Foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar struggled to contain the damage wrought by his blunt-spoken boss, who told a summit of Islamic leaders yesterday that “Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them”.
Repeated assertions of Jewish dominance dotted the speech to buttress Mahathir’s analysis that Muslims needed to embrace modern knowledge and technology and overcome divisions over religious dogma that have left them weakened on the world stage.
“I’m sorry that they have misunderstood the whole thing,” Syed Hamid told The Associated Press. “The intention is not to create controversy. His intention is to show that if you ponder and sit down to think, you can be very powerful.”
Syed Hamid said the world’s Muslims were in a “quagmire” and feeling “sidelined or marginalised”.
The perception is widespread in the Islamic world as the war on terrorism has evolved into US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increased Israeli repression of the Palestinians.
“The ones who are facing all the problems at present are the Muslims,” Syed Hamid said. “There are no feelings against any Jews. Why should we have feelings based on ethnicity?”
Yesterday, Mahathir, a respected leader in the developing world with a long history of making articulate, provocative comments, told leaders from 57 Islamic nations that Muslims had achieved “nothing” in more than 50 years of fighting Israel.
“They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back but by thinking,” Mahathir said. “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.”
Mahathir said the world’s “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews”, but suggested the use of political and economic tactics, not violence, to achieve a “final victory”.
He said: “In today’s world, we wield a lot of political, economic and financial clout, enough to make up for our weaknesses in military terms.”
The speech drew a standing ovation from the assembled leaders, who included Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were special guests because of their large Muslim minorities.
Many focused more on the aspects of the speech that Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher called “a good road map” toward Muslim empowerment.
“This was a pep talk to the Muslim countries for them to work hard and look to the future,” Maher said. “But as soon as you have any criticism of Israel, then there are people who are very eager to rush to condemnation, without comprehending what it’s all about.”
Karzai, asked by The Associated Press whether he thought the speech was anti-Semitic, responded: “No, I don’t think so.”
He added: “Dr Mahathir spoke of the inhibitions within the Islamic world and that those inhibitions must go away, and I entirely agree with that.”
It wasn’t seen that way in Washington or Europe. US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called Mahathir’s remarks offensive and inflammatory. “We view them with the contempt and derision they deserve,” he said.
The leaders of the European Union, meeting in Brussels, planned to adopt a statement saying the EU “deeply deplores” Mahathir’s words, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said.
“The prime minister used expressions that were gravely offensive, very strongly anti-Semitic and ... strongly counter to principles of tolerance, dialogue and understanding between the Western world and the Islamic world,” he said.
The German Foreign Ministry denounced the comments as ”totally unacceptable” and said it called in Malaysia’s charge d’affaires in Berlin to protest.
“It was made clear to (him) that repeating such prejudices and combining them with the tragic chapter of European and German history, the Holocaust, is irresponsible,” the ministry said in a statement.