The increasing sectarian conflict in Iraq and the rise of Islamist parties like Hamas and Hezbollah have put American efforts to democratize the Middle East on hold and raised doubts among experts and policy makers about whether democracy is compatible with the Muslim faith. But in a campus appearance yesterday afternoon, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim offered an ardent defense of democracy in the Muslim world, telling a standing-room-only crowd in Bechtel Conference Center that "men and women are born free, even in the Islamic construct."
Alternating between serious and sporting through his two-hour speech, Ibrahim broached many of the issues aggravating relations between Islam and the West, including gender relations, American foreign policy, cultural assimilation in Europe and Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments about Islam. However, he was most outspoken regarding his home country - he was a political prisoner in Malaysia for over four years - and rejected the race - and religious-based affirmative action policies that benefit the Malay majority there.
Returning repeatedly to the topic of Muslim democracy, Ibrahim drew from historical references and personal experiences, citing the democratic regimes of Indonesia and Iran of 1950s.
"There was no debate then whether democracy was compatible with Islam," he said. "Fifty years later, we have our leaders in the Muslim world telling us we're not ready."
The fundamental nature of democracy and human rights is universal, Ibrahim emphasized, adding that problems begin with cultural miscommunication.
"We have to debunk and reject the notion, held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that to support democracy and freedom is to support America, "he said. "And it is important for Americans to realize democracy is a value cherished as much by Muslims as it is by Americans."
"Misperceptions are unfortunate," he added, elaborating on his impressions of American culture. "This is a country full of contradictions. The level of sophistication and intellectual flavor is unparalleled. So why must people be so prejudiced? Why is misunderstanding so pervasive? To say that Muslims are entirely anti-America is wrong."
Ibrahim offered scathing criticism of his fellow Muslims for violent reactions to both the publication of caricatures of Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and to the more recent comment by Pope Benedict XVI referring to elements of Islam as "evil and inhuman." The cartoon spawned riots killing 139 in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while the Pope's remarks fueled a maelstrom of controversy, including the firebombing of Catholic churches throughout the Middle East and the shooting death of a nun in Somalia.
"There is a right to disagree but no one has the right to cause destruction or destroy life," he said. "No one has the right to call for the banning of newspapers."
Acknowledging that his comments were not necessarily indicative of Islamic public opinion, he said, "This view may not be shared by all Muslims, but I am prepared to confront them."
Ibrahim's penchant for speaking his mind and sticking to his principles has dogged the leader through a career of controversy. As a young Malaysian activist in the 1970s, he was arrested during a student protest and spent 20 months in a detention camp. Following a meteoric political ascent, he was named Deputy Prime Minister in 1993, and many expected that he was Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad's chosen successor.
But their relationship turned sour, and in Sept. 1998 Ibrahim was stripped of party membership and incarcerated under charges of corruption and sodomy. The charges were eventually overturned and he was released in Sept. 2004.
Regarding Malaysian politics today, Ibrahim expressed distaste toward his nation's system of bumiputera - a system of economic and social policies designed to favor ethnic Malays.
"I reject affirmative action based on race," he said. "Our policies should benefit the poor and the marginalized."
Finally, he described the need for engagement between the Islamic world and the West, criticizing the "extreme" foreign policy of the United States and its refusal to negotiate with regimes like Hamas.
"That policy is flawed," he said, adding that "to refuse to engage is a recipe for disaster."
Fitzgerald, a Stanford undergraduate, visited Malaysia in September 2006 as a member of the SEAF-supported Stanford Overseas Seminar in Singapore.