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Shakespeare and Islam shape life for roving Anwar

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Monday, 28 August 2006

Anwar (plural of Nur or divine light) is a popular Malaysian Islamic name. Yet after visiting Malaysia last month I was left with the impression few Malaysians were interested in what one particular Anwar had to offer.

The country has moved on since the heady days of the late 1990s, when Reformasi supporters of the then recently deposed Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim brought Kuala Lumpur to a near standstill.

During a visit to the headquarters of ABIM (Malaysia's Islamic Youth Movement founded and led for many years by Anwar), not a single activist even mentioned Anwar's name.


Now he spends much of his time lecturing at Oxford or Georgetown University in Washington DC and he has just completed a whirlwind speaking tour of Australia, his second visit since his release from prison.

His first tour, in early 2005, was when he was still suffering the effects of prison-related health complications and most of his addresses were to Muslim audiences. On his recent visit, Anwar delivered lectures to wider audiences on such diverse topics as Shakespearean drama, democratic politics, liberal democracy and human rights.

Shakespeare is unlikely inspiration for Muslim political activists. But although Anwar is well known in Muslim circles for having spent his six years in jail memorising the Koran in Arabic he also finished the complete works of Shakespeare four times.

He frequently uses lines from Shakespeare in his speeches, arguing Shakespeare's message contains fundamental values shared by people of all faiths and of no faith in particular.

During an address to the Canberra Islamic Centre, Anwar managed to incorporate his image of King Lear as the Islamic ideal of a just ruler.

Anwar felt comfortable surrounded by Canberra's multi-ethnic Muslims, poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of different Muslim ethnic groups. But he had serious messages, reminding his audiences of the necessity to engage with the broader multicultural Australian community.


He says countries like Australia and New Zealand are reviving the classical Spanish Islamic tradition of multi-racial and multi-religious societies, known as convivencia.

"I use the example of Malaysia. It is a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Islam is only relevant to Malaysia if it is understood in a way that reinforces our multi-racial character."

Anwar is scathing of Muslim communities who choose to live in cultural cocoons, refusing to interact with other communities. In Istanbul last month at a conference of European Muslim leaders, Anwar urged EU Muslims to see themselves first and foremost as Europeans, not confining their political activities to pursuing predominantly Muslim issues.

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First published in the New Zealand Herald on July 27, 2006.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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