Saturday, July 22, 2006

Anwar Ibrahim: building bridges



“I like my politicians with a dose of humour,” explains John Button as he sits down next to us to hear former Malaysian Deputy PM, Anwar Ibrahim, lecture us on democracy at Melbourne University.

The laughter lines around former Senator Button’s familiar face remind us that he’s one of those rare politicians with brains and a hearty sense of the absurd. How badly we need his like in the parliament - but it’s hard to see a “gentleman politician” like Button, or Fred Daly or John Gorton getting elected in a 21st century political landscape flattened by party drones, pollsters and Howard apparatchiks.

Still, it’s a good enough reason to be here on a cold Friday night to listen to the man thrown into jail for six years by a recalcitrant Mahatir Mohamad, and who now is being touted as either a future Malaysian PM or the next UN Secretary-General, depending whose blog you believe.

Anwar Ibrahim is here to speak on ‘Islam and Democracy’ – and he starts by gently mocking his hosts at the University for a little latent Islamophobia: “I wonder if we’d all be turning up to attend a forum entitled ‘Christianity and Democracy?’, or ‘Judaism and Democracy?’” he ponders. “Unlikely.”

He reminds us that Turkey and Indonesia are two Islamic countries whose democracies have yet to be taken over by the fundamentalists. His message: There is enough wriggle room in Islamic practice to allow for the fundamental cornerstones of democracy, institutions like protection of liberty and freedom of the press.

Anwar’s theme; the qualities of humility, tolerance and sensitivity are needed as never before if we are to raise above the sloganeering and jaundice our political age. And Anwar has had plenty of practice in the politics of walking on eggshells in a multiethnic Islamic state with a history of religious and political unrest.

After a wide-ranging address, it’s time for questions: a Malaysian student wants to know what he’d do about Christian missionaries converting Muslims. It’s a hot topic back home. “I don’t want to sound like a politician…” begins Anwar, launching into a non-answer, albeit an elegant one. The thrust; while he acknowledges Malaysia as an Islamic state, he believes in freedom of religious expression. But as to “reports of Chrisitian missionaries proselytizing…and seeking to use financial incentives to convert Muslims” – that’s another matter.

Anwar carefully manages to walk both sides of the street, but the headscarfed student is unimpressed. She wants stronger words, but doesn’t get them. “Is it important to win the argument, or win the battle?” he asks, seeking patience. “I’d say, it’s to win the battle, and the war.”

Or as that old scandal-sheet publisher, HL Mencken, put it: “We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

An old foe, Mahatir Mohamad, has been in the news lately, attacking his successor, Abdullah Badawi. The nominal issue is PM Badawi’s decision to scrap Mahatir’s mad plan to build a bridge between Singapore and Malaysia, but the power struggle runs deeper. Anwar’s solution is elegant: “Maybe a bridge half-way across might please everybody.” As to the noisy re-emergence of Mahatir as his protégé Badawi’s greatest critic: “I am a democrat. I say, let him speak. The more he does, the better for us.”

We wanted to ask this question: “How can your weapons of humility, tolerance and sensitivity challenge the prevailing political tool: fear?” But the man’s popular, and we didn’t get a chance.

Still, his answer to our favourite question came close. Our questioner stated: “I’ve been trying to do the right thing as a practising Muslim. I educate my children at the local school, and on the weekend they go to religious class. I participate in our democracy - the problem at the moment is that democracy is sold as the solution, but in practice it’s far from perfect. How do we resolve this dilemma?”

His response: Hang in there. Muslims need to engage with the wider community - and that means with mainstream Australia, with those radicals seeking to distort the faith for their own means, and with hard-line conservatives who seek to isolate Muslims for their own political agenda; fewer ghettoes, more tolerance.

That’s no half-way bridge. As Mencken observed: “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right...”

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