With a founding figure of American Islamism now holding high office in Malaysia, it seems likely that this important far-Eastern country will soon become a major supporter and key ally of Western Islamism.
On November 24, Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia’s tenth prime minister, following a tumultuous few decades waiting in the wings, during which time he served several jail terms, purportedly on trumped-up charges, and has been at the center of extraordinary political dramas featuring unusual alliances and stunning betrayals.
Largely ignored amid excitement in international media over the emergence of a purported “reformist,” it is worth noting that Ibrahim is in fact an Islamist.
Ibrahim’s radical roots lie with Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia), or ABIM, which he co-founded in 1971. A thesis published by Georgetown University (where Ibrahim happens to be a senior fellow) examines ABIM’s role as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a violent international Islamist movement regarded by Western policymakers as a key driver of radicalization and terror.
Ibrahim’s Islamism includes fervently anti-Jewish ideas and open alignment with a genocidal terror group.* A proud supporter of Hamas, Ibrahim has previously attacked a “Jewish-controlled” public relations firm, alleged “Zionist” conspiracies influencing his opponents and “directly involved in the running of the government,” and he has boasted of his efforts to “remove renowned Islamic scholar Dr Shaikh Yusuf Qardhawi’s name from [the U.S.] terrorist blacklist.”
The late Sheikh Qaradawi served as spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and was best known, the Counter-Extremism Project notes, for advocating “the murder of Americans, gay people, and Jews through his writings, speeches, and fatwas.”
Such hatreds, it must be pointed out, are not new for Malaysian statesmen. Ibrahim’s own former mentor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has long served as a vociferous anti-Semite himself, with an occasional but highly noticeable habit of Holocaust denial.
What is new, however, is that Anwar Ibrahim is not just a Malaysian politician, but an important figure within American Islamism as well.
Ibrahim serves as the chairman of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), often referred to as the leading thinktank of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Ibrahim, in fact, co-founded IIIT.
As documented by federal agents and counter-terrorism researchers, IIIT is a key component of a Virginia-based operation named the SAAR network, a collection of Islamist groups investigated in the 2000s for their terror finance ties. Today, the SAAR network’s nonprofit organizations (which excludes its vast array of associated vastly wealthy private corporations) report an astonishing combined total of over $400 million of assets in America, a considerable portion of which flows through IIIT – making the group and its associated bodies the wealthiest network of Muslim organizations in the United States.
Most likely because of Ibrahim’s influence, IIIT has grown a significant presence in the far-East, with offices in nine separate countries in the region. In Malaysia, IIIT partners closely with the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), an institution of which Ibrahim served as president for a decade.
In his address as IIT chairman in 2019, Ibrahim reaffirmed his commitment to Islamism, from ideas about the imposition of Islamic law to key Muslim Brotherhood concepts such as the “Islamization of Knowledge.”
Just a few months before the recent election, Ibrahim continued to identify himself as chairman of IIIT. Indeed, Ibrahim’s Twitter account shows years of close, continued involvement with IIIT activities.
In October, IIIT’s Malaysian branch hosted an event with Ibrahim to launch his political manifesto: “SCRIPT for a Better Malaysia: An Empowering Vision and Policy Framework for Action.” The book, available in a glossy English-language PDF, is perhaps also aimed at his Western supporters. Indeed, in an apparent reflection of Islamist-progressivist mingling in the West, Ibrahim’s Malaysian manifesto features a significant number of Western progressivist ideas that have been adopted, or at least paid lip service, by Western Islamist groups such as IIIT in recent years.
For all Ibrahim’s dozens of mentions of “diversity,” “sustainability” and “inequalities,” he also advocates Islamic finance and banking, sharia, and references Islamist thinkers and writers, including various IIIT publications and Western Islamist-influenced reports on “Islamophobia.”
That IIIT played a role in the recent elections is noteworthy. Anwar Ibrahim’s rise to power is not just a victory for the Islamists of the East; he is the progeny and the triumph of Western Islamism as well.
Ibrahim’s involvement with American Islamism did not just take place through IIIT. Over the decades, Ibrahim has written articles in support of research by prominent Islamist organization the Council on American-Islamic Relations; spoken alongside convicted terror financiers such as Sami Al-Arian at Turkish regime events; and addressed major American Islamist conferences hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) as a keynote speaker.
And American Islamists have been loyal to Ibrahim. In 2000, to applause from Islamist voices, ISNA reportedly rescinded a speaking invitation to Ibrahim’s former mentor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, following Mohamad’s efforts to purge Ibrahim from his administration.
