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Anwar Ibrahim >
Activism within the Establishment

When Anwar Ibrahim joined UMNO in 1982, he transformed his position from most visible spokesperson in the opposition to rapidly rising star in the Malaysian political establishment. He argued that he was convinced that Mahathir, the new prime minister, was serious in his commitment to effective Islamization and had already begun a program that promised to reduce corruption and increase government efficiency significantly. The conclusion Anwar drew was that he could more effectively work to achieve his goals by working from within rather than against the government. He had already had a positive experience working with Mahathir in the early 1970s and had been encouraged in taking this step in 1882 by the internationally known Islamist scholar Ismail al-Faruqi.

In his new position, Anwar did not change his broad overall goals or perspectives. However, as both a policy-maker and one responsible for implementing policy, he began to articulate his positions more carefully in terms of a broader conceptual framework. Many intellectuals, when they take administrative and executive posts, tend to stop the effort of conceptual definition and articulation. Anwar, in contrast, took the opportunity to present a number of broad conceptual frameworks for policy as he assumed different cabinet positions. As minister of education and then of finance, he had the opportunity to rearticulate his ideas about culture and economics in the context of actual policy planning. He did not write comprehensive monographs or broader systematic analyses, but in his speeches and shorter writings, important themes emerge. He fulfilled his role as an intellectual while being directly involved in the affairs of government.

Anwar presented important conceptualizations of major issues, both domestic and global, from the perspective of the Islamic revival in which he had been engaged since the early 1970s.The major themes that emerge in his presentations are the need for a broad new paradigm for sociopolitical and economic development and the definition of that paradigm in ways that recognized broader religious and moral values; a new understanding of the nature of pluralism in multireligious societies and the world as a whole; and, in particular, an emphasis on the importance of intercivilizational dialogue as the only possible alternative to a deadly clash of civilizations. In these discussions, Anwar generally presented his ideas at two different but complementary levels. At one level, his thinking was directly concerned with the specific issues faced by Muslims and the particular challenges of defining an adequate Islamic response. At the second level, he presented his ideas in more global and inclusive terms. In this second area, Anwar was going beyond and redefining (but not contradicting) his earlier conceptualizations.

The new paradigm. Anwar was convinced that the older Western understanding of the processes of development represented an outmoded paradigm that even in the West was being amended or rejected. In the mid-1980s, he argued: “a new paradigm in development studies has slowly emerged.”46 Anwar Ibrahim, “Development, Values and Changing Political Ideas,” Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia 1, 1 (February 1986): 2. This was seen as being in the context of the failure of both Marxist and secular materialist paradigms in terms of their applicability for the developing world. Following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he developed this argument further, noting that “Marxism failed precisely because of its flawed vision of man. It severs man from his moorings in faith, viewing him as nothing more than a cypher, a cog in a brutal machine called the state. There was no place for ethics, morality or spirituality.”47 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Books International, 1996), p. 74. Older Western modernization theory had a similar gap in its emphasis on the secular development of economics. “Much of the definition of development originating from the West has rejected any reference to moral and ethical considerations. Cultural preservation is regarded as retrogressive in the march for development.”48 Ibrahim, “Development, Values,” p. 1. Western paradigms did not recognize that the “final aim of economic pursuit is the development of man, not the Promethean man of secular humanism who relentlessly seeks to conquer, but rather man as envisaged by the great traditions of East and West.”49 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 81.

The solution was to define a new paradigm that would be properly rooted in local traditions and not simply be a blind borrowing from the West. Anwar approached the definition of this new paradigm at two levels, a specifically Islamic one and a more broadly Asian one.

Anwar's Islamic paradigm was different from many of the programs and approaches advocated by more typical Islamist groups in that it did not start with advocating the implementation of the specifics of Islamic law as they had come to be defined in medieval Muslim society. In Islamic history, two contrasting approaches to tradition had developed. One said that it was important to follow as closely as possible precedents that had been set by previous generations. This is the approach of taqlid, or imitation. The second approach utilizes informed independent analysis, or ijtihad, in determining what actions should be taken. In Anwar's view, Islam “is essentially a pragmatic religion with a keen sense of historical direction. Muslim thinkers ruled out the acquisition of knowledge simply by imitation (taqlid).”50 Ibrahim, “Development, Values,” p. 5. Although many Muslims in the past, and still in the present, in Anwar's view, had exercised taqlid, the real strength and dynamism of Islam was built on the continuing revitalization provided by ijtihad.51 Anwar Ibrahim, address at the Ismail Faruqi Award presentation ceremony, International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 28 February 1996.

