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World: Anwar Ibrahim Talks To RFE/RL At Forum 2000

Anwar Ibrahim Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was freed in 2004 after being imprisoned on politically motivated charges, spoke to RFE/RL on 10 October at the annual Forum 2000 conference in Prague about religious extremism, the perception of the West, and how leaders can better understand the differences among the world's peoples.

RFE/RL: How do you see things unfolding within Islam with regard to the debate between more moderate and more radical elements?

Anwar: "I feel firstly that the Muslims themselves have to address this issue. That it is a fact that they have to deal with the more fanatical extremist tendencies within the Muslim community, partly because of the failure of Muslim governments and countries to provide for a democratic space. But notwithstanding that, I am not giving excuses -- we have to be tough against the emergence of terrorist cells, but we'll also have to be able, and be prepared, to undertake serious reforms. Once we do that, then we can engage with the West and other countries more effectively to talk about the prejudices against Islam, the Islamophobia, the inconsistencies, the failure in the occupation of Iraq, because it has generated more hardship, more difficulties."

RFE/RL: Can you talk a little bit about how in your country public opinion has been affected by the course of events of the past couple of years.

Anwar: "Well, Malaysia does not have a free media, and the judiciary has been compromised for years now, it has been accused and alleged. And there have not been any effective measures to remedy the situation. But the feelings, the action against the atrocities committed against Muslims, of course, resonate and are sometimes exploited by the leaders, like the anti-Western hysteria and the anti-American hysteria is exploited by authoritarian leaders in order to deflect attention from serious corruption and repression in their own countries."
"The issues are far too complex for us to assume or imagine that we have all the solutions without having to learn to respect and appreciate one another."

RFE/RL: Is there something else that Western countries, the United States, can do to improve the way people view it?

Anwar: "What is very critical for the United States is to engage with the rest. We have to acknowledge that these issues are complex and require a lot of understanding and trust. I am not denying the fact that the rhetoric of freedom and democracy by the administration in Washington is very well received, but people are suspicious because they see the war in Iraq and see the failure to address the issues of the dispossessed Palestinians. So what I think is required is an effective engagement, like what is done here at Forum 2000, the initiative of President Vaclav Havel, for example, is an attempt to break this barrier and compel people to sit down and listen for a change. The issues are far too complex for us to assume or imagine that we have all the solutions without having to learn to respect and appreciate one another."

RFE/RL: Do you feel though that Islamic law actually can support a democratic style of government?

Anwar: "Firstly, we have to acknowledge that our societies, the global community, and even countries like Malaysia are multiracial and multireligious. So we have to recognize the fact that there are limits to what we can do as Muslims and we will have to understand that we, finally, have to cover and encompass all the citizens who are Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Confucianists, and Buddhists -- so we have to be mindful of that fact. So, what we need to do is to identify or enumerate our position and agenda in clear terms, such as what do we mean by rule of law, what do we mean by free media, fair and free elections and other democratic reforms, and distributive justice while promoting growth. I think these are issues where we will find, finally, a common platform. And then we come with specifics on the issue of religion -- then we have to appreciate that Muslims want to live in their society as Muslims, but if it takes or needs compelling or forcing people then it is not acceptable. So I think the Muslims need to accept the fact that some aspects of Islamic law under the present environment both nationally and internationally is not something we can pursue as a political or governmental agenda."