From Political Prisoner to Prime Minister

Anwar Ibrahim, a story of faith perseverance

By Nader Hashemi

March/April 2023
Anwar Ibrahim takes oath of office as his wife Dr. Azizah binti Wan Ismail looks on

“Finally, a little good news from the Muslim world.” This is how I reacted on Twitter when I heard that Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s prominent activist-intellectual-opposition leader — and former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience — had been named prime minister. His multiethnic and reformist coalition, Pakatan Harapan, won a plurality of seats in the recent national election, catapulting him to the position he long deserved, but was repeatedly denied by the political intrigue of Malaysia’s ruling elites and deep state. 

Human rights groups and democratic forces, especially in the Arab-Islamic world, have hailed Anwar’s ascension as a victory for Malaysian democracy, human rights, the restoration of justice and for ethical Islam. 

The Origins

Born into a middle-class family in British colonial Malaya in 1947, Anwar’s worldview was shaped by colonialism and post-colonialism. The Muslims who grew up in the 1960s exhibited several common themes, among them anger at colonialism’s economic, political and cultural dimensions and growing skepticism toward secular and Western paradigms of progress. 

This produced a gradual turn to a religious-philosophical framework in the name of cultural authenticity and psychological empowerment. A desire for political power to advance social justice was another unifying theme, as were the critique of the largely secular postcolonial ruling elites, considered part of the progress-inhibiting structural problem, and a growing bitterness toward Euro-American double standards and betrayal. This was best embodied in the case of the Palestinians, whose plight became an identity marker for Muslims in the late 20th century.

New theorizing was required to both articulate and give coherence to these ideas. Anwar played a seminal role here, especially in the transition from secular to Islamic politics. This manifested itself primarily in the form of speeches and lectures, of performing the classic role of an intellectual during times of political upheaval and historic change. “I grew up in a time of great social transformation,” he observed, “where in the interplay of ideas and events coincided with the rise of student activism, religious revivalism and political turmoil” (“The Asian Renaissance,” Times Books International, 1996). In Malaysia, Anwar was a leading activist-intellectual theoretician

Early Activism

Anwar’s early political activism focused on ethnic Malay solidarity. Multiethnic Malaysia is comprised mainly of Malay Muslims (60%), Chinese (22%) and Indians (7%). Colonialism had left the Malays disproportionately poor, marginalized and rural. Anwar’s involvement in a 1970s project to send students to live with the rural poor to raise their political consciousness, help advance literacy and confront peasant and worker exploitation led to his first stint in prison (1974-76). As a student leader, he was arrested for protesting alongside striking workers upset with deteriorating economic conditions and government corruption. 

In prison, he read, reflected and contemplated. A close friend recalls that during this period Anwar began to “rationalize the theme of our struggle for socioeconomic justice with the ideals of Islam” (John L. Esposito and John Voll, “Makers of Contemporary Islam,” Oxford, 2001). Anwar confirms this transformation. “We were impatient and angry about the plight of the Malays. We were very angry, disgusted and critical of the government. There seemed to be no moral foundation and no spiritual guidance. We turned to Islam to fill this vacuum and to look for solutions” (ibid.). This transition overlapped with similar trends in other Muslim societies among activist-intellectuals, who were driven by the same push-and-pull factors and romanticized religious ideals. 

As a Malaysian Islamist intellectual, Anwar’s worldview was partly shaped by Syed Hussein Alatas, Hasan Al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Maududi and Ayatollah Khomeini. Like other political Islamists, he visited Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “Islam is the solution” was the mantra of this generation of Muslims activists, and Malaysia was no different. It was in this context that he became a founding member of The Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), whose broader goals were rooted in the belief that social justice could best be achieved via an Islamic moral and political framework. Its objective was to Islamize society and politics.

Those who have studied this phase of Anwar’s career note his moderating influence on Malaysia’s Islamist politics. He rejected extreme positions and supported political dialogue with opposing ideological currents. A leading intellectual, Anwar broadened debates among Muslim activists and thereby reduced the possibility of a state-society confrontation. Emphasizing values and principles over rituals and opposing the quick seizure of political power, he consistently argued for bottom-up solutions instead of a top-down autocratic-imposed ideological agenda. In a very meaningful way, Anwar provided a moderate Islamist alternative to the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia’s hardline Islamist agenda that focused on creating a Sharia-based Islamic state. 

