This strange story has its roots in Malaysia's recent history. The main players are:
Mahathir bin Mohammed, the fourth Malaysian prime minister (from 1981 to 2003) and the first not from royal or elite family, was a "corporate nationalist," firmly on the side of huge, government-funded infrastructure projects -- exactly of the sort that leads to sweetheart deals -- and fairly sweeping affirmative action programs for the underprivileged Malay majority. Basically, he was mildly socialist, protectionist, and authoritarian, not to mention corrupt. He is also generally credited with the modernization of Malaysian industry and the Malaysian economy, which saw growth of 10 percent annually from the late eighties to the late nineties.
Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's protegee and ultimately main rival, was deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, but defected from ruling party UMNO and began opposing Mahathir's nationalist bent. He supported free trade, the policies put forth by the World Bank and IMF, and opposed restrictive government social engineering. He formed his own opposition party from prison in 1999, based on his program of economic reforms.
Munawar Anees is a Pakistani American, who was raised in Pakistan and trained in biology in the United States. He is a respected scholar of Islam, the editor of a leading journal of Islamic studies, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. For several years he has worked with the John Templeton Foundation, a right-wing-oriented think tank, whose president gave the Yes on Prop 8 campaign some significant private donations this year. Check this out for a little more on his worldview. His importance to this story is that he also served as advisor and sometime speechwriter to Anwar Ibrahim from 1991 to 1998.
During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the IMF prescribed for Malaysia a recovery package heavy on economic liberalization (i.e. tilting toward free markets and anti-protectionism), which Anwar supported and Mahathir refused to implement. The moment the crisis was over, the two were at each other's throats politically, with Anwar getting the short end of the stick. After a couple of sallies in 1998, including a book accusing Anwar of corruption and sodomy, Mahathir fired Anwar from the cabinet and had him expelled from the ruling party. Then Dr. Anees and Anwar's adopted brother were arrested, convicted of homosexual acts based on investigations inspired by the book, and sentenced to six months each. Their convictions were based on "confessions" both later claimed were coerced under torture.
Finally, Anwar himself was arrested on charges of corruption and sodomy. He was convicted of both, and sentenced to six years for the corruption, nine years for the sodomy, to be served consecutively. In 1999, Anwar's wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail formed a party to support Anwar and his economic reforms and ran for -- and won -- a seat in Parliament, which she held until earlier this year.
In 2004, after he had served his now reduced term for corruption, a court reversed his sodomy conviction and Anwar was released. Malaysian law prevented him from returning to politics for five years after serving a felony sentence, so Anwar has only been able to rejoin the government since April of this year. And that's where things start to get interesting again.
Anwar's party called for elections, which were set for March of 2008, BEFORE Anwar's disqualification expired, although that kinda backfired when the opposition party won a plurality of seats in Parliament, all landslidey-like. So Anwar's wife, Dr. Wan, waited until April, and then stepped down from her seat, forcing a by-election for her now-empty seat, which Anwar won by a landslide. He declared that he would take over the government by Sept 16, but failed to meet the deadline by failing to inspire sufficient defectors from the ruling party. In October, the sitting prime minister defused the situation by promising to step down next March, and there they sit now, in the mud, neither side winning and both still bristling at each other.
And, of course, there are the new allegations of sodomy brought against Anwar in June.
Dr. Anees left Malaysia in 1999 after serving his sentence and has since lived in the UK, France, and the US. However, earlier this year, Anwar's adopted brother's charges of sodomy were withdrawn, giving Anees new hope. In April, he returned to Malaysia for the first time in 10 years to appeal his conviction. In October the appeal was denied, but he's continuing his efforts.
This is the sort of story it's almost impossible to get a real handle on. We'll never know what the truth is with regard to the sodomy charges. It's possible that Anwar and Anees are both straight and the accusations of homosexuality entirely invented. It's equally possible that both are secretly queer. Also possible that Anwar has queer tendencies seized upon by his enemies, and Anees was just pulled in, or vice versa. But even with eyewitnesses testifying, we still can't trust anyone's word. Everyone has too much at stake to tell politically inconvenient truths here.
One thing we do know is that, true or false, these charges are political, and not about the morality of Anwar's sexuality. The head of the Malaysian anti-gay police (not kidding) says that homosexuality is "a crime worse than murder" in Malaysia. Of course, he WOULD say that. But that doesn't mean that he isn't expressing a common sentiment. It's likely that the best way to defang an opposition leader is to accuse him of being gay.
And why draw Anees in? Anees is that special and rare animal: a respected Muslim scholar whose politics are in line with Bushite neoconservative economic policies. He's legitimate to both sides of the Islamic/Christian divide, and his friendship with and advice to Anwar give the politician international validity and respect. So it's a neat solution: send both beyond the pale ... with each other!
Although I deplore this political tactic -- accusing someone of private immorality to besmirch his reputation and destroy his political capital -- and especially deplore Anees' imprisonment and torture, I have to admit to a tiny amount of satisfaction that a political figure who has aligned himself with an
anti-gay organization with a pro-Prop-8 leader, himself lives under the "cloud" of an accusation of homosexuality. Not once in all of this have I found him discussing the Malaysian attitude towards homosexuality, or the anti-sodomy laws. (Let me know if he has and I just haven't found it.)
Clearly, the outcome of Anees' appeal will depend on the outcome of Anwar's bid for power. This is one to keep your eye on.