America’s kiss of death and some crucial issues in the Islamic Movement

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 12, 1419 1998-12-01

South-East Asia

by Zafar Bangash (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 19, Sha'ban, 1419)

So despised is Uncle Sam globally that too close an identification with him can spell the death-knell for any political figure, especially in the Muslim world. When US vice president Al Gore spoke on November 16 in Kuala Lumpur in favour of the reform movement in Malaysia launched by Anwar Ibrahim, he may have done more harm than good to the incarcerated former deputy prime minister.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed was quoted by officials as being deeply offended by Gore’s remarks but it was his trade minister, Rafidah Aziz who perhaps best expressed official Malaysian reaction. ‘It was the most disgusting speech I’ve ever heard in my life,’ she told a group of reporters afterwards. When asked to comment on the US$5 billion American commitment to help Asia, she hissed, ‘I don’t care. To me it’s not worth five cents.’

Gore was standing in for US president Bill Clinton at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month. Other US officials, such as secretary of State Madeleine Albright, were equally brusque and appeared to have done no favour to Anwar by their public outbursts. Albright dropped in for a mere 24 hours during which she held a highly-publicised meeting with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife. A number of other leaders including Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien also spoke about giving ‘democracy’ a chance to flourish in Malaysia.

Such comments did not go unchallenged from Mahathir who sarcastically asked Chretien: ‘I do not see any Red Indians in the Canadian delegation.’ Mahathir had a point even if he needed educating about the correct way to refer to the Native Peoples.

The intemperate remarks by western officials may have provided an opportunity to Mahathir to project himself as standing up to the west. Since September 2, when he unceremoniously sacked Anwar and levelled bizarre allegations against him, Mahathir had been on the defensive. He had lost much grassroots support. The reform movement launched by Anwar had assumed a life of its own, releasing the pent-up anger of the masses against Mahathir’s authoritarian rule.

The west’s eager embrace of Anwar and his reform movement highlights an aspect that had hitherto been neglected. The west is no friend of Muslims, in Malaysia or anywhere else. Western media reports have now confirmed that Anwar wanted to accept the international monetary fund (IMF) prescriptions while Mahathir had refused. This is one dimension of the problem which Mahathir is trying to exploit to his advantage. By their public outbursts, western leaders have in fact provided Mahathir more ammunition.

The other, much larger issue is the question of how Anwar had ended up in Mahathir’s cabinet in the first place. This marriage of convenience was comsumated by the late Ismail R Faruqi. The year was early 1981 when professor Faruqi was visiting Malaysia. [See Correspondence between the late professor, Mahathir and Anwar, who was then head of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) and closely affiliated with the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS)].

It was professor Faruqi’s desire to get Anwar and Mahathir together (Anwar had been a student of Faruqi’s). Mahathir had a number of conditions which he outlined in a letter date January 11, 1981, to Faruqi, who was then staying at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton, before taking Anwar onboard. These were:

1: ABIM must cease all association with PAS or other political parties; there should be no members from either group in the other, nor should ABIM members fight elections on PAS tickets.

2: ABIM should not condemn the New Economic Policy as un-Islamic but should instead clearly and openly support government attempts to better the lot of the Malay/Muslims and bumiputra in the economic and education fields;

3: ABIM should not condemn the Malay Educational policy.

Reflecting the urgency of the situation, the letter, Mahathir told Faruqi, was personally typed by him because there was nobody in his office at the time to do so. Faruqi naturally held discussions with Anwar and urged him to accept the terms. He then put this in writing to Anwar in a letter dated January 26, 1981, calling Mahathir’s offer a ‘ni’mah’ which will not be ‘properly appreciated except after its loss.’ Faruqi was lyrical in his praise of Mahathir and said if present trends continued for ‘another decade without convulsion, confrontation or war, Malaysia would become a model Islamic country worthy of emulation by all Muslim societies.’

Faruqi also told Anwar that Mahathir was well-disposed towards the Islamic Movement, ‘for his goals and your goals are one.’ He then advised his former student, in case he still had doubts: ‘Our and your task is to pull behind his leadership, to spare no energy in fulfilling this crucial Islamic goal.’

As an additional incentive, Faruqi informed Anwar that he had asked Mahathir to plead ABIM’s case in Saudi Arabia to ‘release the million dollars committed to the ABIM building, so that the necessary preparations for construction could begin forthwith. Indeed, I have asked him to seek far more funds from the Muslim States represented at the [Organisation of Islamic Conference] summit in [Makkah].’ He also advised Anwar to invite Mahathir to one of ABIM’s executive sessions at which ‘your da’wah and expansion plans could be discussed.’

Anwar, of course, accepted the advice of his former teacher and mentor and went on to become a minister in Mahathir’s cabinet. He served the good doctor loyally for 16 years until they had a falling out this year.

Anwar’s, and indeed, some parts of the Islamic Movement’s decision to join the existing political order in Muslim societies in order to bring about change from ‘within’ needs careful consideration. The late Ismail Faruqi advocated this approach. He had managed to get $25 million from the Islamic Development Bank to set up the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia (just outside Washington DC). It has attracted all the ISNA luminaries but since Faruqi’s murder in May 1986, IIIT has not contributed much either to advancing Islamic Thought or ‘Islamizing’ knowledge. Their own success story has been managing a chicken farm!

IIIT did make inroads in Malaysia’s Islamic University with which professor Faruqi had close dealings. Anwar’s inside track facilitated this considerably. In fact, the young Anwar, upon joining Mahathir’s bandwagon, started to sing his praises. At the International Islamic Federation of Students Organisations (IIFSO) conference in Khartoum, Sudan in October 1983, Anwar had advised representatives of student bodies and Islamic activists to work within the system and not to rock the boat.

This was also the line promoted by the Saudi regime. They had a host of people on their payroll in various organisations, like the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and others, to help in this enterprise. This was the approach adopted by the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Sudan when it joined Ga’afar Numeiri’s fraudulent Islamization, as did the Jama’at-e Islami by joining general Ziaul Haque’s Islamization crusade in Pakistan. The Islamic Front in Jordan made a similar mistake in 1989 when it accepted king Husain’s offer to join the cabinet under his authoritarian rule only to be ditched a year or so later.

In all cases, the cause of the Islamic Movement suffered by compromising with the prevalent jahili system. In Malaysia’s case, the late Ismail Faruqi was clearly off the mark when he told Anwar that ‘Mahathir is well-disposed towards the Islamic Movement’ and that ‘his goals and your goals are one.’

Are Muslims prepared to learn from such mistakes or they are condemned to repeating them again and again with the same disastrous consequences?

Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1998

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