Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Goes out with a Bang

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Goes out with a Bang

Article excerpt

Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad could have used his last major speech before retirement to deliver a few gentle homilies and then bowed out quietly. Instead, he chose to go out with a bang. Speaking before a gathering of the 57-member state Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), he returned to a familiar Mahathir theme: the Muslim countries are lagging behind most of the rest of the world, and need to put aside petty divisions, reject extremism, and work hard to build strong modern societies. Boiled down to its essentials, this is an argument he has advanced many times before, including at OIC meetings and, in January this year, in a lengthy speech he delivered at Cairo's Al-Azhar University.

In part because Mahathir challenges conservative Muslim opinion, his message often gets a mixed reception. In his Al Azhar speech, for example, he criticized those who say to Muslims that "the door of ijtihad [interpretation of Islam] is closed, and they must accept anything that had been interpreted long ago."

He also took issue with political violence, irritating some listeners mindful of the conflict raging in Palestine: "The most fundamental teaching of Islam is that it means peace," Mahathir insisted. "We greet each other with the wish for peace. Is it just an empty greeting, which we do not mean, or do we wish for peace because we really want peace?

"If we want peace," he continued, "then shouldn't we strive for peace, at least among ourselves as Muslims first, and then with people of other faiths?"

Much of his speech to the OIC meeting in October was in the same vein. This time, however, Mahathir specifically questioned the effectiveness of the use of violence by the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. Muslims might serve the Palestinian cause best by trying to win over those who were critical or suspicious of them, he argued, and, if a peace treaty was offered, they should react positively, even if it was not altogether fair in their eyes.

"I am aware that all these ideas will not be popular," he acknowledged. "Those who are angry would want to reject it out of hand. They would even want to silence anyone who takes or supports this line of action. They would want to send more young men and women to make the supreme sacrifice. But where will all these lead to? Certainly not victory."

The delegates applauded his speech. The following day, it was reported at some length in the Arab and Muslim media, which focussed on these latter remarks and others touching on the need for better government in Muslim countries. These were the issues seen as being of greatest interest and deserving discussion. The few paragraphs of his nine-page speech which would provoke widespread criticism in the West were mentioned in passing, treated as neither particularly insightful nor controversial.

It was those paragraphs, however, that led the European Union to issue a collective rebuke to Mahathir, and President George W. Bush to tell him that his remarks were "wrong and divisive." State Department spokesman Adam Ereli described the comments as offensive and inflammatory, saying, "We view them with the contempt and derision they deserve."

A spokesman of the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center labeled the Malaysian leader a "serial anti-Semite" and called for a boycott of tourism and investment in the Southeast Asian state.

The Controversial Comments

Mahathir's offending remarks began with the implicit unfavorable contrasting of Muslim behavior with that of the Jews. The latter, he said, had "survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking." Mahathir called upon Muslims "to use our brains as well." This might have excited only a muted response in the West had he not then gone on to say, "The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. …

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