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The United States and the Muslim World

Anwar Ibrahim, Distinguished Senior Visiting Fellow, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Anwar Ibrahim, Distinguished Senior Visiting Fellow, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)


Washington, DC

April 18, 2005

The subject of my speech this afternoon is not a topic of my choice. It was foisted upon me by Richard Holbrooke, a great diplomat and a dear friend. It is a daunting subject. But I agreed, because it is a subject that should not be avoided. Furthermore, since September 11 global diplomacy is almost defined by the relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

The September 11 tragedy happened in the third year of my solitary confinement. It took several days before I could recover from the shock and to understand its full implications. However, I was dismayed to read some Muslim intellectuals’ reactions to the attack which equivocated between condemnation of the terrorist act and moral posturing against US global hegemony.

I started my public career as a Muslim youth activist. I am aware of the ordeal and sufferings of fellow Muslims living as minorities displaced under repressive regimes. But I believe that it is against common decency, to say the least, to lecture a nation in grief, no matter what the pretext may be. In any event, acts of terrorism must be condemned unequivocally. No excuse can be invoked to mitigate the condemnation.

I therefore like to take a moment to urge Muslims, particularly those who have made clear their anti-American sentiments, to temper their collective angst with a dose of reality. The United States must shoulder responsibility for the injustice perpetrated in the Middle East, particularly Palestine as well as its equivocal positions in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world. But I must at the same time stress that if not for America, the voices of freedom will still be silent today in many parts of the world including the Muslim world. This is one big contradiction that the Americans must resolve.

Yes, we live in times of great contradictions. Several decades after Marshall McLuhan celebrated the emergent of a single global village, instead of progressing towards a united global society, we have become more conscious of our own separateness and different identities. It is the greatness of America that its political system does not force its people to melt themselves into a single artificial entity. You celebrate tolerance and diversity in its full measure.

Yet you sometimes erect barriers that only serve to separate and broaden the chasm between cultures and nations. Let me therefore appeal to America to actively re-engage the Muslim world and the global community as partners in the movement towards freedom and democracy. Ever since Woodrow Wilson enunciated the principle of national self-determination, America has been a great supporter of the decolonization process of Muslim countries. Later on these Muslim countries became partners to America in the war against communism.

Grief is a transforming moment, and to share someone else’s sorrow is a fundamental human virtue. It is the beginning of a profound connection and a lasting friendship. I learnt this myself. These last six years were the most difficult. There were moments that were so dark that I wasn’t sure that I would ever see daylight again. But somehow, in these moments of personal anguish, I gained new friends. Among them are citizens of this country who showed kindness to me and my family too. And they include the present and the previous administrations, which were consistent in their criticism against the sham trials that I had to undergo and the injustice inflicted on me and my colleagues in Malaysia.

I believe that man by nature wants to be free. To be un-free, be it under slavery, or colonialism, or dictatorship, and other forms of political tyranny, is not in his nature. I believe we may take stock of the observation of Alfred North Whitehead that the decisive moment when man progressed from barbarity to civilization is when he moves from reliance from the use of force to reliance on the use of persuasion. Great sages of the East and the West have conquered the minds of men but they did not do it through armies. They did it through reason and persuasion. They did not conquer by the might of arms, but through the arsenal of their arguments. From force to persuasion, this is also the decisive criterion of democracy. Likewise, the greatest Muslim thinker in the twentieth century Muhammad Iqbal advocates persuasion over force. Then why shouldn’t M uslims who fight for freedom in their society heed the call?

Though I believe America will play a crucial role in the democratization of Muslim countries, it must be pointed out that the process itself must emanate from the Muslim countries themselves. Instead of hibernating in a self-imposed winter of benign resignation, Muslim nations must themselves take the lead to move from autocracy to democracy. And this is no mere rhetoric. Just look at Indonesia. They didn’t wait for a road map to democracy but just plunged headlong into it. They took the road not taken, the road that was closed on them by 30 years of dictatorship. Indeed, I daresay that the Indonesian experience will inspire even established democracies in their resolve to spur political reform.

In the case of Iraq, the war, and I don’t mean to be candid here, has yielded the country’s first democratic elections. In this regard, I make no bones about my opposition to the war as a matter of principle, but I am not ashamed to concede that the voices of freedom in Iraq are now finding expression. And after decades of oppressionv and being forced into silence, I dare say that given half a chance, Muslim societies throughout the world, will seize the opportunity to enjoy democracy.

But the issue in the Muslim world today is not only of introducing elections and other pillars of democracy. Many Muslim countries have regular elections for decades. They have constitutions which purportedly guarantee the separation of powers, and their governments claim that the judiciary is free. But all these crucial elements only exist in name, but not in practice. In order for democracy to be alive in these countries reform is necessary. The press must be free. The political playing field must be levelled. The courts must be liberated from the dictates of the autocrats.

The autocrats are being pressured by their own people to democratize. These autocrats then tell the world that if they do so democracy itself will be hijacked by the radicals. The tragedy is that this fear is real and continues to haunt America, crippling its foreign policy in this regard in the process.

True, there are extremists in Muslim countries but they are everywhere, albeit to a lesser degree, here home-grown in America and also in Europe and other parts of Asia. But these radicals and extremists are also, to a large extent, by products of a society without freedom and democracy. These radicals and extremists are children, legitimate or otherwise, of the autocrats that have been supported by democratic America.

One should not underestimate nor exaggerate the problems of radicalism and extremism in Muslim countries. Delaying freedom and democracy will only help spawn more of them. I truly believe that given freedom and democracy Muslim societies will know how to deal with the radicals and extremists. One only has to look again at Indonesia. The Muslims organized themselves into various political parties some with a clear radical agenda including the establishment of an Islamic state. But when the nation went to the polls, they rejected the radicals. Having lost in the elections they tried to push their agenda through other avenues provided by the new found democracy. Again, this was overwhelmingly rejected by the people including major Muslim organizations.

Muslims today that are still living under autocratic rule are hunger of freedom and democracy. They cry for solidarity and support with other democrats. This hope must not be betrayed. America remains the strongest voice for freedom today. However, Muslim democrats fear that after September 11, American foreign policy, despite its professed intention to spread the wings of freedom over the globe, might be derailed by vested interests. Repressive Muslim autocrats in power know how to navigate the labyrinth of the American political process. They work in collusion with mega business interests here in this country, and they have big money to spend on lobbyists.

This is a great challenge for America. It must triumph over vested interests among its midst, special interests that put profits first before the ideals of this country. But American success will not be measured by spreading the wings of freedom to other countries. It will also be measured by the fate of Muslims living in this country. Million of Muslims came to America not only for economic opportunities, they also came here to flee from political oppression from their motherland. But particularly in the wake of September 11, their fate has taken a turn for the worse. When Alexis de Tocqueville came here and wrote the most insightful book on American democracy, what struck him most was the principle of equality. Unfortunately today, some Americans believe that Muslims should be treated as second-class citizens. The whole Muslim world is looking at America. They are examining America. Will America remain loyal to its ideals, or continue to be mired in contradiction?

Thank you.