by Munawar A. Anees
Munawar A. Anees, a scholar and cultural critic who founded and edited the prestigious journal, Periodica Islamica, is back in the United States since his release two months ago from a Malaysian jail. He had been serving a six month sentence after being tried for having sexual relations with former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a charge Anees denied as part of a set up to imprison Anwar and remove him from political life. Last week, Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison.
WASHINGTON - A large inscription on the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington --"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny upon the mind of man" -- impressed me deeply on my first visit to the United States as a student nearly a quarter of a century ago. Last month, with the tears of experience welling in my eyes, I revisited that site. My arbitrary arrest and torture in Malaysia had engraved Jefferson's inscription on my heart.
As a student I knew of the horrors of the Holocaust and other human tragedies, but merely as a distant thunder: the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity was only an abstract notion.
That was all fated to change with my arrest last year under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) of Malaysia that allows for indefinite detention without trial. My crime? I had known Anwar Ibrahim, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia, as a close personal friend for many years. We shared and strove for a vision of life firmly rooted in human dignity. We struggled for building an intellectual and political milieu for free expression. Together, we subscribed to the idea of economic prosperity, gender and racial equality and a civil society.
Alas, the Malaysian despot, Mahathir Mohamed, under the growing burden of corruption and cronyism, conspired to halt the march of freedom. In order to build his fraudulent case against Anwar, Mahathir ordered my arrest.
My kidnapping and detention by the infamous Malaysian Special Branch taught me how it feels to be forcibly separated from one's wife and children. How it feels to be searched and seized, disallowed to make phone calls, handcuffed, blindfolded, stripped naked, driven in an animal cage, shaven bald, endlessly interrogated, humiliated, drugged, deprived of sleep, physically abused. What it's like to be threatened, blackmailed, tormented by police lawyers, brutalized to make a totally false confession, hospitalized for a consequent heart ailment, and treated as a psychiatric patient with symptoms of Stockholm syndrome.
Barely surviving on a meager diet of rancid rice and chicken along with twelve medicines a day, I spent nearly four months handcuffed around the clock to my hospital bed, under the watchful eyes of the prison guards.
Thereafter, my ability to speak, read and write took a considerable time to show signs of recovery. Short-term memory lapses were frequent. I existed in a fluid state in which suicidal tendencies, depression and despair were punctuated by fits of rage and indignation.
Weekly visits of less than an hour by my wife, Nadia, with our young children - Aisha and Omran - were my only contact with the outside world and the only inspiration to live on.
In collusion with the lawyer appointed on my behalf by the police, the Malaysian authorities refused the legal assistance of my choice, coercing me not to mount an appeal against the court verdict and threatening me with greater punishment under new charges if I didn't cooperate.
Simultaneously, Nadia constantly endured police harassment, wiretapping and disruption of our E-mail and bank accounts. Some of our friends were met with the same fate and were compelled to abandon us when we needed them most.
But, in attempting to scare off and alienate my friends, how terribly mistaken were Malaysian autocrats in aping gross Gestapo tactics. How they underestimated the temper of freedom in so many places around the world, above all among friends in the West.
Floodgates of human compassion were opened when the futurist author Alvin Toffler, who Mahathir asked to advise him on a pet high-technology project, sent a message of protest to the Malaysian leader within 72 hours of my capture. In a major interview with the Western press, Mahathir even felt it necessary to make assurances -- unfulfilled, of course -- about my well being.
With every passing day, the rising tide of concern for my plight seemed to personify the words of Elie Wiesel: "Takes Sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim. Never the tormented."
Friends and strangers alike took a stand and support began to mushroom everywhere. Nadia related to me in the hospital how Amnesty International had declared me a "Prisoner of Conscience," and how Pen International adopted me as a "Writer in Prison." Against all odds, two prominent Malaysian lawyers, Manjeet Singh Dhillon and Balwant Singh Siddhu, offered their services unconditionally. To top it all, an international coalition - Friends of Dr. Anees - came into existence in defense of my rights. The core group of Naseer Ahmad, Basir Hai, Safir Rammah, Jamal Mubarak and Naeem Siddiqui mounted a media campaign with phenomenal success.
What touched my heart was that the person, Kamal Mubarak, who set up the Web site had never met me in person. From the depths of my confinement, I could see the magic of human compassion had begun to defeat oppression.
The pinnacle was reached after my release in the warm hug laced with watery eyes of an Amnesty friend in Toronto, Margaret John, who witnessed a pledge of solidarity between me and Devan Nair, the former president of Singapore, for we had come to share a similar fate.
My victimization at the hands of Mahathir's "Asian values" has transformed me in another way. All my adult life, like so many in the Muslim world, I have suspected under every nook and cranny some conspiracy by the West to keep us down. Yet, in this seminal experience of my life, my friends in the West succeeded in saving me, while Mahathir, a Muslim, did everything to destroy me. And he is trying to do the same to Anwar, who has now been sentenced to six years in prison on fabricated charges.
Mahathir has demonstrated that, though a proclaimed Muslim, his heart is blind to compassion. Tyranny is the hallmark of his bankrupt concept of "Asian values."
My tragedy, and that of Anwar, ought to make our fellow Muslims think very hard when they ponder the West and its role in the world. As we set out to shape our collective destiny in the 21st century, will the values of Mahathir or Jefferson serve us best? Mahathir himself made that choice for me. Sic semper tyrannis.