In 1982, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed recruited Anwar, who agreed with the state-sanctioned affirmative action programs for Malay Muslims to overcome their historic inequality and marginalization. Anwar rose quickly, holding such key ministerial positions as sports and culture, agriculture, education, finance and deputy prime minister. As education minister, he promoted a moderate Islamization program in keeping with multicultural Malaysia’s realities and articulated new conceptual ideas to defend policies rooted in pluralism, inter-civilizational dialogue and Asian values. 

A Turning Point

The 1997 Asian financial crisis was a turning point. His disagreement with Mahathir’s response exposed a deeper divide over growing corruption, cronyism and authoritarianism. Sacked for demanding political reform and expelled from the ruling party, Anwar’s travails were just beginning. Fearing his growing popularity, in 1998 Mahathir, backed by elements of the deep state, had him charged and convicted for corruption and sodomy. Human rights groups described the sham trial as deeply unfair and politically motivated. Sentenced to nine years, Anwar was released in 2004 when his conviction was overturned. 

One photo — that of an imprisoned and black-eyed Anwar after being severely beaten by the chief of police — went global. Symbolizing Malaysia’s struggle for democracy, it galvanized his supporters and international public opinion. His defiance launched the reformasi (reform) movement, whose guiding principles were social equality, social justice and democratic reform. He was its leading spokesman and intellectual leader.

Although this experience shifted Anwar’s politics, his moral core remained the same. He moved from Malay favoritism to embracing greater inclusion and equality for all Malaysians. This liberal and pluralist evolution fits a pattern of Muslim intellectual development that Asef Bayat calls post-Islamism, “an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice” (Ased Bayat, ed., “Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam,” Oxford, 2013). Some call this “liberal Islam,” but “ethical Islam” is a better moniker. 

This attempted state-sanctioned silencing and discrediting backfired, for Anwar’s moral authority increased and reformasi proved competitive in national elections. In 2013, it won the popular vote but not a parliamentary majority due to redistricting and gerrymandering. Fearing a future electoral victory, Anwar was again charged with sodomy, subjected to another sham trial and imprisoned in 2015 — primarily in solidarity confinement. 

He was freed in 2018 when Mathahir came out of retirement and struck an alliance with his opposition coalition to defeat the monumentally corrupt, Saudi-backed, and eventually convicted Prime Minister Najib Razak (BBC, Jan. 27, 2016; Reuters, Aug. 23, 2022 ). This alliance won the 2018 election, and Anwar was promised the premiership after two years. Twenty-two months later, the political alliance broke down. As a result of the November 2022 election, Anwar, 75, finally became prime minister.

Georgetown University’s John Esposito has known Anwar since the early 1970s and co-authored a short intellectual biography that informs this essay (“Makers of Contemporary Islam”, Esposito and Voll, Oxford, 2001). He notes that several themes stand out. The first is his indefatigable persistence, political stamina and survivability. It is astounding, Esposito observes, how Anwar and his family have survived the public defamation campaigns, his long bouts in prison and attacks on his personal character. Anwar has emerged from all of this undefeated and with good cheer, along with a dogged determination and a renewed commitment to fighting for democracy.

Esposito also recalls Anwar’s charismatic personality, which “allowed him to speak effectively to a multiplicity of different audiences.” Once, while traveling with Anwar to deeply rural and conservative parts during an election campaign, he was amazed that Anwar could speak so comfortably and effectively in a village mosque and at the Harvard Faculty Club. 

Esposito remembers a moment when Anwar’s moral fiber was clearly on display. Having left Malaysia after the 2013 elections to accept visiting professor positions at Oxford, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, his close friends, among them former Vice President Al Gore, pleaded with him to remain abroad given the state of politics and threats to his life. He was also presented with the option of running for UN Secretary General. Influential people in the West thought he stood a good chance of winning. 

The second element of this story, Esposito recalls, was of yet another looming court case that could return him to prison. Life would have been far easier for Anwar and his family had he remained abroad. In explaining why he chose to return, Anwar simply said that he couldn’t betray his supporters in Malaysia who were still struggling and sacrificing for democracy. He wanted to be with them, he owed it to them, even if it meant another prison sentence. 

In short, Anwar Ibrahim’s life is a profile in courage. Muslim activists who are combatting authoritarianism in their own societies can learn much from his heroic sacrifice and moral struggle.

Nader Hashemi is an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver and the author of “Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies” (Oxford, 2012).

[Editor’s Note: A longer version of this essay appeared in New Lines Magazine, a global affairs publication in the U.S. Read Here]

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