Anwar: “We must encourage open debate”

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anwarIn this interview, Aliran Monthly gets Anwar Ibrahim to speak frankly about Islam and the judiciary, including the state of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in the light of recent conversion cases and the aborted Article 11 Coalition road-show last year. He goes on to discuss his own efforts at encouraging intra-Muslim dialogue.

AM: You have spoken about a new Malaysian economic agenda. Other than that, what  alternative vision would the Opposition have for the next election?  Can you help to pull together another  “rainbow coalition”? What vision can you offer the electorate? A lot of voters know the problems. But, for want of an alternative, they either don’t support another coalition or they actively support the establishment. What other planks in the reform agenda would be put up for the next election?

Anwar: We have posed this challenge: “Do you want a change or do you want to accept the status quo – not in terms of only economic policies but also issues of corruption, and inter-religious, inter-ethnic tensions?”

That is the choice we have. So we’ve to start planning. That means much more success in terms of the willingness of DAP to work with Keadilan now and Pas’s working with Keadilan now.  

To get the three to work together is the more challenging task. (There are) some contentious debates on the Islamic state  and Islamic laws – which is progress, I should say, from the period of the more difficult or rancorous exchanges in the last two years.

But in terms of the fundamental issues I think the major success of the Opposition’s position is agreement on the Constitutional framework, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.

AM: That was one of the weaknesses of the Opposition in the 2004 election. Between 1999 and 2004, Pas mistook what was a fight for constitutional government to be a victory for their own vision of an end to secular government. This time around, how will the Opposition deal with these other things – the Article 11 problem, the issues of apostasy, of certain kinds of conversions. These things bedevilled inter-religious relations the past year. Will the Opposition offer something different from what the government is offering?

Anwar: First, we must encourage open debate and a public discourse contrary to the government’s position of sweeping it under the carpet or denying the right of Malaysians to engage. Secondly, when we have a problem – particularly with some elements in the Islamic groups that tend to consider it blasphemous and will not allow open debate; we have strongly encouraged them to reverse their stand.  

I have taken the initiative to convene an intra-Muslim dialogue recently. Other than Keadilan, Pas, JIM, Abim, and Muslim Professionals were there. And the consensus was that we must allow for this open discussion. I told them, “Listen to them (the groups you disagree with); you can take very strong positions and argue the case out.”

We even invited the conveners of Article 11 (Coalition), the IFC (Inter Faith Commission) to attend, and Sisters-in-Islam; they refused for a number of reasons.  

But one major success is that there was a willingness for dialogue among the so-called Islamists, who were condemned in the past for not being willing to engage in any dialogue.  

AM: We in Aliran have never been very fond of condemning people.  We remain not only one of the few multiethnic civil society organisations, but we are one of the very rare organisations that monitor ISA detainees who have been detained on allegations of being members of unknown groups such as KMM. We have, on principle, refused to accept the incarceration of people on unproven grounds. Nonetheless, we participate in forums like Article 11’s. Then we found that some people, who were quite happy to be with us protesting outside Kamunting Detention Camp, suddenly disrupt other forums we had a legitimate right to hold.  While it is nice to hear that some of these groups would be open, their idea of dialogue is a bit peculiar.

Anwar: We know. That (disruption of the Article 11 Forum) was an unfortunate incident, but then it has been overtaken by events. In the discussions there was this consensus. I am not claiming credit because there was this consensus built in the forum.  We must allow for this.  

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But some of the concerns of the Muslims are real – at least the perceived threat – because there is a new small group of fundamentally secular elements – backed by the national media which publicize the positions of these few elites, backed by Sisters-in-Islam, backed by the forces of ministerial authority.

And whenever there is an attempt by any of these Muslim scholars to rebut, they are sidelined.  So, there is resentment. It is a perception issue now. There is no attempt to engage them in a moderate stance.  

I want to advise, I’ve said publicly. Take the IFC. I wouldn’t say I’d welcome the approach it represents. Of course, if you ask me, it’s a free country. I consider myself a liberal. If they want to speak, although I disagree with them, it is their right. But, given a choice, I’d have said that they should try and engage, take a more moderate position themselves, try and understand the views and concerns of the other side.

Now we have Muslims feeling they are threatened, non-Muslims feeling they have been compelled.

I remember the Moorthy case.  It is a classic. Finally, believe it or not, there was a consensus, among the Muslims, at least those that I met who represented the Muslim groups.  I said, “Look, the intention of Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution is to allow Muslims to seek adjudication in the Syariah Court.”

