Anwar in the Flesh

All in all, Anwar is a great speaker. It is difficult not to be softened by his jokes about UMNO, the government and the general crap that is Malaysian politics. Anwar does promise a lot to us but he will have to earn my trust by actually implementing his words as laws.

By Farouk A. Peru (


I went to a talk by Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim titled ‘Religion and Pluralism in a Divided World’ at the London School of Economics this evening. It was good to meet Anwar in the flesh for the very first time. My early impressions of Anwar was from his deep intellectual Islam from the ‘Faces of Islam’ series in the late eighties and the Asian Renaissance concept in the early nineties. Neither concept came to fruition. Ziauddin Sardar in his book ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ blamed Mahathirism for the downfall of Anwar but Malaysians may differ with him on that. 

Anyway, to see Anwar in the flesh for the first time was refreshing. The great media image had become real and he had all of the humour I had come to enjoy on Youtube. He openly denounced fundamentalism (which I heartily approve) and paraphrased the great poet Rumi who said that ‘the lamps may be different but the light stays the same’. By this paraphase, Anwar wanted to press home the point that Islam in Southeast Asia has always been incluvist in nature. He believes that religion is a force to unite mankind and that by focussing on the maqasid al-sharia/higher intent of sharia law (which implies justice, dignity and basic rights for all people) we will find that Islam and democracy has no inherent discrepancy.  

With this rather idealist declaration, Anwar opened the floor for questions. I will mention only some of the questions here for lack of space.  

Naturally, one of the first questions he was asked was on apostasy. One young man asked what Anwar would do if he was in power. Would he allow Muslims to leave Islam? Anwar, I am proud to say, bravely declared here that it was against the principle of freedom of religion in Islam that any person would be compelled to remain Muslim when he or she doesn’t believe. This would give birth to hypocrisy in society. Quite an accurate analaysis. Anwar then threw a few names, Islamic scholars who supposedly uphold the maqasid al-sharia (but fails to mention that none of those scholars oppose the apostasy law). Nonetheless, Anwar did promise total freedom of religion. How he will reconcile that with the equivocation that all Malays are Muslim and since one cannot change his Malayness, he also cannot change his Muslimness, I don’t know. He did however close this question with a joke touching on the Allah issue, which was good. 


The next question he was asked is whether the constitution should be changed to allow freedom of religion. He replied that that freedom of religion was enshrined in the constitution (and it is) but Islam is the official religion of the federation. The issue therefore is the denial of rights. I would agree that Islam is the religion of the federation but the equivocation that all Malays are Muslims is what’s really causing the contradiction. This equivocation is simply political and does not reflect actual belief in Islam. As RPK often laments, it is the Malays who are most deeply embroiled in corruption, one of the cardinal sins in Islam (quran 2/188) so Islam is to us is merely cultural affectation. 

Yours truly finally managed to get his question in a short time later. I asked how Anwar would reconcile his approach to sharia law with the fundamentalist view held by PAS. Anwar strongly disagreed that PAS was fundamentalist. He mentioned that in the Allah issue, PAS was against the decision to restrict the use of the word to Muslims alone. True but Anwar, PAS isn’t made of a single faction. As Abdul Rahman Talib points out (look at minute 3.48) , there is the ‘geng terengganu’ consisting of Nasharuddin Mat Isa, Harun Din and others who sided with UMNO on the issue. Anwar then mentioned that PAS has totally forgotten it’s Islamic state issue. Not true, in late 2008 itself, Husam Musa was exposed by Khairi Jamaluddin on the issue. Husam loudly declared PAS’ true intent for an Islamic state. Hadi and Nik Aziz himself were squarely behind the idea. Sorry Anwar, I didn’t have a chance to rebut you in the lecture earlier but here’s my answer now. Be wary of PAS, once they come into government, Hadi, Nasharuddin, Harun Din, Hasan Ali and quite possibly Tok Guru himself will make UMNOfacists look like hippies.  

Another question Anwar was asked was about Muslim women. A bright Malaysian lady who became a new friend of mine told him that Malay women were now third class citizens in Malaysia. Anwar agreed and once again invoked the maqasid al-sharia to show that if the higher intents of sharia were under consideration, these draconian laws which oppress Muslim women would not be happening. I would add that if we actually put the Quran as a criteria for law, most of sharia law itself would become non-issues.  

Perhaps the most contentious question was asked was by new friend of mine who reminded him of his firebrand politics of bygone days. Anwar of old upheld Malay supremacy and brought about Islamisation to government. Anwar parried by saying that his firebrand style was a trademark of youth and that he had always been against laws such as the ISA, in fact he had been a detainee himself before he came into government. He does love the Malay language but not at the expense of other languages. He has studied other religions and often quotes from them. This is all true but doesn’t detract from his past support of racist and fundamentalist policies. Keen historians of Malaysian politics would note this. Bakri Musa certainly did in his ‘Malay Dilemma Revisited’. 

All in all, Anwar is a great speaker. It is difficult not to be softened by his jokes about UMNO, the government and the general crap that is Malaysian politics. Anwar does promise a lot to us but he will have to earn my trust by actually implementing his words as laws. When he actually introduces reform and stands firm against Malay fascists and Islamic fundamentalists, I will believe him and give him my full support. Till then, I will consider this talk time well spent and perhaps to remind us of hope for the future.