Anwar Ibrahim and the Labyrinth of Post-Islamism

The election of the veteran thinker and dissident to the Malaysian premiership marks a milestone in contemporary Muslim politics

Anwar Ibrahim and the Labyrinth of Post-Islamism
Anwar Ibrahim speaking to supporters in Port Dickson, Malaysia, in 2018. (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Malaysia’s general election on Nov. 24 catapulted the activist, intellectual, opposition leader and former prisoner of conscience Anwar Ibrahim to the office of prime minister, a position to which he had long aspired but had been repeatedly denied by the political machinations of Malaysia’s ruling elites and deep state. The path for Ibrahim’s ascension to Malaysia’s highest non-royal office was cleared when his multiethnic and reformist coalition Pakatan Harapan won a plurality of seats in the election. His victory represents the zenith of a dramatic political journey going back more than half a century. It also has implications beyond Malaysia for debates, both theoretical and practical, about Islam, democracy, pluralism and the state.

Ibrahim’s ascension to prime minister is a victory for Malaysian democracy and human rights. Its greatest impact will be felt within Malaysia, the epicenter of Ibrahim’s struggle against authoritarianism. But his victory also has considerable symbolic importance in the broader Muslim world. In these dark days of Muslim history — awash with torture states, corrupt ruling elites and repressed civil societies — the election of a democratic dissident who is both a devout Muslim and a global thinker has the potential to embolden other democratic forces in Muslim societies. It also represents an inflection point in what has come to be known as the “post-Islamist” turn in the politics of the Muslim world.

Ibrahim was born into a middle-class family in British colonial Malaysia in 1947. He received a mixed secular and religious education from his parents, who were active in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading Malay national party that fought for independence and has ruled the country for most of its modern history. His intellectual gifts were on display from an early age. Student leadership came naturally, both in high school and at the University of Malaya, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1971. His political awakening and intellectual journey mirror the story of other Muslim intellectual activists who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s.

That generation of Muslims, who grew up in the early decades of postcolonialism, grappled with a common set of tribulations: anger at the economic, political and cultural dimensions of colonialism; a desire to fast-track development in order to catch up to the West; and a growing skepticism toward secular and Western paradigms of progress. These frustrations culminated in a gradual turn to a religious-philosophical framework in search of cultural authenticity and psychological empowerment.

Another unifying theme was the desire for political power to advance the cause of social justice and a concomitant critique of postcolonial ruling elites, most of whom were secular and seen as a structural obstacle inhibiting progress. Finally, there was growing bitterness toward Euro-American double standards and betrayal, embodied most clearly in the case of the Palestinians, whose plight became a marker of identity for many Muslims in the late 20th century.

New theorizing was required both to articulate and to give coherence to these ideas. Ibrahim played a seminal role, especially in the transition from secular to Islamic politics. This took the form of speeches and lectures more than books or essays. In this sense, he was performing the classic role of an intellectual during times of upheaval. “I grew up in a time of great social transformation wherein the interplay of ideas and events coincided with the rise of student activism, religious revivalism and political turmoil,” he observed in “The Asian Renaissance” (1996). In Malaysia, Ibrahim was a leading activist-theoretician.

His evolution and maturation would pass through several phases. His ideas were shaped by the legacy of British rule; changing local, regional and global contexts; voracious reading; international travel; and, most importantly, his own political experience as part of Malaysian civil society and as a government minister. His political career and intellectual transformation have gone through at least five distinct phases, from secular activist to Islamist intellectual, Muslim politician, post-Islamist opposition leader and political prisoner, and, finally, prime minister of the Federation of Malaysia.

Ibrahim’s early political activism focused on ethnic Malay solidarity. Malaysia is a multiethnic society whose dominant groups are Malay Muslims, Chinese and Indians, representing roughly 60%, 22% and 7% of the population, respectively. Colonial rule left the Malay population disproportionately poor, marginalized and rural. Ibrahim was involved in an early project to send students to live with the rural poor with the aim of raising their political consciousness, advancing literacy and confronting peasant and worker exploitation. These efforts led to his first stint in prison between 1974 and 1976. As a student leader, he was arrested for joining protests with striking workers who were angry about deteriorating economic conditions and government corruption.

Imprisonment offered Ibrahim time to read, reflect and contemplate. His close friend and fellow activist Kamaruddin Muhammad Nor recalls that it was at this point that Ibrahim began to “rationalize the theme of our struggle for socio-economic justice with the ideals of Islam.” In his book “Islamic Revivalism,” Ibrahim reflects on this period:

We were impatient and angry about the plight of the Malays, their education, rural development, rural health. … We were very angry, disgusted and critical of the government. There seemed to be no moral foundation and no spiritual guidance. We turned to Islam to fill this vacuum and to look for solutions.

This transition overlapped with similar trends among intellectual activists in other Muslim societies driven by the same push-and-pull factors, who tended to romanticize religious ideals.

