OPINION: Anwar and cross-civilisation dialogue

I remember written an article on my journey back to Malaysia after visiting Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim at Munich. This article later on was published by The Nation, Thai Independent Newspaper. Luckily, i manage to find the soft copy so that i can share with all the young Malaysians.

Published on Oct 13, 2004

Though the future path of Anwar Ibrahim’s political career is still uncertain, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia has been contemplating a possible role as an international mediator between Islam and the West.

Hours after he left for Munich, Germany, to seek medical treatment for a back ailment, Anwar pondered the urgency of dialogue between the two cultures and the possibility of working to build a bridge between the two worlds amidst a global war against terrorism.

In an interview with International Herald Tribune journalist Thomas Fueller, Anwar criticised Muslims for what he calls their lack of introspection in dealing with their own shortcomings. He slams Muslims who are quick to blame others for their problems, saying they are devoid of the real voice of conscience.

He also condemned the West for its failure to understand the root causes of terrorism. For Anwar, “The battle of terrorism is a battle of hearts and minds”, in which Muslims must be challenged “on whether a society devoid of such principles of democracy, civil society and tolerance is legitimately Islamic”.

Elsewhere, Anwar has spoken of the need for more openness and participatory democracy in Muslim countries as a means of checking the rise of Muslim extremists, who are more likely to resort to terrorism in pursuing their agenda. Democracy, which is essentially a Western doctrine, may pave the way for the resolution of the predicaments facing the Muslim world.

This unorthodox view of the West and Islam, or the East in general, is not uncharacteristic of Anwar. In the book “The Asian Renaissance”, which he wrote while he was in office, Anwar dwells on the symbiotic relationship between East and West and the importance of cross-civilisation dialogue. To make such dialogue fruitful, both East and West, Anwar maintains, must look at each other from new perspectives, untainted by bitter past experiences. Anwar writes: “The East must look beyond the Crusades and the era of colonialism, while the West must look at the East and the rest of the world in a new light, a perspective illuminated by humility and sincerity.”

In the 1990s, the need for Anwar’s cross-civilisation dialogue became apparent not only in the developed West’s cultural jingoism, but also in the post-colonial language of many Third World leaders, who viewed the West’s actions as nothing more than neo-colonialism. Democracy, freedom and human rights were regarded as tools the West used to overthrow governments in developing countries and plunder their wealth. The establishment groups in these countries thus preferred anti-pluralistic politics to pluralistic ones. These governments stifled dissent and instituted an array of political controls to limit the scope of political competition, while maintaining corrupt leaders in power. This took place in the name of maintaining political stability, a prerequisite for rapid state-led economic development. Asia’s booming years in the early 1990s served as a vindication of this distinctively “Asian values” politics.

Anwar, however, had a nuanced view of the Asian values. While he acknowledged that Asians come to democracy from a different perspective than their Western counterparts, he cautioned that Asians should be less arrogant in condemning the West and concentrate instead on remedying the shortcomings of their own societies, including poverty, corruption and moral decay. In an interview with The Australian Financial Review in June 1994, Anwar condemned some Asian leaders who “tend to be even on the verge of arrogance when they only look at the excesses of the West and assume that everything’s all right in the East”. Further, he called for “more dialogue and rapprochement between the West and the East because the future rests ultimately with the complementarity of both the strengths of the West and the East.”

Anwar’s inclusive approach to East-West relations struck a chord with many leaders in the West. While in office, he used this platform to forge closer ties with Western governments and influential international organisations. It therefore came as no surprise that his sacking, trial and imprisonment drew international criticism. Even six years after being removed from office, Anwar still inspires international concern. Among his visitors at Alpha Klinik in Munich, where he was recuperating from back surgery, were former Indonesian president BJ Habibie, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and renowned Islamic scholar and former director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, Dr Jamal Barzinji.

Habibie promised Anwar whatever resources he had to help realise the latter’s vision of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. Former United States vice president Al Gore also expressed his concern and willingness to work with Anwar in forging better understanding between Islam and the West. When I was in Munich visiting Anwar, on October 5, he received a visit from the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the neo-conservatives behind the US invasion of Iraq. Wolfowitz and Anwar had a two-hour debate and discussed various issues involving Muslims, particularly terrorism, Iraq and Palestine.

Though Anwar’s image as the “darling of the West” gives him a much-needed advantage in his effort to resume his diplomatic role in bridging the East/Islam-West divide, amid the war against terrorism, he needs to be wary of efforts to accuse him of having sold out to the West. He has already suffered because of such sentiments.

Beyond this potential pitfall, because he is not part of the government, his effectiveness as a “diplomat” will depend heavily on the space allowed him by the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as well as the intricacies of diplomatic relations between nations.

Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akin
*Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akin is vice youth chief of the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan).

Pengarang: Shamsul Iskandar

Ahli Parlimen Bukit Katil, Melaka Ketua Angkatan Muda KEADILAN (AMK), Parti KEADILAN Rakyat (PKR) Pengerusi KEADILAN Majlis Pimpinan Negeri Melaka Peguam, Yusof Rahmat & co, Ketua KeADILan Cabang Jasin, Melaka

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