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Anwar Ibrahim

Activist Moderate

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

When Anwar Ibrahim organized a demonstration in Kuala Lumpur in 1980, he and his supporters were called “Malaysia's own Islamic zealots.”1 K. Das, “Chipping away at extremism,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 8 February 1980, p. 10. (Subsequent references to this journal will abbreviate the title: FEER.) Other observers at the time identified the organization he led as one of the largest “fundamentalist” groups in the country2 See, for example, Judith Nagata, “Religious Ideology and Social Change: The Islamic Revival in Malaysia,” Pacific Affairs 53, 3 (Fall 1980): 425, and Fred R. von de Mehden, “Malaysia in 1980: Signals to Watch,” Asian Survey 21, 2 (February 1981): 246. Eighteen years later, when Anwar Ibrahim was tried in a highly visible court case on a variety of politically inspired charges, those charges did not include leading a religious opposition movement. He had been serving as deputy prime minister of Malaysia. Analysts spoke of him as “an unabashed globalist well suited to the modern world of markets and media,”3 Ian Johnson, “How Malaysia's Rulers Devoured Each Other and Much They Built,” Wall Street Journal, 30 October 1998, p. 1. and many spoke of him as a “liberal.”4 See, for example, “Malaysia on Trial,” New York Time, 4 November 1998. Following his arrest, his supporters formed the Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party) under the leadership of his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, in what many people recognized was the effort “to pick up the banner of Anwar's struggling reformasi (reform) movement aimed at … ushering in an era of democracy and political openness.”5 Keith B. Richburg, “New Voice in Malaysia,” Washington Post, 19 June 1999. This transformation from a “charismatic” leader of an Islamic “fundamentalist” group into a globalist liberal advocating Southeast Asian reformasi appears dramatic. However, the change is more a measure of the transformation the religiopolitical context, both globally and in Malaysia, than a reflection of a dramatic change in the faith and views of Anwar Ibrahim himself.6 For a discussion of these broader developments in the Malaysian political context, see John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), chap. 6, “Malaysia: The Politics of Multiculturalism.” As in many places, what was politically marginal in the 1970s became mainstream by the end of the twentieth century.

The mainstreams of Malaysian politics and society have been transformed in the decades since independence in the 1950s. One of the major themes in these transformations has been the gradual Islamization of perspectives. Intellectuals have been important in providing the ways to articulate these new perspectives, and Anwar Ibrahim has played a significant role in this process. In his own transformation from “charismatic fundamentalist” to “liberal reformer,” he has reflected the changing mainstream of Malaysian politics and identities and has been, at the same time, a significant force in causing these changes. He has been, in these processes, an almost prototypical activist intellectual. One of his major concerns has been the articulation of new conceptualizations and paradigms, the classic role of the intellectual in times of great historic changes. However, as a leader of a significant student organization, a major Malaysian political figure, and now the symbol of reformasi in his country, Anwar Ibrahim has also been the classic political activist.

Anwar Ibrahim's self-description provides a good definition of “activist intellectual”:

I grew up in a time of great social transformation wherein the interplay of ideas and events coincided with the rise of student activism, religious revivalism and political turmoil. Not content to be a mere bystander, I chose to be an active participant instead. I emerged from all this convinced that, while a life of contemplation and solitude can indeed be invigorating to the mind and the soul, a life of contemplation coupled with action and fraternity can be even more SO.7 Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Books International, 1996), p. 15.

Notes:

1. K. Das, “Chipping away at extremism,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 8 February 1980, p. 10. (Subsequent references to this journal will abbreviate the title: FEER.)

2. See, for example, Judith Nagata, “Religious Ideology and Social Change: The Islamic Revival in Malaysia,” Pacific Affairs 53, 3 (Fall 1980): 425, and Fred R. von de Mehden, “Malaysia in 1980: Signals to Watch,” Asian Survey 21, 2 (February 1981): 246.

3. Ian Johnson, “How Malaysia's Rulers Devoured Each Other and Much They Built,” Wall Street Journal, 30 October 1998, p. 1.

4. See, for example, “Malaysia on Trial,” New York Time, 4 November 1998.

5. Keith B. Richburg, “New Voice in Malaysia,” Washington Post, 19 June 1999.

6. For a discussion of these broader developments in the Malaysian political context, see John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), chap. 6, “Malaysia: The Politics of Multiculturalism.”

7. Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Books International, 1996), p. 15.

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