In the West, some journalists and analysts have placed great hope in Ibrahim as Malaysian leader. Several fawning articles in New Lines Magazine, for instance, describe Ibrahim’s rise as a “milestone in contemporary Muslim politics” and praise the Prime Minister as “a passionate champion of the more tolerant, pluralistic society” who has moved on from the “conventionally conservative views” of his youth, and whose “understanding of Islam has also evolved, from a belief that the religion’s benefits are exclusive to its own adherents to a conviction that Islam can provide universal benefits for all people.”
The notion that Ibrahim is now a calmer, “evolved” moderate is a particularly common claim.
And yet, in recent years, Ibrahim has consorted openly with prominent extremist leaders, including the late Yusuf Al-Qawadawi. He has also broadcast the support he has received from Tunisian Islamist ideologue Rached Ghannouchi, whom he praises for helping to “mobilize the struggle.”
Little has changed. In the days following his election victory, Ibrahim made his continued commitment to international Islamism and its terrorist offshoots abundantly clear.
On November 27, Ibrahim posted on Twitter a video of him speaking with Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the U.S. designated terrorist group Hamas. Speaking in English, Ibrahim states that his own election victory is also a victory for the “Palestinians and the ummah” and pledged to “work together, inshallah, to redeem the lost image and also role of the ummah.” Ibrahim subsequently also spoke to Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshal, former chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau.
While in most cases, media puffery can be explained by journalists once again not doing their jobs, in the case of New Lines Magazine, it is perhaps noteworthy that the outlet – despite being a generally well-regarded publication that often produces interesting analysis penned by some respectable analysts – is a project of Ahmed Alwani, the vice-president of IIIT.
There is one puzzle. Despite Ibrahim’s close ties to American Islamism, his election received scant notice in the public statements of American Islamist groups and their officials. After scraping thousands of social media accounts and newsletters, FWI found only one mention: Ibrahim’s recent election win was celebrated by the Islamic Society of North America, which likened Ibrahim’s roots in ABIM to ISNA’s own roots in the (Muslim Brotherhood-founded) Muslim Student Association in the 1960s.
Why so little applause otherwise? Even IIIT’s website or social media does not carry a mention that its own chairman is now Prime Minister of an important Muslim majority country.
One possibility is certainly that American Islamists, or Prime Minister Ibrahim, do not wish to draw additional public attention to such connections. The other possibility is one FWI has posited before: that the Muslim Brotherhood is a declining force in the United States, supplanted by other Islamist networks such as a new generation of Salafis and resurgent South Asian Islamists. These ascendent Islamist networks will certainly benefit from Ibrahim’s government, although they perhaps feel less inclined to boast about it.
These other Western Islamists have certainly worked to develop their ties to Malaysian Islamist institutions in recent years. Ibrahim’s IIUM in particular has partnered with groups such as the Illinois-based, Qatari-funded Furqaan Foundation as well as the modernist Salafi Yaqeen Institute. IIUM’s academics, meanwhile, address D.C-based proxies for North African Islamism, such as the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy, as well as Jamaat-e-Islami organizations such as the Muslim Ummah of North America.
American Deobandi scholars such as Sheikh Amin Kholwadia address IIUM events, while America’s most famous imam, Omar Suleiman, is a proud recent graduate of the university. Suleiman declares Malaysia his “second home” and has met with Anwar Ibrahim.
While in Malaysia, Suleiman has repeatedly also visited Zakir Naik, an important international Islamist figure wanted in India, but protected from extradition by Malaysia, on charges of money laundering and allegations of terrorism links. (Anwar Ibrahim has praised the “eloquence and “knowledge” of Naik, who previously declared that “every Muslim should be a terrorist” and once expressed praise for Osama Bin Laden.)
With the recent death of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and the passing last month of Muslim Brotherhood’s political leader Ibrahim Munir, there is good evidence some sections of Middle Eastern Islamism are collapsing. But in the West and far-East, however, other networks appear in ascension.
FWI has previously noted four major state patrons of Western Islamism: Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Perhaps Malaysia should now be added to that list.
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum
*An analyst interested in Malaysian Islamism or with tackling the threats of global anti-Semitism might find it useful to download a full copy of Ibrahim’s website archives. Many of his posts from years past have been deleted, most likely as part of a sanitizing exercise on Ibrahim’s part. Over half a million archived files and pages from the website, however, are available to download through the Wayback Machine. We have uploaded a list of all the available files, which can be found here.