Mahathir's Muddle

Dark fantasy clouds the Malaysian leader's interesting little world


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been roundly and justly condemned for his remarks claiming—among other things—that "Jews rule this world by proxy." President George W. Bush gave Mahathir both barrels, a State Department rebuke followed by a personal admonishment at a summit meeting in Bangkok. Even the Arab News editorialized that the prime minister's comments were wrong and cautioned against his words igniting anti-Jewish violence.

Mahathir's more inane claims—that Jews "invented" democracy in a shrewd bid to make themselves appear to be oppressed—suffered the worst fate that can befall overheated rhetoric: unrelenting ridicule. Yet, taken as a whole, in some ways the most interesting—though not praise-worthy, correct, or perhaps even sincere—thing about Mahathir's remarks is not is dark obsession with Jews, but his stinging rebuke of fellow Muslims.

When the first wave of condemnation broke, a spokesman for Mahathir gave the standard out-of-context explanation, saying the speech was primarily about what the Muslim world can do to improve itself. But the anti-Jewish remarks cannot be misconstrued; they are what they are. However, the claim that Mahathir tried to deliver his own little self-help talk to assembled Muslim leaders is fairly accurate.

Mahathir blasts the relative poverty of the Muslim world repeatedly, asking how 1.3 billion people could be so weak. That theme produces the following flourish:

There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people. They feel that they can do nothing right. They believe that things can only get worse. The Muslims will forever be oppressed and dominated by the Europeans and the Jews. They will forever be poor, backward, and weak. Some believe, as I have said, this is the Will of Allah, that the proper state of the Muslims is to be poor and oppressed in this world.

But is it true that we should do and can do nothing for ourselves? Is it true that 1.3 billion people can exert no power to save themselves from the humiliation and oppression inflicted upon them by a much smaller enemy? Can they only lash back blindly in anger? Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people?"

And from these rhetorical questions, Mahathir winds up with his warped money quote:

We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. 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.

Although Mahathir never deviates from the oppressed Muslim device, he also stresses that a rejection of learning and science, corrupt, quasi-medieval governments, sectarian violence, and mindless suicide attacks have left the Muslim world worse off. Unfortunately, he seems locked onto the idea of simply learning to "think properly" and come up with a way to best the Jews and achieve "final victory."

Considering Mahathir is on his way out—which might have happened even sooner if he had not slapped his top deputy and presumed successor with trumped up sodomy charges—the question for the West might be how to build upon Mahathir's rejection of suicide bombers and positive views of modern learning as a wedge against more backward-looking strains of thought.

Could the next generation of leaders in the Muslim world notice that the path of the last few decades has led them nowhere? Could they toss aside mercantilist, zero-sum thinking and come to realize that "final victory" does not entail battlefield success but peace and prosperity for their peoples?

Or is that just more crazy talk?