Malaysian dissident now eyes world stage

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar, recently out of jail, hopes to bridge Muslim-West divide.

Six years in a solitary prison cell afforded Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, plenty of time for reflection.

When not reliving his own downfall, he dwelled at length on the divide between the West and the Islamic world, and what could be done to repair the rift. As premier-in-waiting in the 1990s, he had moved easily across this fault line, a symbol of Malaysia's moderate brand of Islam harnessed to economic success.

Now, two months after being freed by an appeals court, Malaysia's most famous dissident is preparing for another turn on the international stage, this time as a broker of sorts between US neoconservatives and the Muslim world. He has accepted a fellowship next year at Oxford University and plans to spend much of his time rekindling old relationships. His admirers - among them former Vice President Al Gore and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz - cross party lines.

But after his long confinement, Anwar admits he's still playing catch-up on the seismic shifts in US policy and diplomacy in recent years.

"The political landscape has changed. I have listened a lot in the last few months to friends here and in the West, and to Muslim activists, and it's unfortunate it has developed to this stage in terms of enmity and rancor between Islam and the United States, in particular," he says. "But what is the option? We have to continue to engage, including with the Bush administration."

Behind his lofty goals of diplomatic engagement lies Anwar's buried dream of leading his country. Until his sacking and jailing in 1998 on sodomy and graft charges, he was the natural successor to Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who stepped down last year after 22 years in power.

A former Muslim youth leader whose charisma and sharp wits guided him to the top ranks of political office, Anwar appeared equally at home with Saudi princes, rural preachers, and American bankers. But his disloyalty to Mahathir during an economic crisis eventually landed him in jail - a move widely seen as Mahathir's revenge on his deputy.

Although his sodomy conviction was overturned in September, Anwar is barred from running for public office until 2008 because of a related corruption conviction, a move seen in Malaysia as a political compromise.

For now, Anwar says he wants to work with the fragmented opposition parties that performed poorly in elections in March, and push reform.

"I'm still free to express my view, to meet political leaders. I'm still active in meeting the people and articulating the reform agenda, issues of corruption, democracy, and civil society that this country needs," he says.

Some observers, including those sympathetic to Anwar's cause, point out that Malaysia has changed since 1998 in ways that arguably take the sting out of Anwar's calls for reform.

Most crucially, Mahathir has gone, replaced by Abdullah Badawi, who won a huge electoral mandate with a mix of Islamic piety and antigraft promises. Since then, he has begun to whittle away at persistent cronyism, both in government and the United Malay National Organization, which has ruled in coalition since independence in 1957.

Analysts say Abdullah's humble approach appeals to ethnic Malay voters who deserted UMNO in 1999, partly because of the bad taste left by Anwar's downfall. Having won back these voters, they say, Abdullah may have little to fear from the man who once coveted his job.

"Anwar is a celebrity. Malays generally are sympathetic to Anwar, but to what extent that can be converted into real political support, I'm doubtful," says Abdul Razak Baginda, director of the Malaysian Strategic Resource Center, a private UMNO-backed think tank.

Given such obstacles, and the ban on holding office, supporters say the timing is ripe for Anwar to rebuild his international profile. Among the first to telephone him on his release was Mr. Wolfowitz, whom Anwar calls a close friend. After back surgery in Germany for an injury he blames on a beating in police custody in 1998, Anwar traveled last month to Saudi Arabia, which paid for a private jet for him.

Anwar says this range of contacts gives him the latitude to chide both the US for riding roughshod over Muslim sensitivities and leaders of Muslim countries for holding the US to standards they may not meet themselves. Choosing his words carefully, he argues that the US is right to advocate reform in Muslim countries run by unelected dictators, though it can't be imposed by force, as in Iraq.

"I think the [US] has a point here, in trying to drive and influence and do whatever we can to ensure that the people regain their freedom, not according to the dictates of America, but their own homegrown democracy," he says.

Anwar says he plans to use his time at Oxford to explore ways of promoting reforms in the Islamic world and more nuanced US policies in that direction. "I think I will be more successful by supporting existing initiatives by some credible groups. I think that would be more useful than starting an initiative on my own," he says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.