July 26, 2008
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
“I was dumped into this high-security police lockup for, you see, these high-level criminals. . . . On the cement floor, without any mattresses. That explains why I have to be back on this.” Anwar Ibrahim gingerly peels up his shirt to reveal a corset-like back brace. And then he bursts into laughter.
For a man released from a night in jail only a few days earlier, Mr. Anwar is an awfully jolly man. Malaysia’s opposition leader has been accused of sodomy by a former aide — a criminal offense in this Muslim-majority country that could send him to jail for up to two decades. It’s a bizarre déjà vu for the bespectacled politician, who spent 1998-2004 behind bars on a trumped-up sodomy charge the last time he challenged for political power.
But he’s pushing ahead: On Wednesday, Mr. Anwar vowed to run for parliament “imminently” in a by-election, with the aim of toppling the government by September. If he’s successful, he could be the next prime minister of Malaysia.
None of this would matter much outside Southeast Asia were it not for the fact that Mr. Anwar’s political coalition espouses something unusual in the Muslim world: the virtues of a secular, free-market democracy. More Muslims live in Asia — Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh — than in the Middle East.
Mr. Anwar is unusually suited to bridge East-West divides. A Muslim, “though never typically very religious,” he chuckles, he is a good friend of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. alike — a man who memorized “hundreds of Elvis Presley, Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson tunes” in his youth, but also attended weekend religious classes and, in his 20s, founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. He has never been afraid to argue that democracy and Islam are compatible forces — or to make that case to undemocratic Arab regimes.
In many ways, Malaysia — though it sports big urban centers and modern wonders like the Petronas Towers — seems stuck in a time warp. The media is largely state-controlled, and the executive branch still locks up political dissidents without trial under the British colonial-era Internal Security Act. [More]