But the problem for Moorthy’s wife, for whom Azizah had a lot of sympathy, was different. Azizah met and assured her, “You have every right to go to the civil court.”  

When I discussed this with the Ulama Association, Abim – JIM was also there – their concern was,  “These fellows not only want the right for Moorthy’s wife, they want to close down the 121(1A) avenue in our courts.” Do you see the perception problem here?

Some non-Muslim elements, however, say, “Our position and our faith, our freedom, basic rights are being affected.”

Nobody is taking the initiative to meet them. IFC will not work; nor will it be credible because it is seen to be hostile against the religious elements. I’d suggest, therefore, if at all you want to advance, the approach has to be moderated by a softer line. Because religion can become very emotional, and exchanges become rancorous.  

That was why when I proposed the intra-Muslim dialogue, some of my non-Muslim friends in  Keadilan said, “You have been talking about inter-religious dialogue all along; suddenly, you say intra-Muslim.”

It is difficult to get a consensus among the Muslims; why don’t we try to get a minimum consensus? A minimum consensus, to my mind, is the higher objective even for the Muslims – it means freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, sanctity of life and property and the dignity of men and women.

AM: This problem of perception doesn’t arise out of a reality of rising inter-religious confrontation. That’s our interpretation. Even if there is insecurity within the Muslim community in Malaysia – no matter what the perception – we can’t see how anyone can say the status of Muslims is being threatened.

Anwar: I agree with you but that is their perception. I said to them, “You are in the vast majority. You are leading – Malay leadership in the ruling elite, Malay leadership of the Opposition.”  But they say, “Contrary to all this, this is what’s happening. 100,000 [apostates].”

I say, “We have to establish the facts.” Not defending or condoning, I am just stating. We have to deal with this problem. I want results. The result for me is to be seen to be willing to speak to the left and the right.  

In fact, I told the Muslim crowd, “I object when everybody is critical of the so-called liberals. Because in many ways I am a liberal. And I think Muslims should be liberal.”

They say, “What liberal?”

I reply, “I am not talking about being fundamentally secular. But being liberal means you have to be prepared to listen; you have to accept that people differ; you have to learn to tolerate differences. Not that you agree; you can disagree very strongly.”

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I was just forwarding to some friends this morning a New York Times article about this new reaction towards anything (with a) slightly religious connotation by the fundamentally secular. There is a big debate. They are trying to get this debate ongoing.

But what we lack in this country is a discourse; a healthy vibrant discourse is absent.

AM: Progressive Muslims don’t seem to be speaking out; that’s a tragedy. Take the Mufti of Perak.  He said, one, 150,000 people left Islam; two, the ‘Deepa Raya’ celebration was unIslamic; three, Datuk Azhar allegedly appearing in church to convert Malays into Christianity. All these have been reported. Nobody condemned his statements. Why is he still occupying his position?  People who spread disunity and discord shouldn’t be in a position of influence, in a position of power.

Anwar:  I don’t want to be personal with regard to the Mufti of Perak, who happens to be a personal friend and has been in many ways liberal and tolerant. I’m quite amazed how this concern has arisen.  He did explain through a friend that he had evidence of a massive effort to forcibly convert Muslims.

To which I said, “Then you report.”  There are ways, there are procedures.

Ultimately the issue of faith is a personal issue, a personal choice. It is very difficult. I’m not saying this to appease the non-Muslims. I believe that Islam has a lot to offer.  But I’m not here to compel. I’m not in a position to do so. I have neither the power nor the influence. Nobody has the power on earth to influence, to compel in terms of faith.  

As to articulating the issues in public, we have done it. I’ve done so with the Moorthy case, I was very open about it. Mind you, it coincided with the Pas Muktamar, where there were about 40,000 people. Hadi was on my right and Nik Aziz was on my left. I was speaking about the Moorthy case. It wasn’t easy. I was just testing the ground. I said, “ I am a Muslim. I am a committed Muslim. I pray, I fast, I don’t drink. That is a fact, right?”

Then I moved on, “Here’s Moorthy’s wife, Kaliammal. She’s clearly non-Muslim. Okay, you can say Moorthy’s religious status is a question mark.  But how can you deny her the right to go to court?  She was legally married to Moorthy.”

