Malaysia has been taken by storm since Anwar Ibrahim, the relatively youthful former deputy prime minister, was unceremoniously sacked on September 2. He criss-crossed the country addressing rallies and mobilising support until his arrest on September 20 after a mammoth rally in Kuala Lumpur a few hours earlier.
The government of prime minister Mahathir Mohamed has made the most bizarre allegations against him, including attacks on Anwar’s character. But it seems the more scandalous the allegations, the greater the public support for the former deputy prime minister and finance minister.
The Malaysian public clearly does not buy into the shrill government propaganda against Anwar. This was evident in the massive rally he addressed in Merdeka Square in the heart of Kuala Lumpur on September 20. An estimated 50,000 people - some estimates put the crowd at 200,000 - participated in the rally in a show of challenge to the regime. The police stood by even though the rally was ‘illegal.’
Under Malaysian law, assembly of more than four persons is forbidden without a police permit.
Even more embarrassing for Mahathir, the public chanted, ‘Mahathir, resign,’ as queen Elizabeth, the British monarch and head of the commonwealth, attended a Church service nearby. The queen was in Kuala Lumpur for the commonwealth games.
Anwar’s arrest from his house while he was addressing a press conference would not solve Mahathir’s or indeed Malaysia’s problems. While turning Anwar into a martyr, the public has become even more angry which sees Mahathir as a dictator. What is important from the point of view of the Global Islamic Movement, however, is what lessons must be drawn from this episode.
It was Ustad Fadhil Noor, president of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), who made the most succinct comment about Anwar’s ouster. ‘We told you so,’ Ustad Fadhil said to Anwar after his dismissal. The Ustad, a soft-spoken man, was referring to Anwar’s decision in 1982 to join Mahathir’s party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) and government.
This remark needs further elaboration. Anwar was a leader of the Students Islamic Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), which had close links with PAS. The latter currently controls the Kelantan state. Anwar jumped ship and joined the Mahathir government. Anwar’s argument, and this is commonly heard among most members of Islamic Parties, is that change can be brought about by working within the system.
The Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan has been through this experience, as has the Islamic Front in Jordan and the Refah Party in Turkey. It took Anwar 16 years to realise the truth.
One can hear echoes of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan in the manner in which Anwar is now leading a campaign for reforms in Malaysia. True, Anwar is probably a far better person than Bhutto. The Pakistani feudal lord displayed all the characteristics of a ruthless tyrant. He brooked no opposition. Bhutto had far greater similarities with Mahathir than with Anwar.
But Anwar is conducting himself in much the same way as Bhutto did when he was ousted from Ayub Khan’s cabinet in 1966. Bhutto was given a cabinet post in 1958 and rose quickly through the ranks. When barely 33, he became the country’s foreign minister. He was Ayub’s darling, calling him ‘Daddy’ not unlike Anwar’s deference towards Mahathir.
When Ayub sacked Bhutto in 1966, the latter started a campaign to reveal the ‘truth’ about Ayub Khan to the people. He talked about socialism and justice and said he would rid the country of feudalism and the scourge of the 22 families who had sucked the country dry. Bhutto mesmerised the masses with his rhetoric. Socialism was fashionable in those days. Few questioned how a feudal lord was going to bring socialism.
One hears similar echoes in Anwar’s campaign today. He says he wants to reform the society. There is too much corruption and cronyism in Malaysia. True, but this did not start when Anwar was dismissed. Cronyism and corruption have been part of Malaysian politics for decades. Anwar may have kept himself clean but the fact that he served in Mahathir’s cabinet for 16 years, rising to the rank of deputy prime minister, means that he tolerated it and allowed it to flourish while he was part of the system.
One does not expect Anwar to say anything different. He has to challenge Mahathir since it was the prime minister who launched a vicious campaign against his former deputy. Mahathir, of course, plays rough and he plays dirty. In secular politics, survival is the name of the game.
The late Dr Kalim Siddiqui had said that western educated Muslims are not fit for leadership role since they are too contaminated by western ideas and thoughts.
For the Global Islamic Movement, two points are of paramount importance. One, that no change can be brought about in the prevalent secular system in Muslim societies by working within it. Anwar has found this out to his cost after 16 years. This will repeatedly be the case elsewhere as well. Second, Anwar must pass a rigorous test by explaining his own behaviour and conduct while he was in office.
While one must express sympathy with his plight for the manner in which Mahathir has made demeaning allegations, this does not mean that Anwar is the new saviour of the Islamic Movement. He must show far greater commitment to the cause of Islam than has hitherto been the case. Only then can Muslims say he is fit for any major role in the Islamic Movement.
One of the tragedies of western educated Muslims is that they insist on their leadership role. They get offended if they are not in power. This is as true of secular Muslims as it is of those with some Islamic leanings. The late Dr Kalim Siddiqui had said that western educated Muslims are not fit for leadership role since they are too contaminated by western ideas and thoughts.
Nothing that has happened in the last 20 years since he wrote these words has proved him wrong. Perhaps Anwar should go back to the trenches and accept his position as a humble worker of the Islamic Movement. This will do him a world of good. It will cleanse his nafs and he will come out a far better person. Above all, he will become a better Muslim.
If he is really serious in challenging Mahathir, then he should openly proclaim that he wants to change the corrupt system of cronyism and implement Islam in society in its entirety.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1998