Anwar was jailed in 1998 during the government of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. He led a democratic movement from his cell and was released in 2004. Now a visiting professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, Anwar has said he may contest the 2009 elections in Malaysia.
Speaking at the GAIM hedge-fund conference held in Hong Kong this week, he gave an address not about investments but about the state of the Muslim world and its uneasy relations with the West, particularly the United States. True to form, he is calling for reform within the Muslim world while defending political Islam, presenting a package that does not fit American stereotypes but nonetheless offers a vision of tolerance that American policymakers would be wise to heed.
AnwarÆs first point is that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. He notes that the worldÆs top-two biggest Muslim populations, in Indonesia and India, have made enthusiastic voters.
Moreover these are not recent developments: Indian Muslims have exercised their democratic rights since Independence in 1947, while Muslim political parties led Indonesia out of colonialism and into a constitutional democracy in the early 1950s. It was Sukarno, a secular man, who perverted that democracy, and Suharto, another secularist, who destroyed it. Muslim parties have been equally vocal in supporting a return to democracy in the post-Suharto age.
It is frustrating, Anwar says, that Westerners ignore these positive examples. He believes it is because Westerners tend to equate Islam with the Arab world, where indeed autocrats and monarchs hold sway (although it is interesting that the Saddam Husseins of the world have also been secular figures).
Anwar is sceptical about US foreign policy, particularly post-9/11, and condemns the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, he supports the Bush administrationÆs elevation of democracy and freedom in its dealings with the Islamic world. ôIÆm against the wars but IÆm for freedom and democracy,ö Anwar says.
This is not just a political stance for Anwar, but a moral one. ôIslam is about freedom of conscience,ö he says, noting that human rights, gender equality and access to a decent education are universal issues. Although democracy can take many forms, it generally allows for a free press, an independent judiciary, and respect for life and private property.
So while he remains critical of what he diplomatically calls ôAmerican excessesö, he says governments or intellectuals in the Muslim world, Europe and elsewhere are wrong to seek a US retreat or isolationism.
Anwar braves a similar tightrope when it comes to how the Muslim world should react to Western bigotry. He condemns the cartoons of Mohammed published by a Danish newspaper last year as genuinely insulting; he says the images seek to ôresurrect the prejudices of the Dark Agesö.
But he also bemoans the reaction on the street in many Muslim countries, which saw riots, vandalism and death; and he condemns the decision by many governments to ban the cartoons outright, without any recourse to judges. It is not the banning and the marches that bother Anwar, but the lack of any due process or respect for civic institutions that could regulate the WestÆs more outrageous behaviour; and worse, in his eyes, the way the violence has desecrated the higher objectives of sharia principles, namely the sanctity of life and property.
He is no Uncle Tom-like figure: Anwar has some sharp words for US foreign policy. Events such as CongressÆ refusal to allow DubaiÆs DP Ports to acquire six seaports in the US serve only to spur anti-Americanism and grist for tyrannical regimesÆ mills. The abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib allow authoritarian regimes to argue that their citizensÆ problems are AmericaÆs fault, and to justify their own, far worse behaviour.
ôThe whole focus of the media in Muslim countries is on US atrocities,ö Anwar says, ôbut I was assaulted in a cell by the police chief, not by the Americansàhundreds of thousands of people disappeared under Saddam HusseinÆs rule.ö
It is a bold thing for a highly public Muslim like Anwar to say these things, when many governments in the Muslim world prefer to twist the WestÆs faux pas into tools to distract and repress their own citizens. Here the former finance minister identity rears itself, for Anwar believes the only way to foster democratic development in Muslim countries is through economic growth. He says economic success can only be measured in the medium- to long-term, based on its ability to improve the capacity of people to upgrade their skills and quality of life.
Economic empowerment can provide improved education and healthcare. It also bolsters the need for accountability and better governance. Anwar believes America is right to insist on democracy, but blindly equates democracy with elections. It is downplaying the deeper, institutional requirements such as a free press and an independent judiciary. Such things take years, perhaps a generation or more, to instil, while elections can be easily arranged.
Nor should the West fear when elections result in victories for Islamic groups such as Hamas, provided democracy includes constitutional guarantees. Anwar argues that Hamas will face many political and economic realities once it is in power in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas also has legitimate humanitarian concerns, even if its tactics are not acceptable.
And, in a remark that got a laugh from the audience of hedge fund managers, he disarmed American objections to dealing with an obnoxious Hamas government by noting that the US, with all of its supposed sophistication, elected George Bush.
(Of course, Bush doesnÆt advocate driving any particular nation ôinto the seaö or ôwiping it off the mapö.)
The key for the West to deal with the likes of Hamas is to ensure whether these groups adhere to constitutional requirements. Yes, it is possible that Hamas will betray these rulesàbut the record so far suggests it is secularists such as Saddam Hussein, Sukarno and the junta of Burma that tend to tear up constitutions.
Anwar is once again championing reformasi û but this time the stakes are much higher. It is encouraging to hear reasonable and passionate voices such as his in the Muslim world. It is also discouraging to learn that since giving a similar speech attacking corruption a few weeks ago, the Malaysian police have charged him with sedition.