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Q&A With Anwar Ibrahim: 'Muslims Must Address Issues of Democracy, Poverty, Corruption'

  • Bruce Jacobs

Prague, 10 September 2004 -- The former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, is a free man after six years in prison on charges his supporters and many outside observers saw as politically motivated. His legal troubles began after the reform-minded leader clashed with then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But Malaysia's highest court overturned the 57-year-old Anwar's conviction for sodomy last week. He is now awaiting a verdict by the same court that could overturn a corruption conviction and allow him to enter politics again. Time behind bars has not diminished Anwar's passion to see greater political reforms in his country and greater moderation in the Muslim world. Immediately after gaining his freedom earlier this month, Anwar went to Germany for surgery on a back injury he says was partly caused by a police beating. He took time out from his recovery to speak with RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Jacobs from a hospital in Munich.

To listen to the entire interview with Anwar Ibrahim, click here

RFE/RL: You suffered through years of setbacks in the Malaysian courts, despite some very questionable evidence against you. Why after all this time do you think your conviction on the sodomy charge was overturned?

ANWAR: Firstly, I think there are signs of change on the horizon, although it is only the beginning. Secondly, I think the judiciary has been battered, nationally and internationally, physically, by the ICJ, the International Commission of Jurists, human-rights groups, and Amnesty International. So I think some concerned members among the judiciary are quite determined to make sure that the judiciary retains or recovers its lost respectability or confidence.

RFE/RL: I read Thomas Fuller's story in the "International Herald Tribune" on [7 September] and he mentioned that you had a number of critical things to say both about Muslims and Western world views. Could you give our listeners your view on where the problems lie?

ANWAR: Muslims themselves -- Muslims need to address these issues of the lack of democracy, the abject poverty, the rampant corruption within Muslim societies. Why blame the ex-colonial masters or the West for the excesses in your own backyard? So, Muslims must address these issues. Why was this oppression and severe, oppressive measures by [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] ignored by Muslim countries in that time? So, these are issues that Muslims have to grapple with and seek solutions [for]. To my mind, it has to be through freedom and democracy and respect for human rights and the dignity of man.

RFE/RL: Would you say that the war on terrorism is driving the Western and Muslim worlds further apart?

ANWAR: This is partly due to, not the misconception, but the perverse, sort of, policies of focusing on the so-called 'Islamic terrorist.' To me, they are terrorists, and I think we have heard, ad nauseam, the criticism, 'Why don't you say communist terrorist or Christian terrorist or Israeli terrorist?' But only when you speak about Islam, you [define] them as Islamic terrorists because that is what they proclaim. That, of course, [creates] more animosity and greater misunderstanding.

RFE/RL: You've said that the Malaysian people should strive to be a liberal voice in the Muslim world. Do most of the Malaysian people hold liberal Muslim views right now, or is it a direction they need to move toward in the future?

ANWAR: Certainly, I could vouch for the fact that the vast majority choose liberal, tolerant Islam. But you must also understand that they are living in a politically closed environment, where the media is not free. What we need to do is to allow for a healthy discussions and dialogues. Let people expound their views without fear or favor and let them articulate their positions and choose even to be critical of the authorities in the government. That, to my mind, is to allow for the healthy mushrooming of ideas.

RFE/RL: What should the Western world or the United States, in particular, be doing to bring these two worlds -- Muslim and Western -- closer?

ANWAR: The United States is too big a power, too strong in its military capabilities, and we find it difficult to engage and get them to understand [the Muslim world]. But the strength of the United States -- there are always groups, individuals, and civil society elements who choose to exercise their freedom to reflect objectively about the situation in the present political environment. If the United States, for example, chooses to emerge as a more tolerant [partner] and willing to engage in dialogue, including with the Muslims, that would be a major tour de force for the future.

RFE/RL: When you say "dialogue," what do you mean, in concrete terms?

ANWAR: Well, now, the argument is that the United States is not even having an effective dialogue with Europe, [let alone] with Islam. [U.S. leaders need] to express their readiness to allow for others to articulate positions, and not to assume that, unilaterally, they can take action and that they have all the answers and not assume that they have a full understanding of what is happening in the world, particularly the Muslim world.

RFE/RL: Do you see any parallels between what is happening politically in Malaysia and political changes that have occurred in other countries, such as in Eastern Europe, in the recent past?

ANWAR: To my mind, this is the most frustrating thing that I see and sense, that you see so many positive and remarkable changes from South Africa to the Czech [Republic] and even to Indonesia, to an extent. But then, in the Muslim world, it is a far cry from seeing democracy operate and freedom respected. Muslims countries are still in the lowest rank in terms of abject poverty, in terms of the [UN's] Human Development Index.
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