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Anwar Ibrahim >
Political and Social Positions

The message that is presented in Anwar Ibrahim's activities of the 1970s and early 1980s is quite clear, and it has implications for issues that were of importance in the broader debates of the late-twentieth-century Islamic resurgence. The issues of an “Islamic state,” pluralism, and the “role of women” have been frequently debated, and they were not ignored by Anwar and ABIM. However, the distinctive positions of activist moderation taken by Anwar had a very important impact on the development of the debates about political Islam in Malaysia. In contrast to many other countries, where the most visible participants in debates and conflicts are at the extremes, Anwar's “charismatic” and activist advocacy of moderation had a strong influence of the evolution of Islamist politics in Malaysia.

An Islamic state. PAS and many of the Islamists in Malaysia advocated the establishment of an “Islamic state” and the formal implementation of the Shariah in Malaysia. This followed a common pattern for Islamist movements in the 1970s. However, Anwar did not follow this pattern. His vision was of the gradual Islamization of society through the efforts of dedicated individuals and groups like ABIM working to transform society “from the bottom up” rather than imposing an Islamization “from the top down.” In this approach, calling people to adherence to an authentic understanding of Islam was the major obligation of the Muslim dedicated to Islamic renewal. The term for this “call” was dakwah, which became a major identification for the programs of Islamic revival in Malaysia. The concept of dakwah emerged gradually in the 1970s as the mission of the various Islamic groups and movements, and it took many different forms. As ABIM emerged under Anwar's leadership as the largest and most visible Islamist movement, it played an important role in defining dakwah in the Malaysian context.

Anwar's definition of dakwah was distinctive in a number of ways. In contrast to similar movements elsewhere in the Muslim world, and other groups in Malaysia like PAS, the emphasis was on broader principles. “It did not see Islam in the black and white manner that the later dakwah adherents did. … It believed in Islamizing the ummah first along a gradual, moderate, and progressive path.”36 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 24. In contrast to other movements, this means that ABIM identifies many of the specific demands of other movements as giving too much emphasis to “the ritualistic aspects of Islam,” which are, in ABIM's view, secondary to the main mission of creating a just and equitable society.37 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 38.

One consequence of this perspective is that Anwar did not actively call for the establishment of an Islamic State or the immediate enforcement of specific rules of Islamic law. In his view, dakwah would transform society on the long run, and only then would it be possible formally to proclaim an Islamic state and the full implementation of Islamic law. His views were clearly presented in an interview in 1980:

Questions about the creation of an Islamic state were put off by Mr. Anwar, who stresses that much education is necessary before the matter can arise. “We should first have a truly just economic society,” he said. “Then we can apply Islamic law. I don't see it in the very near future.” If such a just society could be created, he added, “I would not rule out chopping off of hands”—the Koranic penalty for theft.38 Kamm, “Teacher Leads Malays …”

However, the full implementation of Islamic law would require the prior establishment of a just society.

Anwar provided an important intellectual alternative in the debates arising out of the growing “Islamic resurgence” in Malaysia, as well as the broader Muslim world. A movement of more typical Islamic resurgence had also been developing in Malaysia. PAS had been in existence since the 1950s and represented a revivalist tradition similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at that time. Its demands were more typical, and by the late 1970s, PAS “called not just for a vague Islamic state, but for alterations in the federal constitution to bring it more in line with Islamic law and administration.”39 Diane K. Mauzy “Partai Islam Se-Malaysia,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3:305. Without the activities of Anwar and ABIM, it is probable that the debates and tensions involved in the Islamic revival of the 1970s and 1980s would have taken a more typical form of clashes between “secular” modernizing establishments and generically defined “Islamists,” divided between those calling for jihad and the less militant. Anwar's intellectual formulations shaped the form and content of the debates of the Islamic revival in a distinctive way.

A pluralist society. One of the most important dimensions of Anwar's vision of dakwah and the long-term Islamization of society is his acceptance of the reality of the ethnic and religious diversity in Malaysia. He believes that this is a distinguishing characteristic of Malaysia in the Muslim world and that Malaysia can be an example for other Muslim societies.40 Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990. Although he began his career as an activist in the movement for affirming Malay rights and identity, the creation of ABIM signaled his acceptance of a more universalistic Islamic mission. Increasingly, he came to oppose ethnic nationalism and “racism” as being contrary to Islam. Initially, this was expressed more in terms of defining the Muslim community, but Anwar developed a more broadly inclusive conceptualization of pluralism in an Islamic perspective.

