Islamic Leader's Comments on Jews and the West Condemned by Some

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Any hope that a gathering in Malaysia of Muslim heads of state would help to improve Islam's image in the West has been thrown into doubt by a speech accusing Jews of ruling the world "by proxy" and calling on Muslims to unite and use their brains as well as their brawn against Islam's enemies.

The speech by the gathering's host, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been condemned by Western governments, but there have been no public signs of unease among the gathered Islamic leaders.

Addressing leaders from the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Mahathir said there was a feeling of hopelessness among Muslims who believe they will always be oppressed by Europeans" - a term he uses to describe all Westerners - and "the Jews."

Mahathir portrayed the Jewish people both as Islam's enemy and as an example that Muslims should emulate in making a bigger impact in the world.

Even though six million Jews were wiped out during the Holocaust, "today the Jews rule this world by proxy," he charged. "They get others to fight and die for them."

If a small number of Jews can do that, he implied, how much more should 1.3 billion Muslims be capable of achieving.

"One-point-three billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategize and then to counter-attack."

Mahathir is the incoming chairman of the OIC although he will retire as prime minister on Oct. 31 after 22 years in power. Before doing so, he will attend next week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, with President Bush and other leaders.

Often described as "a moderate" - Malaysia is more democratic than most Muslim countries - Mahathir has nonetheless built a reputation as a combative and often anti-Western spokesman for the developing world.

Other points in his speech included a call for Muslims to restore their dignity and that of Islam by acting in unison.

"The governments of all the Muslim countries can close ranks and have a common stand if not on all issues, at least on some major ones, such as on Palestine," he said. "We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated."

Mahathir suggested that it was pointless for different factions within Islam to have differences among themselves. In the eyes of Islam's "detractors and enemies," all Muslims were the same, and all were enemies.

"They will attack and kill us, invade our lands, bring down our governments whether we are Sunnis or Shias, Alawite or Druse or whatever."

The speech was punctuated with references to the oppression of Muslims and the need for the Islamic world to be more assertive, in keeping with its size, diplomatic clout and oil wealth.

But he decried its "weakness in military terms," saying: \ldblquote We need guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships for our defense."

He also said the Jews had created 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. We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also."

'Nobody challenged him'

There have been no signs of open disagreement with Mahathir from other OIC leaders.

On the contrary, in his subsequent speech, OIC secretary-general Abdelouahed Belkeziz, a Moroccan diplomat, praised Mahathir for his "penetrating thought and sound views" and said the prime minister's speech would be a source of inspiration during the rest of the meeting, which ends Friday.

Reaction from elsewhere, however, was stinging.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the comments offensive and inflammatory, and did not hide his disdain about the source.

"It's not the first time we've seen comments like this from that official," he said.

The Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement the remarks about Jews weren't surprising.

"As expected, those taking part in the Islamic conference chose the lowest common denominator amongst them - vilifying Israel and Jewish people."

In Brussels, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the speech contained "expressions that were strongly anti-Semitic, but also words that ran counter to the principles of tolerance and dialogue between the West and the Muslim world."

Prime Minister John Howard of Australia - a frequent target of Mahathir's rhetoric - called the remarks repugnant and said "any invocation of rivalry between Jews and Muslims is very unhelpful."

Jewish organizations also responded strongly.

American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris said Mahathir's language was "reminiscent of the crudest and most vile anti-Semitism in history."

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said the speech was "nothing more than a call to holy war against Jews," and called for international condemnation.

"We are dismayed and saddened that among all these leaders from 57 countries, nobody stood up, nobody walked up and nobody challenged him."

Attendees at the summit include King Abdullah II of Jordan, Prince Abdullah Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Morocco's King Mohamed VI, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow