Anwar shores up support in Malaysia with fiery anti-Israel views

Anwar Ibrahim at a pro-Palestinian rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysa on 24 October 2023.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at a pro-Palestinian rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysa on 24 October 2023. (Photo: Samsul Said/Bloomberg) (Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

By Philip J. Heijmans and Niluksi Koswanage

(Bloomberg) — As a student leader in Malaysia in the late 1960s, Anwar Ibrahim championed the cause of Palestinians. Now as prime minister, his moves to stoke anti-Israel sentiment are endearing him to a voting block pivotal to the survival of his government.

After scraping through with a majority following last year’s hung parliament, Anwar has become Asia’s most outspoken leader in railing against Israel and its backers in the US and Europe. He called the military action in Gaza the “height of barbarism” at a rally last month, and on Tuesday he told parliament that Malaysia will continue to back Hamas despite the threat of US sanctions.

“Palestine is colonised through apartheid, ethnic cleansing and now genocide,” Anwar told lawmakers. “Whatever happened is the legitimate right and struggle of the Palestinian people.”

“All parties and members of the public should show solidarity in the issue of Palestine, rather than using it for politics,” he added.

Anwar sees his fiery stance against Israel as helping Malaysia both on the world stage and politically at home, according to a Foreign Ministry official familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. His multiracial coalition has increasingly been challenged by a pro-Islamic opposition appealing to the nation’s Malay majority.

The comments are contributing to growing anger in Malaysia, where citizens have held street protests over the Israel-Hamas war and boycotted fast-food establishments seen to have ties to Israel. The government is concerned about ensuring there are no attacks on restaurants or elsewhere, according to a Home Ministry official who asked not to be named.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry and Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Anwar has basically used the Palestine issue to try to shore up his Islamist credentials,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia, who compared him to his arch-rival and former premier Mahathir Mohamad. “It’s interesting to see how many pages he’s taking from Mahathir’s playbook in his first year in office, one of which is making this issue is about him fighting for Palestine.”

Last year, Anwar rose to power promising to temper religious and racial tensions. But since then he’s taken on more pro-Islamic views to appeal to ethnic Malays who are Muslim by law, expanding the role of the federal agency overseeing Islamic affairs and briefly supporting restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

An opinion survey by pollster Ilham Centre across six states showed Anwar had an approval rating of just 24% among ethnic Malays in July, while state elections the following month saw the opposition Perikatan Nasional walk away with a landslide win in three Malay-majority states. Its chairman and former premier, Muhyiddin Yassin, said the result was a sign that the people wanted change.

Source: Ilham Centre

The divide underscores a delicate balancing act for Anwar, a two-time political prisoner and self-styled reformist who came to power on the pledge of leading an inclusive government.

Malaysia over the years has cultivated ties with Palestinians through sending humanitarian aid, offering political support and maintaining reciprocal embassies. Najib Razak visited the Gaza Strip a decade ago when he was prime minister.

‘Not Apologetic’

Malaysia has also kept communication open with leaders of Hamas. In 2011, government leaders including the current deputy prime minister helped launch a Palestinian cultural organisation affiliated with Hamas, which the US has designated as a terrorist organisation.

“We host the cultural society organisation belonging to Hamas – we know it and we are not apologetic about it,” former Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told Bloomberg News last week. “We are not apologetic and we don’t consider Hamas as a terrorist organisation.”

Last week, Mahathir posted a video of a conversation with Hamas’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in which Mahathir describes the war as a “genocide” designed to kill as many Palestinians as possible. Haniyeh asks the 98-year-old to help sway Western and Israeli narratives, which are equating Hamas with ISIS.

Anwar’s own stance on the matter is starting to put him at odds with another major policy objective: drawing in new investment from the US. Several months ago, Anwar met with Elon Musk in a bid to lure big tech to Malaysia. During a trip to the US in September, he also met with top executives from Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Boeing Co. The US and Malaysia boast bilateral investment and trade totalling US$1.6 trillion annually, according to government data.

Often regarded as a moderate voice for Islam in the West, Anwar said last week that Washington has already censured the Southeast Asian nation for taking a hard line against Israel’s actions. The rhetoric has also raised the stakes for American companies with bases in Malaysia.

After footage spread on social media showing McDonald’s Corp. stores in Israel distributing meals to soldiers, Malaysia’s subsidiary of the fast-food chain swiftly responded by writing in a statement that it’s 100% Muslim-owned and the incident doesn’t reflect its values. Starbucks Corp. has faced similar pressure over its alleged support of Israel. Starbucks did not answer an email requesting comment.

While there is no imminent threat to Anwar’s government, infighting within political coalitions has seen four different prime ministers since the 2018 elections. And with tensions riding high over religious issues, that makes his alignment on the war all the more important, said Joseph Liow Chin Yong, a chair of comparative and international politics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“If you are not aligned with the mood on the ground,” he said, “you are in trouble.”

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