Within this framework, Anwar presented two historically established Islamic concepts as vital to the exercise of independent judgment in defining and implementing the new paradigm. Anwar noted efforts by some modern Muslim scholars to relate classical formulations to current conditions in order to bridge the gap between old theory and contemporary practice. In particular, he cited the importance of giving emphasis to the classical principle of maslahah, which was the concept of public welfare or the common good, as a basis for determining policy. This procedure had been advocated and utilized by some important modernist Islamic scholars, like the late Mahmud Shaltut, Shaykh al-Azhar (1958–1963).52 Ibid. In describing the Islamic approach to economic policy and the market economy, Anwar noted a second traditional Islamic concept that illustrates how Islam encourages an active free market but sees the need for just regulation. Despite a “favourable disposition towards the market, Muslim societies in the past saw the need to introduce the institution called hisba to oversee fairness in market dealings, to check against monopoly and manipulation.”53 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 80.

Maslahah and hisba in the context of the presentation of the new paradigm also illustrate the mode of approach envisioned by Anwar. As was true in the 1970s, he was not interested in enforcing “ritualistic” details; his mode of operation was to work within a broader framework or principles like the common good and fair regulation. The new paradigm did have an important economic component, but it was within the broader framework of Islamic religious and moral values. This approach opened the way for efforts to encourage the establishment institutions like the Islamic Bank. However, the broader goal was the creation of a just and equitable economic system. As a result, Anwar's work as finance minister is not associated with the more typical Islamist campaigns to implement specific aspects of the traditionally understood economic teachings of Islam. Instead, Anwar

spearheaded the government's programme to identify and assist the hardcore poor. Eradicating absolute poverty through budgetary allocations and direct aid was central to his mission as finance minister. His commitment to low-cost housing and his relentless drive to coax the private sector to join hands with the government in providing shelter to the homeless has won him accolades from the general public.54 Azizan Bahari, Chandra Muzaffar, et al., “Do Not Distort the Truth,” Commentary, International Movement for a Just World (special issue) (October 1998): 15.

Anwar presents his priorities clearly:

The proponents of the imposition of Muslim laws or the establishment of an Islamic state are confined to the periphery. Southeast Asian Muslims prefer to concentrate on the task of ensuring economic growth and eradicating poverty instead of amputating the limbs of thieves. They would rather strive to improve the welfare of the women and children in their midst than spend their days elaborately defining the nature and institutions of the ideal Islamic state. They do not believe it makes one less a Muslim to promote economic growth, to master the information revolution and to demand justice for women.55 Anwar Ibrahim, “The Ardent Moderates,” Time, 23 September 1996, p. 24.

The new paradigm as conceived by Anwar is not, however, to be an exclusively Islamic one. He also conceives it in the broader terms of “Asian values.” The starting point for this perspective is a recognition of the failure of Western development paradigms as they were applied in Asia and the difficulties created by the experience of past European imperial control. However, Anwar emphasizes that he does “not follow a policy of discarding the West. We are not anti-West. We have strong views against some Western attitudes and policies. We believe in engagement between the East and the West.”56 Anwar Ibrahim, “We Believe in Engagement between the East and the West,” interview in Diplomat, 15 February 1996, p. 18. A crucial part of the new paradigm is the establishment of a new consciousness of “Asian values” so that “Asia could take the lead in engaging the West in continuous dialogue.”57 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p, 100.

Anwar is relatively specific in identifying the components of this paradigm involving Asian values.

What we envisage for Asia as a whole in the next century is that it should become a greater contributor to the advancement of human civilization. The Asian intellectual community must henceforth expend a significant part of its resources to[ward] nurturing and promoting the Asian heritage, especially those elements in the culture and traditions which not only characterize Asian identity but also contribute to the enrichment of a universal humane society. Among the elements, the most fundamental relate to the harmony of society through good governance, the sanctity of the family, tolerance towards diversity, and compassion for the weak and the unfortunate.58 Ibid.

