Thursday, July 27, 2006

Anwar, Shakespeare & Islam

Anwar (taken from Nur or divine light) is a popular Malaysian Islamic name. Yet after visiting Malaysia last month I was left with the impression few Malaysians were interested in what one particular Anwar had to offer.

The country has moved on since the heady days of the late 1990s, when Reformasi supporters of the then recently deposed Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim brought Kuala Lumpur to a near standstill.

During a visit to the headquarters of ABIM (Malaysia's Islamic Youth Movement founded and led for many years by Anwar), not a single activist even mentioned Anwar's name.

Now he spends much of his time lecturing at Oxford or Georgetown University in Washington DC and he has just completed a whirlwind speaking tour of Australia, his second visit since his release from prison.

His first tour, in early 2005, was when he was still suffering the effects of prison-related health complications and most of his addresses were to Muslim audiences. On his recent visit, Anwar delivered lectures to wider audiences on such diverse topics as Shakespearean drama, democratic politics, liberal democracy and human rights.

Shakespeare is unlikely inspiration for Muslim political activists. But although Anwar is well known in Muslim circles for having spent his six years in jail memorising the Koran in Arabic he also finished the complete works of Shakespeare four times.

He frequently uses lines from Shakespeare in his speeches, arguing Shakespeare's message contains fundamental values shared by people of all faiths and of no faith in particular.

During an address to the Canberra Islamic Centre, Anwar managed to incorporate his image of King Lear as the Islamic ideal of a just ruler.

Anwar felt comfortable surrounded by Canberra's multi-ethnic Muslims, poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of different Muslim ethnic groups. But he had serious messages, reminding his audiences of the necessity to engage with the broader multicultural Australian community.

He says countries like Australia and New Zealand are reviving the classical Spanish Islamic tradition of multi-racial and multi-religious societies, known as convivencia.

"I use the example of Malaysia. It is a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Islam is only relevant to Malaysia if it is understood in a way that reinforces our multi-racial character."

Anwar is scathing of Muslim communities who choose to live in cultural cocoons, refusing to interact with other communities. In Istanbul last month at a conference of European Muslim leaders, Anwar urged EU Muslims to see themselves first and foremost as Europeans, not confining their political activities to pursuing predominantly Muslim issues.

He castigated Muslims who only seem to agitate about human rights violations committed against other Muslims.

"Where are the Muslims campaigning for the freedom of Burma's opposition leader, our sister Aung San Suu Kyi? Or must we wait for her to adopt Islam before we help her?"

Anwar was accompanied for the first part of his Australian trip by his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, a medical practitioner who has now become the family's most active politician. During his last public appearance before imprisonment, Anwar surprised his wife by telling supporters of his Reformasi movement : "If anything happens to me, I want Azizah to take over."

Before his internment on charges including sodomy - an allegation, says Azizah, designed to undermine Anwar's Islamic credentials - Anwar's wife was known for her softly-spoken manner. She was elected to Parliament in 1999, and continues to hold her seat.

Anwar himself is left with profound physical and psychological scars from his jailing. In July 2004, on the eve of his release, Malaysian journalist MG Pillai reported Anwar's doctors as saying he faced "imminent paralysis, neurological, kidney and urinary failure". He has begun a multimillion-dollar civil action against former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed but still jokes about his prison experience.

Anwar now sees himself as a bridge linking the Islamic and Western worlds and is excited about what he calls the "great wave of democratic Islam" sweeping such countries as Indonesia and Turkey.

Anwar's goal of building bridges abroad is admirable. But perhaps a more pressing need is for him to build bridges between faiths and ethnicities within Malaysia itself.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in politics at Macquarie University. This article first appeared in the NZ Herald on 27 July 2006.

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