Is Anwar Ibrahim a Talibanist or a Madanist?

The Malaysian premier’s warm welcome to a controversial Indonesian preacher should have raised questions about the former’s commitment to moderate Islamic principles. That the visit did not cause more of a stir within Malaysian circles raises even more questions.

(FULCRUM) – On 13 July 2023, Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara visited Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and apparently stayed for an hour’s conversation. Commonly referred to as Ustaz Abdul Somad (or UAS), the controversial preacher has been barred from entering several countries, including being denied entry into Singapore on 16 May 2022. This is due to his extremist views, which include espousing physical violence and animosity towards non-Muslims.

While the Singapore government’s actions were perceived by some Muslims as Islamophobic, other countries including Hong Kong, Timor Leste, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland, have also barred Abdul Somad from crossing their borders. This reflects the wariness with which several governments regard his questionable teachings and views.

Views such as Abdul Somad’s should be antithetical to a multi-religious society like Malaysia, what more to the country’s premier. It is thus surprising that Anwar Ibrahim so warmly welcomed such a controversial preacher to Putrajaya. In our view, this incident can be seen as a self-inflicted shot in the foot to Anwar’s framework of Malaysia Madani, which he has touted as the foundation for a more progressive Malaysia that embraces diversity and respect for all, among other core principles.

What is more, Malaysia seemingly welcomed Abdul Somad with open arms. Not only did he go straight from the airport to Putrajaya to meet Anwar, posting on social media about how he spent an hour with Anwar in his office, but Abdul Somad also made a courtesy call to Malacca Governor Mohd Ali Rustam. He stayed on to lecture at Dataran Sejarah, Ayer Keroh, at a celebration commemorating the Islamic new year. Abdul Somad’s presence was said to have triggered a “tsunami of believers”, pulling in about 50,000 attendees. In the same audience were Mohd Ali Rustam, other state government officials and local preachers.

It was not the first time that Abdul Somad visited Malaysia. In 2019, he visited Kelantan, Kuala Lumpur, and Negeri Sembilan in February, and Sabah in September. A quick survey of comments on his Instagram posts about this year’s visit shows his followers in Indonesia lamenting that he is poorly received in his own country but treated with respect and admiration elsewhere. The fact that Indonesia’s government views one of its own citizens with some suspicion should speak for itself.

On 14 July, Abdul Somad lectured at Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque in Shah Alam, Selangor. In the audience was Tengku Permaisuri Hajah Norashikin, the queen consort of the Sultan of Selangor. Preachers, whether local or foreign, are required to obtain a licence from a state’s Islamic Religious Council, which is headed by the Malay ruler before they can preach in a given state. Thus, this lecture was clearly sanctioned by the top state leadership.

Abdul Somad also visited a naval fleet in Lumut, Perak, gave an evening lecture to 36,000 people at a stadium in Perak and delivered another lecture in one of the state’s mosques. Upon his return to Kuala Lumpur on 15 July, he gave an evening lecture at Dataran Merdeka dressed in traditional Malay gear. The symbolism of the traditional dress (tanjak) may be interpreted by some as a nod to more conservative or even right-wing groups in Malaysia.

Abdul Somad’s time in Malaysia was a grand affair from start to end. He met not just the foremost Malaysian leader but even royalty and other politicians. On the day of his departure, 16 July, Abdul Somad received a grand farewell, leaving on a private jet arranged by a Malaysian aviation firm.

Reflecting on his meeting with Abdul Somad, Anwar stated that they “agreed on the importance of preaching about Islam in a manner that is based on moderation and wisdom”. However, Anwar’s emphasis on “moderation” is clearly at odds with the well-known extremist views Abdul Somad espouses.