‘We have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.” That was President Obama at the State Department last May, rolling out his own version of the freedom agenda for the Muslim world.
So why has the Administration been virtually silent when it comes to one of the most notorious and long-running abuses of power taking place in the Muslim world today—this one in our good friend and ally, Malaysia?
The abuses in question concern Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who on Monday faces a verdict—and potentially years of jail time—on dubious sodomy charges.
Mr. Anwar first went through this charade as a deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, when he fell out with then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during the Asian financial crisis, was savagely beaten by police and ultimately sentenced to prison on sodomy and corruption charges.
Mr. Anwar spent six years in prison. In 2004 the sodomy charges were overturned by the country’s highest court—a year after Mr. Mahathir had left office.
Yet Mr. Anwar was again served with sodomy charges four years later, after the ruling UMNO party had lost its two-thirds majority and the opposition seemed close to assembling a parliamentary majority.
The current case is even flimsier than the last one. It is based mainly on the word of one accuser who, as it so happened, had met with then-deputy prime minister, now Prime Minister, Najib Razak days before the alleged incident.
Doctors at two hospitals could find no evidence of rape in the aftermath of the alleged incident. Nonetheless, political observers anticipate a guilty verdict.
This is happening in the context of growing discontent among Malaysians with UMNO’s ruling order, and Mr. Najib’s ambivalent attempts at political reform. But if that’s reminiscent of the unhappiness that presaged the Arab Spring, so too is the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude of the Obama Administration.
Malaysia is supposedly a moderate Muslim country and a useful regional counterweight to China, and the President was full of praise for Mr. Najib’s “great leadership” when they last met in November.
As for Mr. Anwar, the State Department has publicly offered no more than boilerplate about his case. Perhaps quiet diplomacy is now at work on Mr. Anwar’s behalf, but that kind of diplomacy is fine only as long as it produces results.
In the meantime, Malaysian democracy could benefit from a sign that the U.S. is not indifferent to Mr. Anwar’s legal ordeal or to the political system that has allowed it to continue. U.S. interests could benefit as well.
“Failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense,” said Mr. Obama in May.
Mr. Anwar’s case gives the President a chance to show that he meant what he said.