Ibrahim’s worldview was partly shaped by the writings of Islamist thinkers such as the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, the South Asian theologian Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi, and the Iranian jurist and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Like other Islamists, Ibrahim visited Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. “Islam is the solution” was the mantra of this generation of Muslim activists, including in Malaysia. It was in this context that Ibrahim became a founding member of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), whose broader goals were rooted in the belief that social justice could best be achieved through an Islamic moral and political framework. The objective was the Islamization of society and politics.

Several scholars who have studied this phase of Ibrahim’s career, such as Joseph Chinyong Liow, Greg Barton, John L. Esposito and John Voll, have noted his moderating influence on Islamist politics in Malaysia. Ibrahim rejected extremism and violence, instead supporting dialogue with opposing ideological currents. He emphasized values and principles over rituals. While most Islamists sought to seize political power and impose a new order on society, Ibrahim advocated bottom-up, gradual solutions. He thereby offered a moderate Islamist alternative to the hardline Islamist agenda of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which focused on creating an Islamic state based on the Sharia. He thus had a calming effect on the Malaysian Islamist scene and helped broaden debates among Muslim activists. In this, he was not unlike his contemporary Rached Ghannouchi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, who had a similarly moderating effect on political Islam in Tunisia. The two men are often compared as former Islamists who went on to become Muslim democrats.

In 1982, Ibrahim was recruited by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to serve in government. To redress the marginalization of the Malay community, the premier established affirmative action programs for Malay Muslims. Ibrahim agreed with this policy U-turn, though he (and many others) would eventually come to see it as a new form of discrimination against Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian communities.

Ibrahim quickly rose up through the political ranks to hold key ministerial positions: sports and culture, agriculture, education, finance, then deputy prime minister. As minister of education he promoted a moderate Islamization program that was in keeping with the realities of Malaysia’s multicultural society. He articulated new ideas to defend policies rooted in concepts of pluralism, intercivilizational dialogue and “Asian values.”

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 was a turning point. Ibrahim’s disagreement with the prime minister’s policy response to the crisis exposed a deeper divide over growing corruption, cronyism and authoritarianism in Malaysia. He was sacked for demanding political reform and expelled from the ruling party. Yet his travails were only just beginning. Fearing Ibrahim’s growing popularity, Mahathir, backed by elements of the deep state, concocted a scheme to defame him publicly and end his political career. In 1998, Ibrahim was charged and convicted for corruption and sodomy in a sham trial described by human rights groups as deeply unfair and politically motivated. He was given a nine-year prison sentence but was released in 2004, when his conviction was overturned.

While in custody, Ibrahim was severely beaten. The image of an imprisoned and black-eyed Anwar Ibrahim went global. It came to symbolize the struggle for democracy in Malaysia, galvanizing his supporters and international public opinion. His defiance launched the Reformasi (reform) movement, whose foundational principles were economic equality, social justice and democratic reform. Ibrahim was the movement’s main spokesperson and intellectual leader. The period marked an important shift in his focus, from Malay particularism to an embrace of greater inclusion and equality for all Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity.

This evolution toward pluralism fits a pattern of Muslim intellectual development that the scholar Asef Bayat has termed “post-Islamism.” Bayat, the author of “Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn” (2007) and editor of “Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam” (2013), first noticed this intellectual trend among Iranian reformists in the 1990s, at the level of society rather than the state. Similar developments were taking shape in other Muslim societies during the same period.

Bayat describes post-Islamism as a “political and social condition where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters.” It represents a “metamorphosis of Islamism (in ideas, approaches, and practices) from within and without,” in which Islamists engage in a process of introspection and rethinking of state-society relations and the foundations of legitimate political authority. “Islamism becomes compelled, both by its own internal contradictions and by societal pressure, to reinvent itself.”

Bayat argues that, while post-Islamism represents an ideological turn toward secularism, it is not to be understood as an abandonment but, rather, as a reinterpretation of religious politics. “Post-Islamism is neither anti-Islamic nor un-Islamic or secular,” he observes. Rather, it represents

an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom (albeit at varying degrees), with democracy and modernity, to achieve what some have termed an ‘alternative modernity.’

Other Islamist parties elsewhere — Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party, Egypt’s Center Party (Hizb al-Wasat), Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (prior to its decisive turn toward authoritarianism circa 2013) — have similarly come to rethink the relationship between religion, state and society. Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party, founded by Ibrahim, is another example.

The attempt to silence and discredit Ibrahim backfired. His popularity and moral authority only increased, and his opposition movement proved competitive in national elections. In 2013, it won the popular vote but fell short of a majority of seats in parliament, due to redistricting and gerrymandering. Fearing a future electoral victory by the opposition, the state once again charged Ibrahim with sodomy and conducted yet another sham trial. He was sent back to jail in 2015 and served much of his prison term in solitary confinement.

He was freed in 2018, when his old nemesis Mathahir Mohamad came out of retirement and struck an alliance with Ibrahim’s opposition coalition. Together they mobilized their supporters to defeat the monumentally corrupt Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was backed by Saudi Arabia and eventually convicted in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (or 1MBD) scandal. The Ibrahim-Mathahir alliance won the 2018 election, and Ibrahim was promised the premiership after two years. Twenty-two months later, the political alliance broke down. Yet now, as a result of the November 2022 election, Ibrahim has finally become prime minister, at the age of 75.

