Interview: Malaysian prime minister

By Amir Taheri
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 5/29/2003

LONDON, May 29 (UPI) -- After almost four decades in politics, and as the longest-serving prime minister in modern Asian history, Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, will retire at the end of his current term of office. Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the prime minister has emerged as a powerful voice for the Muslim world, speaking both against Islamophobes in the West and Islamist extremists in various Islamic countries.
In a free-ranging conversation at his home in London, he shared some of his thoughts on Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism and the limits of democracy with Amir Taheri. What follows is an excerpt.
Q. Before the Iraq war started you warned that it would open a Pandora's box of unimaginable catastrophes. Now that the war is over, how do you think it went? Better than you expected? Worse? Or just as you had expected?
A. Worse, possibly much worse. This war took place against international law and against international public opinion. It has thrown many international institutions, chief among them the United Nations, into disarray. As a result of this war, weak governments, that is to say the majority in the world, can no longer expect protection from the U.N. The stronger governments might think that they can do as they please. This is of special concern to me because all Muslim governments can be regarded as weak and vulnerable and thus exposed to the threat of action by the powerful nations.
Q. The Iraqis, however, seem to be happy that Saddam is gone. Even Jacques Chirac, the French president who led the anti-war camp, has quietly said he is happy to see another dictator go. Aren't you happy, too?
A. The Iraqis may be feeling a sense of relief. Today, they may even be happy to see the end of their oppression. Nevertheless, two points must be made. The first is that the ends do not justify the means. Breaking Saddam's regime may have been a worthy aim. But the means used to achieve it, that is to say the illegal invasion of Iraq, were not.
The second point is that the Iraqi people will soon realize that they cannot choose their own government. They would have to accept a government that is acceptable to the United States. It was the U.S., and not the Iraqi people, who got rid of Saddam. One has to be exceptionally naive to think the Americans, having taken huge risks and won the war, will simply turn the keys over to the Iraqis and leave. The U.S. is in Iraq for the long haul and clearly plans to use that country as its principal base in the Arab world, in the hope of reshaping the Middle East in accordance with American strategic interests. Had liberation come as a result of the Iraqi people's action, the whole situation would have been different.
Q. The Iraqi people tried to get rid of Saddam for years. But each time they rose, they were crushed. And Muslim governments did nothing to help ...
A. The situation is not as simple as that. Which powers helped the Baath regime come to power in Baghdad in the first place? Which powers supported Saddam Hussein for years? And which powers kept the sanctions that weakened the people of Iraq while strengthening the regime? In any case, if we are going to use invasion as a means of changing brutal regime, then there are many such regimes to deal with, especially in Africa.
Q. You mean Zimbabwe?
A. Not only Zimbabwe. What about Rwanda?
Q. But the Rwandan regime that was responsible for the massacre of the Tutsi was overthrown ...
A. Well, there are others.
Q. In any case, Saddam is gone and cannot be brought back. What should be done now?
A. We must restore the authority of the United Nations by giving it the responsibility of organizing the transition period in Iraq. This would enable the Iraqis to choose the type of government they like rather than one that the Americans like. The U.S. talks of bringing democracy to Iraq. But what if the Iraqis do not want democracy? Democracy is developed over decades, even centuries, of social, cultural and political experience. It cannot be imposed from the outside. The Iraqis have never had any democratic experience. So why should they be forced into something that they might not be able to handle?
Q. I doubt that many Iraqis would agree with you. Iraq had the beginnings of a democracy between the 1930s and 1958. It was the most open society in the Arab world. Iraq also has an educated urban middle class and a robust intellectual and cultural elite. Why should they want to live under a despotic system? Is it because they are genetically incapable of governing themselves?
A. Not at all. No nation is genetically incapable of doing anything. What I am saying is that democracy must not be regarded as an absolute panacea. It comes to different societies in different forms. Malaysian women, for example, had the right to vote and get elected to Parliament long before Swiss women. The way democracy developed in Germany was not the same as it did in Britain. Throughout history there have been many non-democratic, even feudal, regimes that respected their peoples and did much good. Feudal barons and traditional monarchs in a non-democratic context initially built the European civilization.