Special attention has been given to the interactions between Islam and Confucianism in the development of this common Asian front. In an address opening an international seminar, “Islam and Confucianism,” in Kuala Lumpur in 1995, Anwar said: “It is our conviction that a civilizational dialogue between Islam and Confucianism would greatly contribute towards global peace and understanding. Here are two great traditions of the world whose adherents have generally been living, if not in perfect harmony with each other, certainly not in antagonism and discord, for the better part of the last one thousand years.”59 Anwar Ibrahim, address, “Islam and Confucianism: A Civilizational Dialogue,” Kuala Lumpur, 13 March 1995. Among the “striking similarities” he mentioned was the refusal of both Islam and Confucianism “to detach religion, ethics, and morality from the public sphere. … A Muslim would have no difficulty identifying with the Confucian project to restore trust in government and to transform society into a moral community”60 Ibrahim, “Islam and Confucianism.”

Anwar made a special effort to recognize “Asian” perspectives and approaches in the concrete world of policy and government planning. For example, in discussions involved in the plans in the major Ecomedia City 2020 project, he advised that special attention be given to the recommendations made by Kisho Kurokawa regarding “ecotechnology and its relationship to architectural and urban plannning.” These recommendations were based on “the philosophy of symbiosis, a concept which underlies most Asian philosophies.”61 Anwar Ibrahim, “The Philosophy of Symbiosis,” Remarks at the Intercultural Conference on the Ecomedia City 2020, Subang Jaya, Malaysia, 16 January 1995.

The keystone of this new paradigm becomes a cultural renaissance that provides the foundation for giving a more meaningful role to traditional concepts and values in the society of the future. Anwar recognizes that this involves a dangerous balancing of affirmation of separate identities and a sense of the universal human community. He notes that there must be a constant effort to avoid falling into the traps of religious fanaticism and ethnocentrism in the process of reviving of the grand civilizational traditions of Asia along with trying to defend the local cultures against homogenization in the experience of globalization. To explain this he developed a special conceptualization of pluralism to understand how to balance the global and local elements of contemporary affairs.

Pluralism. Anwar's conceptualization of pluralism starts from the recognition of the reality of diversity in human society: Within this framework, the experience of Malaysia has special relevance because its internal diversity is so central to its experience as a society and country. From the Malaysian experience it is possible to see the positive dimensions of diversity:

Nations can actually grow and prosper by accepting the fact of cultural diversity, strengthening themselves by learning about their differences as well as by reinforcing the values they share in common. Malaysia is a case in point. It can justifiably claim to be Asia in microcosm - a country with a truly diverse population in terms of ethnicity, culture and faith. Admittedly this has not come about by choice. One might even say that we were forced by circumstances and history to become a nation, not by dissolving our respective identities and loyalties, but by transcending them.62 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 24.

This experience provides a basis for developing the conceptualization further. Toleration of differences is, in Anwar's view, an important starting point but only a beginning. Already in the 1970s, he and his colleagues in ABIM attacked “cultural jingoism” and “tribalism” as threats to Malaysian survival. Anwar began to argue that the diversity was not simply a challenge but represented a major positive resource for Malaysian in particular, and Asians in general. People needed to “transcend” their differences but not eliminate them. The Southeast Asian context provides an important lesson in Anwar's conceptualization:

Southeast Asians will not forget that since time immemorial, their region has been the theater in which the great civilizations have crossed paths. But they are honest enough to know that the region is not a great melting pot. The collective memory of each community is as strong as ever, and each holds dearly to its identity. Yet Southeast Asia is moving toward greater cohesiveness. … The people of various faiths in Southeast Asia are proceeding beyond mere tolerance.63 Ibrahim, “Ardent Moderates,” p. 25.

“Transcending tolerance” becomes a crucial part of the new paradigm developed by Anwar as the basis for a strong society. Going beyond mere tolerance is not just virtuous but is, on the long run, a necessity for human survival. The strength of democracy rests on the existence of diversity: Authoritarian regimes, according to Anwar, forget “that dissent is also a true barometer of the democracy we uphold. A case can be easily made, not for mere tolerance, but rather for the active nurturing of alternative views.”64 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 58. In this context, pluralism becomes an essential foundation for a strong democracy and, even more, a necessary part of a healthy and dynamic society. Within this perspective, lack of diversity becomes a weakness.

