Commentary Magazine


Topic: Anwar Ibrahim

Don’t Abandon Muslim Dissidents

Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

His own emphasis was on the “freedom agenda”–i.e., expanding democracy. President Obama, by contrast, has governed for the most part as a Realpolitiker intent on “rebalancing” American commitments and not letting sympathy for human rights distract him from his foreign policy objectives. That American neglect is having dire consequences for dissidents in the Muslim world who champion precisely the liberal values that we would like to see flourish.

Paul Wolfowitz notes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama, while embracing Malaysian President Najib Razak, has ignored the plight of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed on bogus charges under an archaic “anti-sodomy” law. Wolfowitz, who once served as ambassador in neighboring Indonesia, notes that Ibrahim is “a liberal Muslim who defends the rights of the Christian minority and quotes the Quran alongside Tocqueville, Locke and Jefferson. Now his voice for a tolerant, modern and peaceful Islam will be silenced.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board notes that the American-backed Sisi regime in Egypt is also busy jailing liberal activists. The Post writes that “a court in Egypt sentenced one of the country’s best-known liberal democratic activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to five years in prison, along with 20 other activists. The next day, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi issued a new law that will allow his regime to prosecute any protest as terrorism.”

This shows that Sisi’s crackdown extends far beyond the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood. The Post writes that many of those being locked up are “secular democrats who supported the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and later protested the autocratic excesses of Mr. Morsi. They include Ahmed Maher and a dozen other leaders of the April 6 movement, and Ahmed Douma, a liberal blogger who was sentenced this month to life in prison.”

And what is Obama doing about it? Not much beyond paying lip service to the need for freedom. At his summit on countering “violent extremism” last week, he said, “When dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” But as with a lot of the president’s foreign policy (“red lines,” anyone?) this is just hot air that isn’t backed up with any action on the part of the United States.

Obama’s reluctance to intervene is understandable–both Malaysia and Egypt are American allies, so why get into a fight with their leaders over the fate of a few dissidents? Because ultimately it is those who are now being imprisoned who are the best hope of moving the Muslim world in a better direction. If the U.S. abandons them, we will continue to face a Sophie’s choice between secular despots (whose repression breeds terrorism) and radical Islamist regimes. There is a third way, to invoke a term used in the 1950s to describe an alternative to either Communism or colonialism in the Third World, but Obama seems to be ignoring it. The price of U.S. neglect will be paid not only by brave liberal Muslims but also by the United States, which will find the Muslim world increasingly evolving in the direction of ISIS.

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Iran Wants In

As we noted last month, Iran is making a bid for membership on the United Nations’s Human Rights Council. Yes, we’ve passed farce awhile back when Libya joined the august body of despotic regimes — which spends its time pronouncing on the imagined offenses of the one democracy in the Middle East. (Hint: it isn’t the Islamic Republic of Iran.) The Wall Street Journal‘s editors note that Iran wants a piece of the action:

Among its presumptive qualifications, says Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, is that last June’s elections were “an exemplary exhibition of democracy and freedom.” Other contenders vying for election include the Maldives, which bans the public practice of all religions save Sunni Islam; and Malaysia, whose judiciary is currently prosecuting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on dubious charges of sodomy.

But the disgrace is not that Libya or Iran may sit on the Human Rights Council; it’s that the U.S. does. As the editors remark, “A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that by joining the Council—the Bush Administration had refused—the U.S. ‘will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system.’ Whatever they’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be working.” Well working for whom, I guess is the question. America’s presence on the Human Rights Council provides a patina of respectability to the thugs who appear periodically to condemn Israel, raise the banner for terrorists and their state sponsors, and dream up ways to impinge on the free expression of anyone who might criticize the less-than-admirable human-rights record in their own country.

If we want to stop the erosion of America’s moral standing in the world, a good way to start would be by leaving the Human Rights Council. And then we could actually begin condemning, loudly and specifically, the atrocities of the Iranian regime. Too much to ask? There’s always hope for change — but, regrettably, for the Obama administration that too often seems to stop at the water’s edge.

As we noted last month, Iran is making a bid for membership on the United Nations’s Human Rights Council. Yes, we’ve passed farce awhile back when Libya joined the august body of despotic regimes — which spends its time pronouncing on the imagined offenses of the one democracy in the Middle East. (Hint: it isn’t the Islamic Republic of Iran.) The Wall Street Journal‘s editors note that Iran wants a piece of the action:

Among its presumptive qualifications, says Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, is that last June’s elections were “an exemplary exhibition of democracy and freedom.” Other contenders vying for election include the Maldives, which bans the public practice of all religions save Sunni Islam; and Malaysia, whose judiciary is currently prosecuting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on dubious charges of sodomy.

But the disgrace is not that Libya or Iran may sit on the Human Rights Council; it’s that the U.S. does. As the editors remark, “A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that by joining the Council—the Bush Administration had refused—the U.S. ‘will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system.’ Whatever they’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be working.” Well working for whom, I guess is the question. America’s presence on the Human Rights Council provides a patina of respectability to the thugs who appear periodically to condemn Israel, raise the banner for terrorists and their state sponsors, and dream up ways to impinge on the free expression of anyone who might criticize the less-than-admirable human-rights record in their own country.

If we want to stop the erosion of America’s moral standing in the world, a good way to start would be by leaving the Human Rights Council. And then we could actually begin condemning, loudly and specifically, the atrocities of the Iranian regime. Too much to ask? There’s always hope for change — but, regrettably, for the Obama administration that too often seems to stop at the water’s edge.

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