What is the significance of Ibrahim’s triumph for the broader Muslim world? Is his election of merely symbolic importance for Muslim democratic forces? Are there any concrete goals he can pursue during his time in office that might leave an enduring legacy?

Like all democratic leaders, Ibrahim will have to balance principles with interests — his ethical values against the national interests of Malaysia. The tension between these two is most clearly evident in the context of China and the Uyghur genocide. This will be an early test for Ibrahim.

On the one hand, China is Malaysia’s closest trading partner and largest foreign investor. Malaysia’s economy has been in decline in recent years. This was, indeed, a critical factor in engendering the desire for change that led to Ibrahim’s electoral victory. On the other hand, China’s persecution of the Uyghurs is among the worst human rights crises on the planet today, widely viewed as a genocide by the human rights community. The reaction from most Muslim leaders to this moral catastrophe has ranged from silence to open support for Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. For example, at the height of the genocide in 2019, the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued an Orwellian statement that “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens; and looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”

Will Ibrahim prove any different from other Muslim leaders? Will he provide the type of moral leadership on issues of global importance for which democratic forces in the Muslim world yearn? Doing so would solidify his legacy as a moral exemplar and inspirational Muslim leader, attributes that are in short supply today in an Arab-Islamic world dominated by dictators, despots and tyrants.

But anyone expecting grand gestures from Ibrahim aimed at the global Muslim community will likely be disappointed. He was elected to lead Malaysia, not the global “ummah.” His overriding focus will be on internal Malaysian affairs, and rightly so. His leadership example, however, could inspire other Muslim societies while indirectly embarrassing the many authoritarian rulers who dominate them.

As a post-Islamist, what might Ibrahim’s leadership style look like? We already have an indication from the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of his election victory. His most recent book was titled “SCRIPT for a Better Malaysia: An Empowering Vision and Policy Framework for Action” (the acronym SCRIPT standing for sustainability, care and compassion, respect, innovation, prosperity and trust). This vision builds on his experience both within and outside government, his time spent at some of the world’s top universities and his engagement with leading global thinkers. It attempts to chart a new course for Malaysia that can meet the myriad challenges it faces.

In keeping with his deeply religious but modern Muslim identity, Ibrahim reinterprets Quranic verses to justify a moral commitment to environmental sustainability and fighting corruption. He universalizes the Islamic concepts of inclusion, care and compassion. He argues we should broaden our understanding of community beyond the narrow confines of one’s own religious community to include other communities. In this way, he is clearly advancing moral arguments for the equal treatment of Chinese, Indian and other Malaysian minorities who have been discriminated against by the longstanding government policies of Malay Muslim legal supremacy.

In his first days as prime minister, Ibrahim has already elaborated on these core themes, which he pledges will guide his government. During his first press conference as prime minister, he emphasized anti-corruption, judicial independence and improving the economic conditions of ordinary people. He has led by example, immediately announcing that he would take no salary and, in the name of fiscal responsibility, rejected the purchase of a new Mercedes-Benz S 600 car, insisting a Toyota Camry would be sufficient. Contrast this with the opulence of other leaders in the Muslim world, particularly in the Arab Gulf states. Ibrahim also acted immediately to address the national shortage of eggs, which are a staple and the cheapest source of protein for many Malaysians.

In a speech at Georgetown University in 2014, titled “My Trials and Tribulations,” Ibrahim powerfully wove together his life story, his Islamic cosmopolitanism and his optimism about the future of Malaysia. Several themes stood out.

While he described the experience of solitary confinement as difficult, he said it also allowed for prayer and contemplation. He spent his time “reading the classics,” in particular the collected works of William Shakespeare, “four and half times, while taking copious notes.” He also read the Quran, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita and Confucius, as well as the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. He also took special pleasure in listening to music, singing out loud with “Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles, Hindi songs and Malaysian national songs.”

In the speech, he then discussed his 2004 meeting with the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. He had traveled to Johannesburg at the latter’s invitation. Mandela told him he wished he could have done more to secure his release. Humbled by these words, Ibrahim revealed that one of the books that sustained him in prison was Mandela’s celebrated 1994 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” Jokingly, Ibrahim added that, comparatively speaking, his story was a “short walk to freedom,” which produced an outburst of laughter from the anti-apartheid icon.

Mandela and Ibrahim held several long conversations together. In a moment of somber reflection, Mandela looked at Ibrahim’s young children and, “with a tinge of sadness,” told his interlocutor: “Some say we must be crazy, inflicting harm not only on ourselves but especially on our wives, our kids and our friends,” referring to the political choices they made that led to imprisonment and protracted separation from their loved ones. Ibrahim replied, “At least we are not mad, but crazy for sure.” So why do it? “Because we believe in a cause,” Ibrahim says; namely, the cause

of democracy, freedom and justice, which is not a theoretical construct. It is what Alexis de Tocqueville has referred to as ‘habits of the heart.’ It is an issue of conviction, an issue of courage and of the tenacity of purpose. It is about faith, values, ethics and principles that you cannot compromise. You are born to be free. No dictator or authoritarian leader can rob that freedom from you.

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