universalism in Islam, but they need to root their discourse in realities of the present. What does all this mean in terms of race-relations for instance? As there is a clear focus on spiritual equality in Islam, there cannot be a place for racism in Muslim society. So Islamist groups need to work on these issues too Җ they cannot be racist or parochial in their approach and their politics.