America's allies in the Islamic world are too few, and of those few, even fewer are anything like friends. So when one of them attacks America as part of a long-standing anti-Semitic campaign, it's time to ask whether he was ever an ally - and still less a friend.
That's the situation in which U.S. policymakers find themselves with the chief of Malaysia's political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim. Once a favorite of American leaders of all ideological stripes, he earned plaudits over the past decade from eminences ranging from Al Gore to Condoleezza Rice to Amnesty International as an idealized democrat in the Islamic world. In this, his persecution at the hands of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - a genuinely malign figure who saw Mr. Ibrahim as a political rival - and a gift for engaging Western media were of tremendous help.
In the past two years, though, another side of Mr. Ibrahim has come to the fore. His use of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Malaysian politics has earned him a censure from B'nai B'rith, which on May 25 urged U.S. officials to cease contact with him. He also is notably one of the few Muslim politicians of global stature to use Israel's seizure of the Gaza-bound flotilla six weeks ago as a platform for attacking the United States.
The fate of that flotilla produced a sadly predictable outpouring of worldwide condemnation of the Jewish state. But allowing for the general outrage in the Muslim world, it's notable that among America's closest partners in the Middle East, the heads of state and major political leaders generally restricted themselves to statements of disapproval. (Turkey is the exception that proves the rule.) The kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to pick just two examples, had strong words for Israel - but few expect lasting policy repercussions from either country.
Malaysia was no exception. Like every other majority-Islamic nation (though, unlike most, it boasts substantial and active religious minorities) it condemned Israel in resounding terms before the captured vessels made port in Ashdod, Israel. Prime Minister Najib Razak - the man whom Mr. Ibrahim hopes to overthrow and replace - even hosted a reception for the dozen Malaysians who took part in the flotilla, at which he denounced Israeli action as "an impudent act of aggression and terrorism ... an act of cold-blooded murder committed by commandos on an order from the Tel Aviv regime."
This is strong stuff, and not a credit to its speaker. But without excusing it in the slightest, Americans may well note that it places Mr. Razak alongside every other Islamic leader in the world. Furthermore, Mr. Razak has also come under fire domestically for his cooperative stance toward the United States, particularly in the war on terror.
Following his meeting with President Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last April, Mr. Razak took two major steps toward a pro-American Malaysian foreign policy. He announced a willingness to have Malaysia contribute to "capacity building" in Afghanistan. He furthermore directed the Malaysian national oil company, Petronas, to halt shipments of refined-petroleum products to Iran pending resolution of that country's nuclear crisis. (From a purely Israeli standpoint, this action against an actual existential threat arguably offsets and supersedes harsh rhetoric.)
The contrast with Mr. Ibrahim could not be greater. Where Mr. Razak denounced Israel, Mr. Ibrahim attacked Jews per se with all the tropes of classic anti-Semitism - and he attacked America as well.
Even before the flotilla incident, Mr. Ibrahim was seeking electoral advantage through demagoguery over what Europeans might uncomfortably recognize as "the Jewish question." As early as 2008, with elections then looming, he stated in an interview with IslamOnline, "I have evidence proving that the government is backing the Jewish lobby in the U.S. and some parties inside Israel." More recently, having seized upon the prime minister's hire of an American public-relations firm with interests in Israel, Mr. Ibrahim spent much of the spring alleging Jewish penetration and control of Malaysia's government and security services. At one point, his personal Twitter feed declared that there are "Israeli intelligence personnel in the Police IT unit." When Mr. Razak announced Malaysia's petroleum cutoff to the Iranian mullahs, Mr. Ibrahim told the Malaysian parliament that it was proof of "how weak we are" that Jewish interests could control Malaysian policy thus.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Ibrahim's major partner in Malaysia's opposition coalition is an Islamist party best known in the West for soliciting volunteers to defend the Taliban from America after Sept. 11, 2001.
With this background, it's no surprise that the likes of B'nai B'rith declared Mr. Ibrahim persona non grata for U.S. policymakers. It's also no surprise that after the Gaza flotilla, Mr. Ibrahim was found leading a chanting mob of thousands before the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on June 4. He declared, "Israelis are able to continue with their aggression because of the soft position taken by the [American] president." Three days later, in the Malaysian Parliament, he said, "Israel wouldn't dare to attack the flotilla and set up blockades in Gaza without the support of America."
Anti-Israel sentiment becomes anti-Semitic sentiment becomes anti-American sentiment: It's a depressingly familiar formula in the Muslim world, and one Americans need not tolerate. On June 7, the Wall Street Journal's editors wrote that "it's disappointing to see [Mr. Ibrahim] jump on the anti-Israel populist bandwagon." Disappointing, yes - but if you've been watching Mr. Ibrahim lately, not surprising.
The sad fact is that if Anwar Ibrahim once commanded the respect of Americans as a friend and potential ally, that day is gone. A decade ago, reasoned and informed Western opinion believed him a harbinger of enlightened and tolerant Muslim democracy. Now he is just another Islamic-world peddler of Jew-baiting and anti-Americanism. Both America and the Islamic world, and certainly Malaysia, deserve better.
*Joshua Trevino is a longtime observer of Malaysian affairs and runs Trevino Strategies and Media. He served as a speechwriter in President George W. Bush's Department of Health and Human Services from 2001-2004.