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Mahathir’s Message

In a world that seems to be getting gloomier and more frightening by the day, the Malaysian prime minister’s keynote address to a world Islamic summit last week must stand as a milestone of sorts. The prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, one of Asia’s longest ruling and most popular leaders, delivered on October 16 what sounded an awful lot like a call for worldwide Muslim holy war against “the Jews.”

And his audience, a glittering assemblage of monarchs and prime ministers from 57 Islamic nations plus a bevy of distinguished guests, gave him a standing ovation.

The speech was studded, as critics have noted, with repugnant phrases of the sort that haven’t been heard from such a prominent international platform since the Nazi era. “The Jews,” Mahathir said, “rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Not only that, but after having “survived 2,000 years of pogroms,” the Jews “invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so they may enjoy equal rights with others. With these, they have now gained control of the most powerful countries.”

The response from the West has been, appropriately, one of outrage. The European Union issued an immediate condemnation through its head office, calling the remarks “false and antisemitic” and saying they “have no place in a decent world.” Germany’s Foreign Ministry called in the Malaysian envoy for a formal dressing-down. Italy’s foreign minister called the speech a blow to “understanding between the Western world and the Islamic world.” All that happened within the first day after the speech. A day later, French President Jacques Chirac wrote to Mahathir personally, condemning the remarks and invoking the memory of the Holocaust.

The United States, shockingly, gave one of the more tepid responses to the speech: a condemnation from a mid-level State Department spokesman. Only four days later did President Bush step in, telling Mahathir face to face — according to the White House press secretary — that the remarks were “wrong and divisive.” Mahathir says Bush did nothing of the sort.

More disturbing is what hasn’t been said about Mahathir’s diatribe. Anyone who reads the full text of the speech has to be impressed by three things, all of which have gone largely unnoticed in the uproar.

First, the parts about Jewish world domination were a relatively small portion, no more than a handful of references in a 4,200-word discourse.

Second, most of the speech is devoted to a biting critique of the state of the Muslim world and an analysis of what is needed for Muslims to compete on the world diplomatic and economic stage. Much of it reads as though it were drawn straight from the much-admired Arab Human Development Report put out by the United Nations, calling for more openness in exchange of ideas, more literacy, more secular and scientific inquiry and, not least, more tolerance of competing opinions. No, he isn’t a fan of democracy. But he does favor modernization and inquiry over religious extremism, and dialogue over “mindless violence.” Muslims, Mahathir scolded, resort to “mindless violence” because they feel “oppressed and humiliated” by their enemies, but it only alienates potential allies and does nothing to advance their cause. Instead of “indiscriminate attacks,” he said, Muslims should put their energies into mastering the scientific, technological and diplomatic tools that could meet the challenges they face and best their enemies.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the challenge — the main one, anyway — is Palestine, and the enemies are Europe, the West and “the Jews.” Not because they rule the world, but because they rule Palestine.

The Western powers, Mahathir said, “attack and kill us, invade our lands, bring down our governments.” They “excise Muslim land to create the State of Israel to solve their Jewish problem.” And Muslims, because they are divided and powerless, have been able to do “nothing effective to stop the Balfour and Zionist transgression.”

“The Koran tells us that when the enemy sues for peace we must react positively,” Mahathir said. “True, the treaty offered is not favorable to us. But we can negotiate.”

Negotiating, planning, using our heads — that, he said, is what Muslims need to learn from their enemies.

“For well over half a century, we have fought over Palestine,” he said. “What have we achieved? Nothing. We are worse off than before. If we had paused to think, then we could have devised a plan, a strategy that can win us final victory.”

That is the message that brought the crowned heads of the Muslim world to their feet last week in Malaysia. It was a blunt, eloquent statement of how Muslims view themselves and their relationship to the West these days, and a stiff exhortation to modernize.

If its anti-Jewish element sounds blood-curdling in its intensity — and it should — then it is worse than most critics have let on, because this isn’t one cranky old man speaking. It is, in a real sense, 1.3 billion Muslims throwing down a gauntlet.

If there is a bright side, it is in the fact that this attack on Jews is about something specific: land. Unlike the Nazis, who wanted nothing other than to kill every Jew in the world, the Muslim Jew-haters for whom Mahathir speaks want something they consider “justice” in Palestine.

Pessimists will argue that this amounts to the same thing, that the Muslims will never settle for less than the destruction of Israel. That may be true. But it may not be.

The atmosphere of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rage welling up with ever-greater intensity around the world these days has not been a constant over the half-century since Israel’s founding. It exploded with a sudden fury three years ago, after steadily declining for a decade before that. While Israel was engaged in what seemed to be a genuine peace process with its neighbors, the world — including the Muslim world — was content to give it a chance. When the diplomacy collapsed, and the violence surged to previously unimaginable proportions, the rage followed.

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