By Benjamin Sorensen, ’18
Editor’s note: Since this fall’s event, Mr. Ibrahim has lost his final appeal in Malaysia. His conviction for sodomy was upheld, and he now faces five years in prison. Stanford in Government echoes the U.S. State Department in expressing its deep disappointment and concern about the rejection of Mr. Ibrahim’s appeal.
In November, Stanford community members joined Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim and Professor Donald Emmerson, senior fellow emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, for a discussion on the relationship between Islam and democracy. Ibrahim opened by asserting that Islam and democracy are reconcilable, pointing to several fundamental Islamic principles that are conducive to liberal democracy. He then addressed the state of Islam and government, rejecting the notion that the terrorist groups, dictatorships, and corrupted democracies that dominate headlines legitimately represent the Muslim world.
Emmerson questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy by offering several statistics indicating the prevalence of undemocratic ideals in Malaysia, such as a finding that 96% of Malaysian Muslims “completely or mostly agree that a wife must always obey her husband.” In response, Ibrahim argued that these statistics are the result of impractical interpretations of the Quran and a lack of free discourse in society. He maintained that the average Muslim, when pressed, would not seriously condone such principles.
Weighing heavily on the minds of all in attendance, however, was the perilous legal situation Ibrahim faced in Malaysia. At the time of the event, Ibrahim was awaiting the final decision of Malaysia’s highest court on sodomy charges leveled against him in 2008. He knew that if found guilty, he faced five years of solitary confinement and an effective end to his illustrious political career.
This legal drama is familiar to Ibrahim, who was sacked in 1998 from his position as finance minister for the majority party, Barisan Nasional, in the wake of accusations of sodomy and corruption. Ibrahim spent six years in solitary confinement after being found guilty in what many international observers agree was a politically motivated sham trial. Upon his release in 2004, Ibrahim assumed leadership of the opposition and mounted a historic comeback, securing a third of parliamentary seats in the 2008 election.
Despite a second round of sodomy charges in 2008, Ibrahim led Pakatan Rakyat to relative success in the 2013 elections, winning the popular vote but still falling short of a parliamentary majority. Despite his troubling circumstances, Ibrahim was friendly and calm, delivering his presentation confidently and answering questions with poise. Ibrahim planned to return to Malaysia regardless of the court’s verdict; if found guilty, he said he would allow himself to be arrested and submit to five more years in solitary confinement. During a small dinner before the event, Ibrahim assured Stanford in Government students that his decision was made with due consideration for the Malaysian people. He was adamant in maintaining solidarity with those he has spent his life fighting for, and said he was willing to sacrifice his freedom to stand by his principles.
This event was hosted by Stanford in Government; the Muslim Student Awareness Network; and the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.