The theme of the annual congress of ABIM in 1979 was “Islam is the solution for the problems of a plural society” and Anwar's major address to this meeting emphasized Islam's opposition to discrimination and racism.41 Brief descriptions of this congress and speech can be found in Nagata, Reflowering, p. 95, and Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Ahmed Shabery Cheek, “The Politics of Malaysia's Islamic Resurgence,” Third World Quarterly 10, 2 (April 1988): 853–54. The framework of the position is Islamic, and it argues that Islam provides a foundation for society in which all people have real freedom. However, in contrast to more typical or conservative Islamist presentations, there is an emphasis of the authentic pluralism of Islamic faith and tradition, when rightly understood. Anwar, for example, uses Umar, who was the second successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community, as a good example, noting that “Omar's rule was … instructive for the administration of a multi-ethnic society, for his realm comprised many non-Muslims (dhimmi), and his policy was to allow complete freedom of worship, guaranteeing their protection in return for obedience.”42 Nagata, Reflowering, p. 98. In a speech in 1994, he reiterated this theme by pointing to the example of Spain under Muslim rule and expressing the hope for a “global convivancia” in that tradition.43 Anwar Ibrahim, “The Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” Occasional Papers Series, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 1995, p. 8.

In this area, Anwar has also had an impact on the ways that political debates and policies have been formulated in Malaysia. Again, although Malaysia politics were dominated by the issue of Malay rights and ethnic tensions following the riots of 1969, there was a move away from extreme positions of ethnic support during the 1970s. The middle position presented by Anwar and ABIM played an important role in this transition.

Women. Anwar is a strong advocate of equality for women and sees this as an important dimension of the broader call for social and economic justice. However, this is presented within an Islamic framework that emphasizes the importance of the contribution of women to family life, childrearing, and societal morality. Modest, Islamically appropriate dress is expected, and gender separation in public is encouraged. In this as in most other aspects, the ABIM position as it was articulated by Anwar represented a moderate position between the extremes of the more fundamentalist groups like PAS and Dar al-Arqam on the one hand and urban secular lifestyles on the other.

In a report of a series of interviews with women in the early 1980s, the type of woman who was described as most likely to be associated with ABIM presents this picture of committed moderation:

Unlike the Islamic Republic dakwah students, she does not believe that music is sinful, that concerts, sports, and cultural events are bad for mind and soul. … She does not believe that Islam is the straightjacket religion that the surau people have made it out to be. … She is dakwah, but her increased religiousity only applies to her personal life. She doesn't tell others to dress or behave like her.44 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, pp. 63–64.

Education for women has been a high priority in Anwar's approach and ABIM's programs from the very beginning. Young women were an important part of the student body of the schools established by ABIM in the 1970s and have played a significant role in the contributions of ABIM to the Islamic revival in Malaysia. The first graduates of Anwar's school in 1974 were among the very first women at the University of Malaysia to wear the distinctive modern Islamist covering on campus.

The expectation of modest dress did not reflect an expectation that women would be in seclusion. Instead, women were expected to take an active role in the development of society. The expectations of people like Anwar were clearly expressed by Khalijah Mohammed Salleh, a professor of physics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia:

Traditionally Muslim women were visibly seen as wives and mothers. Currently more and more of them are gaining access to higher education and hence into the labour market. … To enable the women to participate in nation building there are several strategies that can be considered. First is … education, training and opportunities. … Other strategy is the paradigm shift by man with regards to [the] man-woman relationship. Rather than looking upon women as being subordinates to men, it would benefit both parties to regard each other as partners that complement each other. [This] [p]aradigm shift would also mean that men would have to consider household chores as responsibilities to be shared with their wives.”45 Khalijah Mohd Salleh, Women in Development (Kuala Lumpur: Institute for Policy Research, 1994), pp. 105, 124.

One excellent example of this concept of partnership at work is the role of Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail. Following their marriage in 1980, she established an active medical practice and primarily treated women. Following his arrest in September 1998, she immediately emerged as the leading figure in the reform movement, speaking as actively as her husband had done before his imprisonment. Although conservatives in groups like PAS expressed reservations about having a woman lead a political party (and thus potentially the country as well), activist moderates in the “tradition” of Anwar had no problem with the emerging role of Wan Azizah Ismail. This provides another illustration of the character of the Islamic revivalism of activist moderation that had been conceptualized and established by Anwar Ibrahim in the 1970s.

Notes:

36. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 24. Find it in your Library

37. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 38. Find it in your Library

38. Kamm, “Teacher Leads Malays …” Find it in your Library

39. Diane K. Mauzy “Partai Islam Se-Malaysia,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3:305. Find it in your Library

40. Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990.

41. Brief descriptions of this congress and speech can be found in Nagata, Reflowering, p. 95, Find it in your Library and Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Ahmed Shabery Cheek, “The Politics of Malaysia's Islamic Resurgence,” Third World Quarterly 10, 2 (April 1988): 853–54. Find it in your Library

42. Nagata, Reflowering, p. 98. Find it in your Library

43. Anwar Ibrahim, “The Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” Occasional Papers Series, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 1995, p. 8. Find it in your Library

44. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, pp. 63–64. Find it in your Library

45. Khalijah Mohd Salleh, Women in Development (Kuala Lumpur: Institute for Policy Research, 1994), pp. 105, Find it in your Library 124.

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