Anwar believes that this acceptance of pluralism that transcends tolerance is a clearly Islamic position. In a speech on civilizational dialogue, he cited the verse in the Quran: “Oh mankind! Verily we have created you all from a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.”65 Surah 49:13. The translation is as it was presented in the text of Ibrahim, “Islam and Confusianism.” Constructively recognizing the implications of this divine revelation involves affirmation of both distinctiveness and global humanity.

We believe that a revitalization of tradition, with all its cultural and intellectual richness, is the most effective countervailing force against religious fanaticism and ethnocentrism. In the context of Islam, this process of revitalization comprehends the reassertion of the values of justice (al-adl), tolerance (al-tasamuh) and compassion (al-rahmah). These values have enabled Muslims, throughout history, to accept diversity not merely as a fact but as an essential feature of human civilization to be celebrated. Because of diversity, man becomes richer through the impetus of the quest to know and understand one another.”66 Ibrahim, “Islam and Confucianism.”

This creates, in Anwar's view, a context of constructive living together by diverse groups of people, both in individual societies and in the broader emerging global community. He describes this condition with a term that was developed to describe the religiously pluralistic society in the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim rule: convivencia. In its historic sense, and as Anwar uses it, the term “is loosely defined as ‘coexistence,’ but carries connotations of mutual interpenetration and creative influence. … [In Spain] it is the coexistence of the three groups [Muslims, Christians, and Jews], but only as registered collectively and consciously in the culture of anyone of them.”67 Thomas F. Glick, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note,” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims and Christians in Medieval Spain, ed. Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilyn D. Dodds (New York: George Braziller, 1992), pp. 1–2.

In Anwar's paradigm, convivencia is seen as the Islamic form of pluralism, but this is a vision that is quite different from the typical Islamist programs of making a place for non-Muslims in a traditionally conceived Islamic society. Primacy is given to the values of social and economic justice and equality, which are recognized as being fundamental to other great traditions of religious faith as well as Islam. This represents a special balancing of the particular and the universal. Anwar defines this in his call for the “Asian Renaissance”:

[I]ts societies must be prepared to transform themselves and discard the harmful residue from the past—tribalism, narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. It is not the case that Asia must lose its identity, but it must renew its commitment to core values such as justice, virtue and compassion, that are in themselves universal. Creativity, imagination and courage is [sic] needed to translate these values into reality.68 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 30.

This pluralist vision becomes the key to Anwar's understanding of the future global role for Islam and for Asia. It is the foundation for his call for civilizational dialogue.

Civilzational dialogue. People have long discussed the relationships among the civilizations of the world and have noted both the conflicts and the constructive interactions. However, in 1993, Samuel Huntington wrote an article that popularized the terminology of “the clash of civilizations” and set the terms of much discussion and debate concerning world affairs during the 1990s.69 Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72, 3 (Summer 1993). Although Huntington's analysis was global in its coverage, it concentrated attention on the relations between Islam and the West and did so in a way that emphasized stark contrasts:

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.70 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 217–18.

Anwar, like many Muslim intellectuals, as well as analysts in the West, was aware of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm and rejected it for a variety of reasons. In an informal interview, Anwar argued that

the psyches are different, the cultures are different. Many things about America I like to emulate. But I don't need to be an American. … We should be modern; we should be democratic. We should not condone corruption or oppression in any form, or deny basic rights. … But don't tell me that democracy and freedom can only be preached by some countries and political leaders in the West.71 Joyce M. Davis, Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), p, 309.

The response of many people to Huntington's perspective was to call for a dialogue of civilizations, not a clash. Both as an intellectual and as a political leader, Anwar joined in this effort. In this, he again defined an important position of activist moderation. He identified common positions of advocacy that had emerged in the encounter between the West and “the civilizations of the East.” He noted that the intelligentsia from the East faced the choice of

whether to remain loyal to one's traditions or to depart for a way of life perceived as superior. They generally fall into two categories. There are those who foreswore everything from the West because of their passionate and tenacious hold on everything from their own traditions. And then there were those who, overwhelmed by the dazzling light of Western civilization, became renegades to condemn their own.72 Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 4.

