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Anwar Ibrahim >
The Era of Opposition Activism

From the time that Anwar Ibrahim emerged as a student leader in the late 1960s until he joined UMNO and Mahathir's cabinet in 1982–1983, Anwar was a highly visible activist whose positions tended to be defined through his activities. Three activities provide a key to the new Islamic intellectual that he represented: the early work in supporting Malay consciousness, the Baling affair, and the schools that were established under his leadership by ABIM.

Ethnic consciousness. Anwar's earliest activism came in student groups dedicated to raising the ethnic and cultural consciousness of Malays in Malaysia. In the 1960s, the issue of a national language was of great importance. Before independence, “the education system was extremely fragmented along ethnic lines,” and following independence in 1957 there “was a shift in education policy … which reflected the urgency of creating national unity that a newly independent plural society faced.”27 Shafruddin Hashim, “Muslim Society, Higher Education and Development: The Case of Malaysia,” in Muslim Society, Higher Education and Development in Southeast Asia, ed. Sharom Ahmat and Sharon Siddique (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), pp. 45–46. Steps were taken to establish Malay as the national language in a period when there was great concern about the survival of Malay culture and growing awareness of the problem of the Malay poor, especially in the rural areas. Although the National Language Act establishing Malay as the national language was passed in April 1967, it involved compromises that preserved a special position for English. Students and others demonstrated actively against the compromise, with some schools being closed for a time as a result.28 “Malaysians Seek Language Accord,” New York Times, 16 April 1967.

It was in this turmoil that Anwar Ibrahim began his career as activist intellectual, taking up the issue of supporting Malay language and preserving Malay culture. However, his concern was not the abstract intellectual concern of cultural preservation alone; it also involved a sense of the need for social and economic justice. As a leader of the Malay Language Society at the University of Malaysia, he helped to organize the “Consciousness Raising Campaign” in 1968, which brought students together with rural Malay villagers. The goals included providing the students with a better understanding of the foundations of Malay culture and the villagers with help in overcoming their poverty.29 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 16. At the same time, during 1968–1969, a series of violent intercommunal confrontations between Malays and Chinese took place, reaching a climax in the major riots of May 1969. Students from the Malay Language Society and other Malay groups were actively involved in these developments as well.

In general terms, both the positive and negative dimensions of this activism were primarily ethnic in the goals that were defined. However, the close relationship between the Malay identity and Islam led people like Anwar to give more consideration to the Islamic dimension. In a later discussion of “the Asian renaissance,” he provided the underlying reasons for the transition from ethnic activism to Islamic advocacy:

To seek cultural empowerment is to bring ourselves up to a level of parity with other more self-confident cultures. It involves rediscovery of what has been forgotten through ages of weakness and decay; it involves renewal and reflowering. … Genuine renaissance would not be possible without a rediscovery, reaffirmation and renewed commitment with the universals within our culture, that is, the idea of human dignity founded upon spiritual substance, moral well-being and noble sensibility.30 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 22.

Anwar's early activism reflected his concern for social justice and equality but expressed in terms that were more tied to ethnic identity than Islam. However, by the early 1970s there had been a significant shift in emphasis, and the establishment of ABIM in 1971 reflected the new approach.

The Baling crisis. By the time of the Baling incidents in 1974, Anwar was clearly identified with the cause of advocacy of Islamic renewal, and the support given to the rural Malay poor was defined in terms of the Islamic call for equality and social justice. By the end of the Baling crisis, it could be said that “the potent force in Malaysia, where 80 percent of the people are from impoverished rural communities and the burgeoning intelligentsia is of rural origin and still holds fast to Islam, is ABIM.”31 Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” p. 31. The activism reflected the complex mixture of the call for economic justice and affirmation of Malay identity concerns.

The active involvement of Anwar and his supporters in the Baling demonstrations, which clearly cut across ethnic lines, in the urban connection, implicitly raised class-like issues of exploitation of workers and peasants alike. This suggests a commitment to more universalistic reforms. Yet detractors argue that, for all its surface class-like character, Baling was essentially in defence of the Malay peasant, who was both its source and symbol.32 Nagata, Reflowering, p. 95.

ABIM defined its call for social and economic justice in terms of the universal principles expressed in Islam, and by 1980 it could be reported that Anwar “has found a wide echo for his movement's charges of widespread corruption and exploitation of the poor of all ethnic groups.”33 Henry Kamm, “Malaysia's Ethnic Fabric Is Beginning to Fray Again,” New York Times, 20 March 1980.

ABIM's schools. The content of Anwar's message can be seen in the curricula of the school he headed. It is often said that Islamic movements proclaim that “Islam is the solution” but do not provide content for what that solution means. By the end of the 1970s, it would have been difficult to make that charge against ABIM unless one ignored the record of policies advocated during and after the Baling crisis and, more particularly, the content of what was taught in the ABIM schools. The schools represented a significant synthesis and coming-together of educational traditions. “The goal of these schools … is to combine religious and secular education patterns in such a way that pupils can both sit for the national promotional examinations which open the doors of occupational opportunity to government and private sector and receive a solid religious and moral foundation for life as good Muslims.”34 Nagata, Reflowering, p. 92. Students studied both religious subjects and modern scientific subjects, recognizing that ABIM did not see “modern science” as being fundamentally in conflict with Islam.

This approach was grounded in the project that was developing at this time of “the Islamization of knowledge.” A global network of Muslim scholars, led by Ismail al-Faruqi, was active in this effort, which was institutionalized with the establishment of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Virginia. Anwar Ibrahim was a cofounder of the Institute and an active supporter of the broader project. In this perspective, “the reform of education is the Islamization of modern knowledge itself. … As disciplines, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences must be reconceived and rebuilt, given a new Islamic base, and assigned new purposes consistent with Islam.”35 Ismail R. al Paruqi, preface to Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982–1987), p. viii. It is possible to consider the ABIM schools of the 1970s as pioneers in this type of reform. It did not represent a rejection of modern science but the development of a perspective that put modern science into a conceptual framework that was different from the usual Western materialist and secular perspective. The so-called fundamentalism of Anwar and ABIM was neither intellectually obscurantist nor Luddite in its attitude toward modern science and technology. It simply gave priority to moral values and social justice in the effort to understand the implications of modern science and technology for contemporary human life.

Notes:

27. Shafruddin Hashim, “Muslim Society, Higher Education and Development: The Case of Malaysia,” in Muslim Society, Higher Education and Development in Southeast Asia, ed. Sharom Ahmat and Sharon Siddique (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), pp. 45–46. Find it in your Library

28. “Malaysians Seek Language Accord,” New York Times, 16 April 1967. Find it in your Library

29. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 16. Find it in your Library

30. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 22. Find it in your Library

31. Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” p. 31. Find it in your Library

32. Nagata, Reflowering, p. 95. Find it in your Library

33. Henry Kamm, “Malaysia's Ethnic Fabric Is Beginning to Fray Again,” New York Times, 20 March 1980. Find it in your Library

34. Nagata, Reflowering, p. 92. Find it in your Library

35. Ismail R. al Paruqi, preface to Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982–1987), p. viii. Find it in your Library

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