Anwar Ibrahim on Conscientious Governance

[This is a summary of Anwar Ibrahim’s remarks on Conscientious Governance at the International Institute of Islamic Thought. It is not a transcript, but a summary of my impressions of his presentation and the discussion.]

Hisham Altalib (Introduction). Anwar Ibrahim was chairman of ABIM when UNMO asked him to join in 1982. He rose to be deputy prime minister of Malaysia. Politically he is pro democracy, rule of law, anti-corruption, and for the eradication of poverty. Margaret Thatcher said if she had to appoint a team of finance ministers she would appoint Anwar as the captain of that team. When urged to lie low in the 1980s he said, “Silence mow is a betrayal.” Later urged to leave the country, he refused to let down his supporters. He is a man to forgive and forget and when Muhatir invited him to join the coalition he said I forgive and forget. He said his country cannot spend its tax money on defense and military because it could never compete with his neighbors, but instead put 25% of the budget into education saying it is in trade and technology that Malaysia could compete. When Anwar was pardoned he was to be moved, like Prophet Yusuf, from prison to power. Somebody had a theory that the enemies of truth slander the good people with fake news. Yusuf of scripture was accused of adultery. The modern charge was sodomy. Like Yusuf, Anwar is honest and professional. Bad governance is easy. Conscientious government is hard.

Anwar Ibrahim. We have united Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists in Malaysia behind the call for change going against a time in which the appeal of racism around the world is pronounced. We are making change in a majority Muslim country without the loss of a single life.

Academics and elites think they have all the answers, but their ideas do not connect with the aspirations of the masses. It is not enough to understand liberty and equality and democracy unless we understand the atrocities committed against certain groups. Not just democracy, but accountability, is required. It is a strong part of our religious tradition even if not observed in practice. I am less concerned with the designs of the West than with the dynamics within our own societies.

We were raised to admire Salahuddin because he defeated the Westerners, but he also created a new level of conscientious governance. For the first ten years his concern was not expanding territory, but strengthening society by enhancing trade relations and promoting education. It is important for our intellectual leaders to reintroduce these great leaders, not just as military heroes, but also as pioneers of good governance. Without good governance who will provide an environment of free flow of ideas necessary for education and creative thought? Who decides whether creative thinking will be allowed in educational institutions? Who disburses money to the educational institutions? Ali ibn Abu Talib’s letter to the governor of Egypt deserves republication with fresh notes. I encouraged Muhathir to use this letter to emphasize the importance of ethics to governance.

Soon after the elections Yusuf Qaradawi called me and said the last few years have been news of despair, gloom, and destruction, until this news of change in Malaysia. People expect you to immediately rid the county of corruption and bring in economic reform and growth. Beyond the problem of high expectations, the environment has changed: some people are not ready to see the prime minister criticized. The problem of freedom of speech has been replaced by the problem of freedom after speech. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus all believe that marriage must be between a man and a woman, but one must allow those who disagree to express their views. There are different views of economic policies and their cost, but the problem of grinding poverty must be addressed. The needs of every citizen must be addressed, and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz is the best example of caring about this. We have reduced poverty from 40% to 15% but if you are in the 15%, it is still a problem for you. The same for those without access to medical care, etc. As long as there is injustice to one person I think it is the duty of government to deal with it. In my mind that is economic and social stability.

I would end by emphasizing the need to change our traditional views. In Malaysia we have been relatively successful in encouraging Islamic banks, and they have become effective and influential, but they have been criticized for making halal conventional instrument. But such questions must be addressed according to the maqasid ash shariah, the higher objectives of the Islamic Law, to guarantee peace, security, and social justice.

Ovamir Anjamin. The Prophet is reported to have said that to be given the duty of ruling is to have been slaughtered with a blunt knife, but who manages to rule with justice will be in the highest rank of the afterlife. Since the Arab spring, the view that Islam can only prosper in the modern world under force has become the dominant view. The alternative of a just distribution of wealth is seen as unislamic and Marxist. How is social justice viewed as undercover Marxism? How can ‘adl be seen as unislamic? Abdul Malik ibn Marwan had been known as the pigeon of the mosques, but once he became Khalifah, he eliminated people who stood in the way of his power and et aside the demands of his din when necessary. There were idealists like Ali and Abdullah ibn Zubaid who failed in practice while trying to lead Arab tribes who thought their own customs and Islam were the same thing. Umar ibn Abdulaziz was able to implement his ideals opposing a kind of Arab racism and putting the life of a single Muslim above the winning of any territories. The example of the Khalifah Rashidun serves not only the Medina city-state but the needs of empire.

Kamran Bokhari (Center for Global Policy). Skillful leadership manages the expectation of the public while dispensing justice. In Muslim majority countries it is intrareligious rather than interreligious diversity that is the challenge. In the West we like categories, and we speak of secularists and Islamists as categories, whereas in the Muslim world they are poles and most people fall between those poles. The people who want to overthrow the autocrats have autocratic tendencies themselves. There should be confidence to let people talk, but for a level playing field, conscientious governance is a prerequisite. Turkey was once put forward as a model, but they now fall back into autocracy. All ideals of conscientious governance are great, but we must aware of the underlying constraints on the ground where people are on the verge of giving up hope. All incoming governance inherits a situation. You need both to mobilize people and to manage their expectations.

Anwar Ibrahim. This session has been too serious. Remember the movie love story: where do we begin? Even the most secular Malay will pray and will not insult Islam. This is not laïcité. Who wants to be unfree? Jeffersonian or Islamic, who wants to be dictated to? People who contrast my current language with that I used in my youth must understand that then I was 21 and now I’m 71. I am called a hypocrite for quoting Shakespeare in New York and the Qur’an in the villages, but I would be stupid to quote the Qur’an in New York and Shakespeare in the villages. The core of my message is the same. Shakespeare is not just the core of Western literature, he is a universal man. Appreciating him is not to reject the Islamic classics.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. No one rejects `adl; the problem is in defining it. It encompasses both social justice and the prohibition on theft. How do you propose to establish justice.

Anwar Ibrahim. While we depend on trade with China we need to review some dubious dealings with particular companies. When the economy does not allow us to afford huge price increases we have a right to review, we will honor all commitments, but when we have compelling questions about the legitimacy of agreements, we have a right to renegotiate. You cannot discriminate on the basis of race or religion. It is a difficult position because some Malay demagogues will say, “He has given up on the Malays.” We also need judicial independence. What is religion after all if it is not about justice and compassion, about peace, security, and justice for everyone. Let us remember Umar’s advice: “Do not be hasty my son.”

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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