According to Azizah who went to see her, Kaliammal was really emotional. She took care of Moorthy for months. Azizah said, “Give her at least this right.” But was that reported? No. Did the PAS leadership object to that? No.

So I agree with you: Some of us must have the courage to deal with these matters head-on.  That’s why I was very disappointed with the failure of Malik and the Sisters to appear at the intra-Muslim religious dialogue for whatever reasons. It was a very good opportunity: I could persuade Pas, Abim, JIM, Muslim Professionals to agree to listen to them – which is a major shift, because in the past they were accused of disallowing people even to speak in a public forum.  

AM: If not the IFC, which has all this baggage, what kind of mechanism or approach would you use to handle this kind of situation? Is there a need for an institutionalisation of the process?  

Anwar: We must move towards that. There is no choice. How, in what form, to get more friendly groups to start discussing – that’s what I tried with the intra-Muslim dialogue.  I don’t know whether you saw part of the resolution where the issue of commitment to democracy and free expression was agreed by all parties. Or the issue of tolerance and how it was tied to governance and accountability. These are broader issues on which we should have a unified commitment. Others may say, “They may agree but then sometimes their rhetoric need not necessarily be that consistent.”  But it was a meaningful beginning.  

AM:  Perhaps one of the problems with Islam in Malaysia is the close association between being a Malay and being a Muslim.

Anwar: Ya… well, it's a reality. It can be a source of strength but also of flaws if we are not careful. We have to educate the Malays. The issue of Malay-Muslims is constitutional, not Islamic. But they must realise there’s a difference between a constitutional position and a Muslim position. There are more Muslims in China than in Malaysia, more Muslims in India than in Malaysia. They must understand that difference.

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AM: Many of  your problems over the past years coincided with some of our problems: we all had to appear in one way or another before the judiciary. Many calls have been made by various groups – the Bar Council, Aliran, etc – to have an inquiry into the 1988 judicial crisis which opened the floodgates for the erosion of confidence in the Judiciary. You yourself have some suits pending … do you feel comfortable…

Anwar: I’m very comfortable with the judiciary. It is very relevant contrary to Augustine Paul’s dictum (laughs). I came out publicly and in my blog as well on the report of Tun Salleh’s position that an independent commission is an imperative. Not as part of a personal agenda against Mahathir, but to reverse the erosion of confidence. There were weaknesses prior to 1988 because the judiciary tended to be a bit biased in favour of the government, even prior to Tun Salleh’s case.

But the disruption came under Tun Hamid Omar. Hamid Omar was the main culprit used by Mahathir to destroy the independence of the judiciary. Hamid was followed by Eusoff Chin. This continues to a varying degree; it has not been resolved.

Putting an independent commission to look at it is also an issue of justice. People say you should be able to forgive. It’s true. But here’s a clear case of injustice perpetrated against the Supreme Court, Federal Court, against justice. This needs to be corrected.  

Tun Salleh is absolutely right when he says he wants his name to be cleared. It’s regrettable that Prime Minister Abdullah has taken an irresponsible position in this particular case. He talks about Hadhari. What is Hadhari when you don’t respect the basic principle of the rule of law and justice? When injustices are perpetrated against people? It needs to be corrected. Whether you institute criminal action against the perpetrators of the crime – that’s for him to decide – Tun Salleh’s name must be cleared.

Take Mandela, the ANC [African National Congress]. There was a truth commission, reconciliation, a process. Here, that is absent. People just come out, promote their views, some on their websites, and say, “Oh, let’s forget the past and move on.” And they start highlighting Mahathir’s role and forget the crimes perpetrated against so many people in the past. Not just my personal case; there were hundreds of other cases … the banning of magazines and journals, thousands detained etc. But correction begins with the judiciary, which is the last bastion.

AM: It’s difficult to believe that a one-man army could ride roughshod, destroy this institution, and do in innocent people through lies and distortions. Yet the entire Cabinet kept quiet.

Anwar: No, let me clarify. That was in 1988. There was no consensus on both the assault on the judiciary and the detentions under Operasi Lalang. I took the matter up with Mahathir – it is known to Datuk Ahmad Sebi and Chandra Muzaffar.

What I have been criticised for, and I don’t think I can be absolved entirely of blame, is that I did not resign then. Okay. But for the record I did bring the issues up. But that was a system in which the Prime Minister hardly referred to the Cabinet: just the procedural thing went to the Cabinet. There was no discussion about it.

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