Speaking to Both Sides: Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar Ibrahim—once Malaysia's deputy prime minister and favorite son before he was arrested in 1998 and jailed following a flawed trial —is back in the fray. Since his release from prison he's carved out a niche for himself advocating greater dialogue between the Islamic world and the West and pushing for democratic reform inside Malaysia. Now he's on the campaign trail

for the opposition Keadilan (People's Justice) party led by his wife, which contested a key by-election last Saturday—a test of both Anwar's popularity and the government's. Shortly before the vote, NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Kent spoke with Anwar about his agenda at home and abroad. Excerpts:

KENT: Why is this election so important?
ANWAR: The government's campaign is being led by the deputy prime minister himself. It is the first time Keadilan, a multiracial, multireligious party, [has received] endorsements from the largely [ethnic] Chinese Democratic Action Party on one side and the Islamic party on the other.

It's been a decade since we've seen you out on the stump.
Yes. I was resting in a cell in Sungei Buloh prison.

How does it feel to be back?
I'm enjoying myself immensely. I've seen this vast positive response, even [from] local supporters of the ruling party.

At times there seems to be a greater welcome for you abroad. Can you make a comeback?
I am here for good. But some [Malaysians] are not even aware of me, because there's a complete blackout in the national media.

What would you do as prime minister?
The agenda is very clear. We have incompetent judges, and the integrity of the police is very much in question. The economy is sluggish, partly because of our obsolete economic policies. In 1970 we introduced affirmative action [favoring ethnic Malays]. I supported that, but we have to move on. Supporting the poor cannot be [done] on the basis of race.

Some have speculated that you might rejoin the ruling party.
The party has lost its ideals. Have you heard anyone [in the party] talking seriously about corruption, the separation of powers or the ideals of the independence fighters? No. What do they talk about? Rushing to get a piece of the cake.

Outside Malaysia you're seen as a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. You can ring up Paul Wolfowitz or speak to conservative Muslims in Pakistan. What's that like?
It is tough, but it's precisely what we need. If I take an extreme position condemning Jews or Islamists, then there is no possibility of an exchange. Paul [Wolfowitz] can be my good friend, but if he asks me what to do in Iraq, I say "immediate U.S. withdrawal." That does not make me [his] enemy. My friendship with Al Gore is known. So is my friendship with many Islamists ranging from Egypt to here to Pakistan. Not that I share all their ideals, but if you want to solve serious problems, we have to engage.

How difficult is it to get leaders in Washington and Asia to listen?
It is more difficult to get the Washington crowd, particularly the [Bush] administration to appreciate [the need to listen] than the Islamists. When I go to Pakistan and tell the Islamists that America is not monolithic, there are those who are prepared to listen.

And the Bush administration isn't?
They think they have all the answers. It's very difficult to get them to appreciate that [Muslim] people are not inherently anti-American.

Why are governments with poor democratic credentials so entrenched in the Islamic world?
It's partly due to the connivance of the West. This is an issue that has to be dealt with by these countries, but the international community could use some moral suasion. The bottom line is money. All is tolerated as long as [repressive regimes] can do business.

Does Islam lend itself to democracy?
It's a very loaded question. Do you consider an Islamic state to be one controlled by religious scholars? I don't. It is a question of going back to the essence of Islam. Its higher objectives must be spelled out: freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, the sanctity of life and of property and respect for the dignity of men and women. That doesn't seem to be in contravention of Western ideals.

There seems to be a strong sense of victimhood in the Muslim world. Do you agree?
The vast majority of Muslims feel that they're victims of the international order, from Palestine to Iraq to Afghanistan. [But] look at the whole discourse on the war on terror, the whole suspension of civil liberties, the way Muslims are treated at airports [in the West]. And then you go back to your own country and there are draconian laws against you if you don't happen to share the views of the government. The repressions abound, and they're condoned by the Western powers. As I said when I went to Pakistan, protest by all means, but [remember that] the sanctity of life and property is a fundamental principle of Sharia [Islamic law].

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