Both of these types of intellectuals had essentially accepted Huntington's fundamental premise of profound and unbridgeable differences between civilizations.

Anwar rejected the concept of almost absolute otherness. “We are already in fundamental agreement, in that we subscribe to the universal quest for truth and the pursuit of justice and virtue. … In our disjointed world, therefore, with so much ugliness, violence and injustice, there cannot be a nobler aim and vocation than the realization of values which unify humanity, despite the great diversity of climes and cultures.”73 Ibid., p. 6. The universals become an essential part of the cultural rebirth. The rediscovery of tradition in cultural rebirth “must inevitably involve a synthesis with other cultures, including those from the West. Genuine renaissance would not be possible without our rediscovery reaffirmation and renewed commitment with the universals within our culture.”74 Anwar Ibrahim, “Jose Rizal: Humanist and Renaissance Man,” address in Kuala Lumpur, 3 October 1995.

Civilizational dialogue becomes the necessary policy framework for Anwar's conceptualization of pluralism. “For us, the divine imperative as expressed in the Qur'an is unambiguous. Humanity has been created to form tribes, races and nations, whose differences in physical characteristics, languages and modes of thought are but the means for the purpose of lita'arafu—‘getting to know one another.’”75 Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 5. In a world of dangerous confrontations, civilizational dialogue is a necessity for human survival and progress. However, this dialogue “must be an encounter among equals, between cherished ideals and values that will serve to challenge our pride and end our prejudices.”76 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 45. In this dialogue, continuations of both the old imperialist attitudes of the “civilizing mission” and fundamentalist rejections of the West as an enemy are not appropriate and only threaten human survival. But civilizational dialogue is a means to a goal, not the goal itself, in Anwar's view. This “dialogue has become an imperative at a time when the world has shrunk into a global village. For it is a precondition for the establishment of a convivencia, a harmonious and enriching experience of living together among people of diverse religions and cultures.”77 Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 5. This means that the “primary motif of civilizational dialogue must be a global convivencia.”78 Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 45.

Notes:

46. Anwar Ibrahim, “Development, Values and Changing Political Ideas,” Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia 1, 1 (February 1986): 2.

47. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Books International, 1996), p. 74.

48. Ibrahim, “Development, Values,” p. 1.

49. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 81.

50. Ibrahim, “Development, Values,” p. 5.

51. Anwar Ibrahim, address at the Ismail Faruqi Award presentation ceremony, International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 28 February 1996.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 80.

54. Azizan Bahari, Chandra Muzaffar, et al., “Do Not Distort the Truth,” Commentary, International Movement for a Just World (special issue) (October 1998): 15.

55. Anwar Ibrahim, “The Ardent Moderates,” Time, 23 September 1996, p. 24.

56. Anwar Ibrahim, “We Believe in Engagement between the East and the West,” interview in Diplomat, 15 February 1996, p. 18.

57. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p, 100.

58. Ibid.

59. Anwar Ibrahim, address, “Islam and Confucianism: A Civilizational Dialogue,” Kuala Lumpur, 13 March 1995.

60. Ibrahim, “Islam and Confucianism.”

61. Anwar Ibrahim, “The Philosophy of Symbiosis,” Remarks at the Intercultural Conference on the Ecomedia City 2020, Subang Jaya, Malaysia, 16 January 1995.

62. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 24.

63. Ibrahim, “Ardent Moderates,” p. 25.

64. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 58.

65. Surah 49:13. The translation is as it was presented in the text of Ibrahim, “Islam and Confusianism.”

66. Ibrahim, “Islam and Confucianism.”

67. Thomas F. Glick, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note,” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims and Christians in Medieval Spain, ed. Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilyn D. Dodds (New York: George Braziller, 1992), pp. 1–2.

68. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 30.

69. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72, 3 (Summer 1993).

70. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 217–18.

71. Joyce M. Davis, Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), p, 309.

72. Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 4.

73. Ibid., p. 6.

74. Anwar Ibrahim, “Jose Rizal: Humanist and Renaissance Man,” address in Kuala Lumpur, 3 October 1995.

75. Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 5.

76. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 45.

77. Ibrahim, “Need for Civilizational Dialogue,” p. 5.

78. Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 45.

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