The concept of the benevolent despot plays a key role in Islamic political theory and practice. It is based on the belief that in some cases it is better to have a despot who can act in the interests of society as a whole rather than a situation of anarchy, known as "fitnah," or the rule of a majority that can suppress minorities. The Americans are choking us with their talk about democracy. But democracies, too, can fail. German democracy failed with the Weimar republic. And hasn't Argentine democracy failed in front of our eyes? In some societies -- and during some periods in history -- an authoritarian ruler with good intentions can do much more for his people than a democratic system that weakens the nation by making government powerless.
As I have already mentioned, there is also the danger that democracy could be used by a majority as a means of depriving the minority of its rights. To come back to Iraq, a society that is so divided among different communities might not find it easy to adopt the type of democracy the Americans want.
Q. But your own country, Malaysia, is a good example to the contrary. Malaysia, too, is divided among Malays, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, etc. Is it not your pluralist system that has helped you become probably the only successful Muslim country today?
A. Yes. But we have been fortunate enough to have strong governments. Also, we developed our own system through trial and error. We were masters in our own house. Nobody wrote the script for us. Will that be the case in Iraq?
Q. Earlier this year you warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos that a "clash of civilizations" was coming? Do you still believe that?
A. It is happening now. We are right in it. The powerful nations of the West are clearly targeting the Muslim nations. Their aim is to reshape and reform the Muslim world after their own fashion. And that is what many Muslims cannot accept. We cherish our values and traditions and do not wish to be divested of our identity. We wish to remain ourselves. The focus is on the Muslim world, as shown by the "Who's next?" debate. Any Muslim state could be invaded under any pretext.
Q. You have often spoken of Asian values or Islamic values. But are there no universal values? For example, equal rights for women?
A. The term "universal values" is just a cover for a system that small international liberal elite wants to impose on the whole world. I am not sure that such a system enjoys majority support even in the West. Let us take the example you have cited: equal rights for women. In Denmark, for example, the law allows lesbian women, like homosexual men, to get legally married to one another and even adopt children. We cannot allow such a thing.
Another example: Men may go to prostitutes to satisfy themselves. But should we also allow women to use male prostitutes in name of equality? In such cases, we say: No to universal values! In other cases, we have women in all walks of life in Malaysia, including Cabinet ministers and fighter-jet pilots. At the same time, we also say "no" to the self-styled spokesmen for Islam who wish to exclude women from public life altogether.
Q. At a meeting of Muslim foreign ministers in Kuala-Lumpur last year you proposed a definition of terrorism that included human bombs. The ministers politely rejected it. Do you still think that human bombs are terrorists?
A. Yes. Suicide is expressly forbidden in Islam. It is a grave sin. And the deliberate killing of innocent civilians is either murder or an act of terror. We should not shy away from accepting that. Once we have done that we could, of course, explain and understand the causes of suicide bombing and acts of terror. This is not difficult to do in the case of Palestine. The Palestinian people have a legitimate cause: They seek self-determination.
They tried to reach their goal through conventional war with the help of Arab states, and failed. Then they tried civil disobedience and throwing stones, and again failed. For years, they tried diplomatic means and negotiations. Again they achieved nothing. It was out of frustration, out of a sentiment that all other means were blocked, that they had recourse to suicide attacks.
Israel, however, has a choice. It can withdraw from the occupied territories. It can stop using massive force against civilian targets. It can stop the so-called targeted killings. Suicide bombings must be condemned unreservedly. But that condemnation must be accompanied by the assertion that Israel has the choice not to oppress the people of Palestine.
Q. You say we are in a clash of civilization and that all Muslim nations are open to invasion. What should they do to cope with the threat?
A. More than ever before Muslim nations are in need of unity. They should come together to coordinate their political and diplomatic activities, for example, the way they vote in the United Nations. They must also use their natural resources and their markets as a means of strengthening their political defenses.
All but one of the 11 member states of OPEC are Muslims. And yet they cannot agree on credible production and pricing policies. Quota-hopping and other tricks are the norm for many OPEC members. Securing a realistic price for oil from the wealthy nations could enable OPEC to help developing Muslim nations by offering them cheaper oil.
We should also work out plans to increase trade among Muslim nations, which is now minimal. If we are united, those who might want to impose sanctions against any one of us, or even threaten us with invasion, will have to think twice. We, too, should be in a position to counter their sanctions and to defend ourselves more effectively.
Q. But shouldn't we also ask why Saddam Hussein was so easy to overthrow? Should we not ask Muslim rulers to maybe review some of their policies and methods?
A. Absolutely. Those in government should respect the people, obey the laws they themselves enact and look after the poor and the needy.
