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Anwar Ibrahim’s Western Public Relations Effort Failing?

In the West, we tend to ignore the Muslim countries of Southeast Asia too often in favor of the more rambunctious Middle East; whether this is because we are concentrating our limited energies on the larger problem spot, or ignoring places where things are going well, is probably a function of one’s particular outlook on life. Regardless of the source of this disregard, it is an error as great as choosing to ignore the safe streets in city planning in favor of the bullet-ridden ones. The good things don’t last without some tending of their own.

That leads to Malaysia, a moderate Muslim country with strong trade ties to the United States, that we too often ignore along with its other, moderate neighbors in favor of a pointless bombing campaign in Libya and other adventures in futility. Malaysia has done well for itself, holding fast to a moderate strain of Islam while continuing to grow energetically. It is not heaven on earth, but it is better than most Muslim nations, with religious minorities freely practicing their faith, and calls for extremism loudly and roundly denounced by most Malaysians. It is in and from this fertile ground that Malaysia’s current prime minister, Najib Razak, boldly decried the practice of suicide bombing, eschewing the usual Islam-means-peace pablum for a concrete denunciation of murder and suicide, explicitly calling them contrary to Islam and a mark of barbarism.

This is especially significant because English is the lingua franca of Malaysia, and so Najib’s Oxford speech was reported and understood at home. He cannot — and to his credit, does not — play the all-too-common game of tell-the-non-Muslims-what-they-want-to-hear, revert-to-death-to-the-Jews-death-to-America at home.

His political opposite cannot say the same.

I’m on the record having a low opinion of Anwar Ibrahim, but that’s only because he’s a virulent anti-Semite with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood who formed an opposition coalition in his country by recruiting a political party best known for calling for volunteers to fight with the Taliban against the United States. So, you know, little things. But what’s worse is how he has played the nasty demagogue at home, then played the good democrat in the West; and what’s worse than that is how the Western policy establishment has historically tolerated this.

This is one of those critically easy policy rules: If someone is blathering about the Jews being the source of the world’s problems, or, more particularly, his own, he is a very bad man, a nutter, or both. You don’t need to be a failed painter with a nasty little mustache, a figurehead president with alleged (and hastily denied!) Jewish ancestry, or a former military juntaist whom we have unaccountably not snuffed as he has gone on to destroy one of the most vibrant and productive economies in Latin America for this to be so. You can be an opposition leader trying to wrest control of your country’s parliamentary system from someone you casually describe as being controlled by the Jews.

Indeed, given his ready trafficking in old anti-Semitic (and anti-Christian) tropes, it is a wonder the extent to which Anwar has retained so much of the goodwill he managed to rack up in the late Nineties. People whom many of us (I include myself) have respected for years tend to shock us by excusing away Anwar’s disturbing tells. Probably the best, single example of this I’ve seen has been Jackson Diehl excusing the anti-Semitism as an unfortunately necessary means of political survival (while giving Anwar an on-the-record opportunity to explain away his minutes-long rant as the result of a slip of the tongue), and giving Paul Wolfowitz, who really should know better, a chance to provide Anwar some same-themed cover. That neither man would tolerate this sort of doublespeak out of, say, a Saudi prince is a telling indictment of their willingness to suspend their disbelief at inconvenient times.

Diehl and Wolfowitz are hardly alone. For years — since at least 2008, when Anwar first explained his failure to win a national election as the result of the American Jewish Lobby doing … something — Western policymakers and opinion makers have given the man a free pass, ignoring each round of particularly vicious anti-Semitism as it occurs. Anwar has helpfully made himself available without pause or cessation, ready to say one thing to any Western voice that would listen, and another at home; he has been his own best press agent.

A strange thing seems to have happened of late, though. Anwar is on trial for forced sodomy (mistakenly described by Diehl and others who should know better as consensual sodomy), and the judge presiding over the case has allowed it to go forward. In a matter of days, Anwar will have to present his defense, and will doubtless explain again to Western ears that he is a beleaguered democrat facing a political charge (something the Washington Post seems inclined to believe credulously), and tell audiences at home that this is because of the Jews, the Israeli special ops, and/or the Americans.

But as yet, there is no groundswell of spontaneous opinion writing in his defense. There is no remarkable wave of excuses and dire warnings about democracy in Malaysia. There is, instead, silence.

I would submit this is the result of two, critical factors.

First, Anwar’s political touch is turning out to make a lot more lead than gold. Most recently, he has taken to excusing away his inability to move the needle in local elections, in the process doing critical damage to his coalition’s efforts in advance of the upcoming national elections by insulting a vital, potential ally. He compounded this by accusing the people of Sarawak — where he carefully hid his ties with radical Islam during the local elections, to no avail — of racism for failing to support his ticket, a charge that is not merely not helpful, but has the added bonus of being based on a complete misunderstanding of the facts on the ground.

The Western press likes winners and canny underdogs. It’s not quite so hot on fools who cannot keep their feet from their mouths.

The second, critical element here is the Obama Administration’s approach to Malaysia. I have been a not-infrequent critic of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy — confused, overt deference to the genocidal People’s Republic of China, and a willingness to snub the world’s most populous democracy are not actually achievements of which Americans should be proud — but this is one area in which the Administration seems to have caught on more quickly than its outside supporters and critics. Not only is the Secretary of State praising Najib’s call for religious moderation, but the Administration as a whole is treating Anwar as a matter of secondary importance.

And as we learned during the 2008 Presidential campaign, the media are nothing if not sensitive to the directions open and implicit of this President.

The next few months will be interesting to watch. Anwar’s trial will conclude with a verdict of some kind, and Malaysia will move toward its next national election. In the face of dual pressure, it would seem reasonable to assume that Anwar will step up his availability and his lobbying of the Administration to build support either for his appeal (if convicted) or his election efforts (regardless of the trial’s outcome).

Whether his one-man public relations campaign yields the same willingness to ignore rank anti-Semitism and tolerance of Islamist lunacy will rest on the Administration’s willingness to stand by its prior positions (an open question) and whether Anwar continues to inject his foot into his mouth when blood libels are not leaving it.

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