Saturday, 20 March 2010

Smooth Operator: Anwar Ibrahim on Religion and Pluralism in a Divided World

On Thursday, 18 March, the London School of Economics (LSE) hosted former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition Anwar Ibrahim for a brief lecture and Q&A session.

That this was a last-minute event became clear from a somewhat rambling introductory talk in which quotes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets on humankind's limited capacity for coping with reality featured alongside excerpts from Rumi's Masnavi ('The lamps are different, but the light is the same') and references to religious scholars such as Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350CE). All for the purposal of showing Ibrahim's support for an inclusivist Islam as found in Indonesia. Presenting Indonesia as an example worthy of emulation is in itself an interesting position for a Malay-Muslim politician who rode to power on a much less tolerant Islamist ticket in the 1970s and 1980s.

This point was also raised during the discussion, when one interlocutor asked if his own first-hand experience with imprisonment under the draconian ISA (Internal Security Act) had something to do with this transformation from his firebrand Muslim activist rhetoric as leader of the Muslim student organization ABIM to the mellower tone of today. In a rare moment of straightforwardness, although he hoped he would still be considered a firebrand, Ibrahim attributed his erstwhile militancy to youthful idealism.

For the rest he excelled in evading any direct answers to the questions that were posed to him. Instead he generally sufficed with repeating the mantra that Southeast Asian Islam has historically been characterized by inclusivism in regards to the various strands of thought and practice found among Muslims, and the embrace of pluralism in its attitude towards non-Muslims. In the Datuk's view this was also true of Malaysian Islam and he deplored the recent hardening of positions, such as the controversial claim that the name 'Allah' may only be used by Muslims, not by adherents of the other Abrahamic religions; Judaism and Christianity.*

Although he supported the application of Islamic law in Malaysia for its Muslim citizens, he opined that Shari'a courts had no business in interfering in the affairs of other religious traditions. In response to a question what his position is on apostasy, Anwar Ibrahim suggested that the guidelines should be provided by the Maqasid al-Shari'a or Core Objectives of Islamic Law. Explicitly defined by such scholars as al-Ghazali (d. 1111CE) and al-Shatibi (d. 1388), these principles safeguard freedom of conscience, the sanctity of life and property, the dignity of men and women, and the freedom of expression. Although as a Muslim he would never encourage a fellow Muslim to leave the faith, he agreed with Taha Jabir Alalwani, who in a lecture at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) had said it was ultimately up to the individual. Adding that forcing someone to lie and hide his or her true conviction would only turn them into hypocrites he also referred to the Quranic injunction that there can be 'no compulsion in religion' (2: 256). However, he avoided making any clear statement on what he expected religious courts in Malaysia to do when cases of apostasy were brought before them.

In evidence of his own disagreement with religion-inspired intolerance he frequently referred to his book The Asian Renaissance, which he insisted was grounded in the Quranic injunction that God had created humankind's ethnic and religious multitudes so 'that ye may know each others' (Sura al-Hujarat 49.13).

For the rest he used every opportunity to criticize the incumbent government of Malaysia and the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to instill democratic governance and values among its member states, in particular Myanmar. Ever the jocular and smooth political operator, he said that, instead of pursuing a 'constructive engagement' with the Burmese junta, most countries in the region seemed more interested in engaging in construction projects. In the same context, however, Indonesia was again presented as a rare positive exception, where general elections had been restored after decades of 'elections of generals'.

Indicative of his ability to circumvent taking any firm positions and keeping all his future options open was also his response to whether he regarded Malaysia as secular or Islamic state. While he said Malaysia was not strictly an Islamic state in the sense as implied by an overall application of Islamic law, it was certainly Islamic in the sense of the Maqasid al-Shari'a. Besides that, both the notions 'Islamic' and 'secular' were open to a wide range of interpretations. As for the concrete implementation of Islamic law, Anwar Ibrahim concluded that Shari'a courts should only have jurisdiction in family law and moral injunctions pertaining to Muslims, and confine themselves only to cases in which all parties were Muslim.

* see the coverage in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Malaysian Newspaper The Star, Indonesia's Jakarta Globe, and on Juan Cole's Informed Comment