Q. And perhaps not kill their opponents, not imprison their critics, not plunder the treasury?
A. Yes, absolutely. I am not saying that all present-day Muslim governments are perfect. They obviously are not. Most of our governments still need to secure the genuine support of their peoples to face the current dangers. It is their duty as Muslims, their duty under our faith, to behave with dignity. The example of Iraq must be a lesson to us all: A regime that is not supported by the people is easily swept away.
Q. One of your predecessors as Malaysia's prime minister, Tunku Abdul-Rahman, who later became the first secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, prepared a detailed plan for reforms in the Muslim world in the 1970s. He wanted Muslim governments to agree on a code of conduct, a code of honor if you like, which, if violated, would turn the violator into a pariah of the Muslim world. Don't you think we need such a code today? Don't you think we should tick off our bad boys ourselves before anyone comes to it for us from the other side of the world?
A. Tunku Abdul-Rahman was very impressed by the British Commonwealth and dreamed of a similar organization for the Muslim countries. But he soon found out that his dream could not be realized in his lifetime -- or even beyond. The Muslim world is ridden with divisions. People cannot even agree on when (the fasting month) Ramadan starts inside the same country. To proclaim a code that is violated almost immediately will only add to divisions. At this moment we can do much better work through quiet diplomacy, advice and friendly persuasion.
Q. Recently you described yourself as a Muslim fundamentalist. And yet Malaysia has become an active partner in the global war against terrorism, led by the U.S. ...
A. Where is the contradiction? The terrorists who use religion as an ideology are not fundamentalists but innovators. Those who say terrorism has no place in Islam are the true fundamentalists. Over the centuries Islam has suffered from countless erroneous interpretations. This is why I wish to go back, to the very source, to the fundamentals so to speak. Islam is designed to make man's life happy and easy. The so-called religious leaders, however, wish to complicate matters and make life difficult for the people.
For example, Islam says women should dress modestly. That is fine advice. The so-called religious militants, however, want to impose a special hijab of their own design, a political prop that they use as a symbol of their political presence. Today you see that hijab everywhere, in Malaysia and even in London. Many of those who wear it do not know it has nothing to do with Islam.
As for our participation in the global war against terrorism, we are doing this both because we are against terrorism and because terrorists threaten us. Malaysia has always championed all legitimate Islamic causes. And yet we have armed so-called Islamic terrorist groups, including al-Qaida that have tried and may still be trying to overthrow our government by force. Many in the West ignore the fact that the first victims of terrorism are Muslim peoples.
Q. Is it true that southern Asia -- notably Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia -- is becoming the epicenter of Islamist terrorism?
A. I don't think that is the case. Islam in both Indonesia and Malaysia is open, forward-looking and, if you like, liberal. Some extremist ideas have been exported to our region from the Middle East. But they have very little appeal. In the case of violence in different parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, the causes are local, ethnic and territorial rather than religious.
Q. Four years ago you took Malaysia out of the global economic system to prevent an economic meltdown. Many had predicted you would fail. What happened?
A. We didn't fail. And as you know, my party won another general election. Malaysia is doing well once again. All I did was to listen to economic experts and then use my common sense. A politician should never follow experts blindly.
Q. You had also said that Jews were "plotting" to destabilize your government. Are they still plotting?
A. There certainly was a conspiracy against Malaysia. Many were unhappy about the fact that we did our own thing, that we took our own decisions. The Jews have always plotted in the Middle East and continue to do so. They will stop only when they realize that they cannot succeed.
Q. Doesn't this kind of talk provide fuel for extremist fires? Can we say all Jews are plotters?
A. I never said all Jews were plotters. That is a claim made by some religious leaders in Malaysia, not by me. My original remarks four years ago were taken out of context and blown out of all proportion so as to make me look anti-Semitic.
Q. You have announced your retirement from government. Your friends say you may wish to cast yourself in the role of a spokesman for the Muslim world, seeking a dialogue of civilizations ...
A. Everyone will soon realize that we need a dialogue of civilizations, not a clash. I certainly hope to continue to speak my mind after I have left government. You know me; I cannot keep quiet even when I am a lone voice, which has often been the case. But I do not intend just to talk to the West on behalf of Islam. I will also talk to fellow Muslims about our common problems and what we need to do to preserve our values while at the same time taking full advantage of the possibilities that the global system offers for economic development and better living standards for our peoples.