Anwar Ibrahim is in the Malaysian Federal Court this week for what hopefully is the last chapter in a sordid affair that has done nothing but distract him from his reform agenda. We have been critical of Malaysia’s judiciary in the past and hope that at this moment in time, the five judges who are tasked with reviewing the appeal of Ibrahim’s March conviction on charges of sodomy, will adhere strictly to the rule of law and not be swayed by external political influences.
Malaysia’s image as an example or a model of a Muslim majority country that is on a democratic path, economically vibrant, adheres to the rule of law, and a model to the world on how to exist as a pluralistic society is under tremendous strain today. Ibrahim’s trial is just one example of how dissident voices calling for reform of institutions in Malaysia are being persecuted. In just the last two months, nearly two dozen activists have been charged under Malaysia’s archaic Sedition Act, including Ibrahim.
|Malaysia court hears Anwar Ibrahim sodomy appeal|
Ultra right wing groups have targeted minority communities threatening to burn bibles and tell the “immigrant” Chinese and Indian population of Malaysia to go home.
Academic freedom is also under attack. Two highly regarded professors were charged with sedition and Ibrahim’s lecture scheduled to take place at the University of Malaya on Monday night was systemically blocked. University staff, dismissed early in the day, and the front gates of the university were put on lockdown. A few thousand brave students defied the ban and were able to hear Ibrahim speak.
At a time when the world is confronting violent and regressive movements in parts of the Muslim world, Malaysia could be a shining example of what is possible when Muslims focus on rebuilding the tradition of scholarship, technology, and pluralism that is present throughout the history of Islamic civilisation. While the prime minister has made positive remarks about the need for a “movement of moderates” in the Muslim world, the actions of his party at home belie his intentions.
The continuing efforts to use the judicial system against opposition political leaders will undermine Malaysia’s leadership role in regional and global affairs as well as weaken Malaysia’s traditions of political openness and democracy.
Malaysian authorities, as Human Rights Watch Asia director, Phil Robertson, has stated, “risk making a travesty of the country’s criminal justice system” unless they withdraw their case against Ibrahim.
Former US Vice President Al Gore framed the issue clearly last March when he said: “It is extremely disturbing that the government of Malaysia – by continuing to press this case beyond the bounds of reason, let alone the bounds of justice – has used the courts to short-circuit the political process.”
John L Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University. His recent books are The Future of Islam and (with I Kalin) Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century.
John O Voll is Professor of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.