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Social media backfire as Fahmi, PKR supporters work to portray Anwar as champion of Palestine

Many see this as an attempt to replace Dr Mahathir Mohamad's overpowering image as one of the most vocal anti-Israeli leaders in the Muslim world.

4 minute read
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, at a closed-door event in support of Palestine on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, at a closed-door event in support of Palestine on Tuesday.

The government's de facto information minister, Fahmi Fadzil, has switched to propaganda mode amid the battle against a popular narrative on social media dismissing the administration's show of support for Palestine as a political strategy designed to win over Malay Muslims.

The digital and communications minister has taken to social media, sharing old clips of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim when he was part of Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Cabinet in the 1980s, including one of him on stage with visiting Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat.

A closed-door event in support of Palestine on Tuesday night, where thousands were mobilised to fill the Axiata Stadium in Bukit Jalil in an apparent bid by the government to break clean from past controversial statements by Anwar, also saw several clips portraying the PKR leader as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

The event was held two days after a controversial gathering by Viva Palestina Malaysia, a group led by Dr Musa Nordin who invited PKR leaders including Anwar's daughter, Nurul Izzah, to speak.

The event was condemned by Malaysian Muslims after Musa discouraged protesters from shouting "Allahu Akbar" and banned placards labelling Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu as a war criminal.

In the aftermath of the stadium rally, Fahmi took to X with videos of a younger Anwar in past pro-Palestinian rallies, saying: "The video is very historic because it was recorded 40 years ago. The struggle to liberate Palestine has taken a long time, but have faith, Palestine will definitely be free!"

One PKR supporter also shared a video dating back to 1983, a year after Mahathir recruited Anwar to his ruling Umno in the hope of countering a resurgent PAS.

In the clip, members of Umno Youth were seen chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to Begin", a reference to then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, best known for the massacre of Palestinians committed by his militant Zionist group in the village of Deir Yassin.

The attempts at projecting Anwar as a supporter of Palestine are seen as part of a lengthy damage control exercise that begin during the campaign for the last general election, when news emerged of a PKR supporter being part of a Mossad-linked group which kidnapped a Palestinian man in September last year.

While PKR leaders moved to distance the party from the individual, opposition leaders had reminded them of Anwar's stand on the Palestinian conflict, most notably an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal in 2012.

Anwar was quoted by the paper as saying that he "would support all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel" – remarks that were used against him by his critics to further erode the already thin Malay support for his coalition.

But given the strong anti-Israel stance taken by past leaders, including Mahathir who has been frequently condemned as an anti-Semite by Israeli and Western media, many believe that Anwar has large shoes to fill when it comes to issues affecting the Muslim world.

In his speech at the stadium rally on Tuesday, Anwar claimed several times to have made a first in travelling throughout capitals in the Middle East to deliver a strong message by Malaysia against the Israeli military onslaught in Gaza.

He also claimed that Western powers had threatened him for criticising Israel, following which PAS urged him to specify the nature of the threats. 

When pressed by the media, Anwar told reporters there "was nothing to worry about", adding that the threats were made by "European MPs" and that a statement on the issue would be released soon.

If true, this would be the first time that a prime minister has come under pressure for continuing the well-known foreign policy of sympathising with the Palestinian cause.

Meanwhile, many on social media questioned the government's handling of the Palestinian conflict, noting what they described as a constant focus on Anwar during the stadium rally.

"I thought it was a solidarity rally for the sufferings of Palestine, but it turned out to be a rally to show old videos," said one on X.

A veteran diplomat meanwhile had strong words for the prime minister.

"PMX never fails to pass up an opportunity to preen his own feathers. He’s a legend in his own mind. Other leaders speak about the issue; he boasts about what he has done," wrote Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian ambassador to Canada turned critic of the current government despite strong disagreements with the opposition Perikatan Nasional.

Others saw PKR supporters taking pains to portray Anwar as pro-Palestine, calling it an effort to replace Mahathir's overpowering image in Malaysia's handling of the decades-long conflict.

"Oh please la, we all know Tun M was very vocal on the Palestinian issue during that time," said X user Malay Bitcoiner, in response to Fahmi's post on Anwar greeting Arafat. "Yes, Anwar was there, but it was Tun M that was the most vocal and still is till today."

Mahathir recently condemned US President Joe Biden for backing Israel in a video shared globally and reproduced in several languages. 

His strong stance has often been compared to that of Anwar.

Hours after Anwar was sworn in as prime minister in November last year, an influential Israeli daily welcomed the appointment on the understanding that he was more approachable than Mahathir. 

"Unlike his predecessor [sic] Mahathir, Malaysia's new PM Anwar Ibrahim doesn't call himself a 'proud antisemite'; indeed, his foes slur him as an 'agent' of Jews and/or Christians," said Esther Solomon, chief editor of the English-language Haaretz.

"Israel would love closer ties with Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the opportunity?" she said on X.

Yesterday, Mahathir repeated his condemnation of Washington over its support for Israel.

"It is because the Jews of America have a big say in the choice of the president and the government of the United States. They own the media and the banks.

"As we condemn Israel for the atrocities against the Palestinians, we should also condemn the American government for its support of the atrocities," he added.