Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is hardly a key player in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but his address at last week's Islamic leadership conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, immediately attracted a press spotlight to what might otherwise have been another ho-hum gathering of kings, emirs, presidents, and other mostly unelected leaders.
"The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million," Mahathir said to the gathered leaders at the Organization of Islamic Conference summit, "but today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." Press reports indicate he was met by a resounding ovation. What exactly the audience was applauding—indeed, what exactly the Malaysian premier, whose country chairs both the 57-member OIC and the 117-member Non-Aligned Movement, intended by his remarks—remains in hot dispute.
The Toronto Star ran a roundup of reactions to Mahathir's statement from around the globe, with the foreign minister of Yemen voicing the prevailing Arab and Muslim view ("I think he was stating the facts") and the Australian premier summing up the Western response ("offensive.") In this translation provided by the BBC, Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote that Mahathir is being unfairly attacked for saying what Muslims know is true: that Jews use their domination to prompt the United States to wage wars against Muslims. "The so-called U.S. war against terrorism is an Israeli war initiated in the Jewish state's interests."
Western media saw the matter differently. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson said, "When he spoke of Jews getting 'others to fight and die for them' and of Muslims achieving 'nothing' in 50 years of fighting Israel, he sounded as he had so many times before—like an angry old anti-Semite."
As the OIC confab drew to a close, the Star of Malaysia argued that the Western media had taken the premier's remarks out of context "like a bad jig-saw picture that overshadowed the summit's call for unity and world peace." True, the paper said, Mahathir did urge the Muslim world to prepare to defend itself "with guns, rockets, bombs and warplanes. But it was only to stress the importance of science and technology as the weapons and horses of the time of Prophet Muhammad could not help defend their nations today." The message, according to the Star: The media will be watching, and misconstruing, every move made by Malaysia as long as it chairs two important global bodies.
The Jerusalem Post editorialized that Mahathir's anti-Semitism is more proof that the "Jewish-gentile era of good feeling that dawned in the aftermath of World War II had ended." The paper concluded, "One and one-third billion Muslims live in relative poverty not because they are shackled by a few million Jews, but because they think they are shackled. The sooner they free their minds from this fantasy, the quicker the progress they'll make."
Al-Sharq al-Awsat took issue with Mahathir's remarks, saying he "condemned Jews when he probably meant Israelis. This is the kind of generalization that we complain about when we are described as terrorists, because only some of us refuse to refrain from killing thousands of civilians and hijacking planes." (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
In an op-ed published in Israel's Ha'aretz, however, former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein noted that Mahathir's anti-Semitism comes as no surprise; nearly 20 years ago he cancelled a planned tour of Malaysia by the New York Philharmonic because the program included a work by a Jewish composer, and in 1997 he blamed Jewish billionaire George Soros for Malaysia's currency crisis. Rubinstein—a dove—said that Muslim anti-Semitism might decrease if an Arab-Israeli peace settlement is achieved, but, he continued, "Mahathir Mohamad and his ilk are fanning the fires of European anti-Semitism, which had appeared to have been extinguished. The most recent example of this reciprocal relationship is France, whose President Jacques Chirac prevented the publication of a harsh condemnation by the European Union of Mohamad's statement."
Israel's Ma'ariv ran a photo of Chirac on its front page, along with a headline that read, "The Anti-Semitic Face of France." An accompanying column slammed Chirac for blocking the condemnation of Mahathir at Friday's EU meeting. "Yes," it concluded, "There are worse anti-Semites than him, but as of today no other active supporter of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world holds such a high position."
If Mahathir thought he had an understanding friend in Chirac, the comfort was short-lived. On Sunday, Chirac's office publicized excerpts from a letter the French president sent to Mahathir in which he condemned the Malaysian premier's statements. The DailyTelegraph reported that the European Union tried to deflect criticism from Chirac, saying the leaders at Friday's summit had agreed to issue a separate statement condemning the remarks. (That statement was issued by Italy, which currently holds the EU presidency.)
Reuters reported that President Bush told the Malaysian premier his remarks stand "squarely against what I believe" when they met Monday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Bangkok, Thailand. Mahathir's foreign minister tried to convince U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that the remarks were "innocuous," but to no avail.