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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Muslim reaction to Mahathir speech

By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Putrajaya

The world's Muslim leaders have been meeting in Malaysia in what was their largest gathering for three years.

Though discussions were dominated by the issues of Iraq and the Palestinians, media coverage in the West highlighted the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's assertion that the world is ruled by Jews.

Dr Mahathir steps down on 31 October after 22 years in power, and this was probably his last big set-piece speech on the world stage as a national leader.

Mahathir Mohamad is greeted by well-wishers as he leaves the Putra mosque after Friday prayers, 17 October 2003
Mahathir Mohamad is hugely popular in Malaysia
For a man addressing the world's Muslim leaders, he was fearless in criticising what he saw as shortcomings among his fellow believers.

"For well over half a century we have fought over Palestine," he said. "What have we achieved? Nothing."

Dr Mahathir damned militant violence in the Middle East as futile and counterproductive.

"Our only reaction is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think properly," he said.

"And so we find some of our people acting irrationally. They launch their own attacks, killing just about everybody including fellow Muslims to vent their anger and frustration."

'Jews rule the world'

It was not the first time that the Malaysian Prime Minister has berated fellow Muslims in this way.

He harked back to the great Islamic civilizations of 1,000 years ago when Muslim scholars built on the scientific and mathematical knowledge of the Greeks while Europeans were still mired in the dark ages. Muslims should embrace knowledge he argued.

But the greater part of Dr Mahathir's speech risks being ignored outside the Muslim world because of his allegations of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

"The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them," he told the assembled prime ministers and heads of state.

The Malaysians insist that what Dr Mahathir had been trying to say, was that despite having been a marginal and persecuted community the Jews have survived - by use of brains not brawn.

"We are up against a people who think. They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back but by thinking," Dr Mahathir declared.

"They invented Socialism, Communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so that they can enjoy equal rights with others.

"With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power."

Opinions divided

This is not the first time Dr Mahathir has made remarks about Jewish people, but the news wires to London, New York and Paris burned hot with the quotes. Soon, reaction to his words began to filter back.

"We view them with contempt and derision," said the US State Department.

"Gravely offensive," said the foreign minister of Italy, the current chair of the European Union.

Malaysian diplomats in London and Berlin were summoned for a dressing down.

Dr Mahathir, a well-travelled politician of vast experience, surely knew his remarks would be roundly condemned in the West.

It may give those critics, who dislike his trenchant criticism of globalisation and the dominance of the West, the perfect excuse to dismiss him as irrelevant.

But the reaction from among the delegates and journalists was very telling.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he had not interpreted the remarks as being anti-Semitic, while Yemen's Foreign Minister Abubakar al-Qirbi said: "I don't think they were anti-Semitic at all. I think he was basically stating the fact to the Muslim world."

One Malaysian Chinese reporter with an international news agency rushed to Dr Mahathir's aid. "He's my Prime Minister," she said. "Of course I'll defend him."

"But surely you don't believe all this about an international Jewish conspiracy?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "It's true. Everyone knows it is."

An Iranian journalist privately took the same line.

"Of course the Jews rule the world," he said. "Look at America. They control all the companies. The politicians need their money for elections so they support Israel."

These were not the marginal neo-Nazis spilling their views over the internet, these were intelligent professionals. They agree with what Dr Mahathir said.

Malaysians surprised

Such views go unchallenged and are common currency in much of the Muslim world.

In Malaysia's racially diverse society crude racial stereotypes abound - the Malays are lazy, the Chinese greedy, the Indians drunk.

All are as bankrupt as any racial stereotype, but all are used casually by a nation of people who nevertheless rub along together pretty successfully.

So there was surprise that Dr Mahathir's remarks should attract so much condemnation in the West.

There is no understanding here of the taboo that surrounds anti-Jewish views in the West.

There is no comprehension that Westerners' views of themselves changed forever when British and American soldiers stumbled among the skeletal forms of those who had survived the Nazi death camps and discovered the mass graves of the millions who died.

The Muslim world does not live with this guilt, does not pay much heed to the distinction Western critics of the Israeli state make between it and the Jews.

For them Israel, Jews, they are all the same - they see them as people who stole Arab land in 1947 and who have compounded their crimes ever since.

Malaysia defends speech on Jews
17 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir calls for peaceful Islam
10 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir in his own words
08 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Mahathir Mohamad
22 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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