PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia— The gulf between the Islamic world and the West was starkly visible yesterday as a firestorm of condemnation from Europe, America, Australia and Israel scorched Malaysia's prime minister for remarks seen as blatantly anti-Semitic — while officials from major Muslim nations rallied to his defence.
An unapologetic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad fanned the flames, refusing to retreat from remarks he made Thursday, instead accusing his critics of a double standard.
Mohamad, left, whose remarks about Jews met with a chorus of condemnation, is greeted by well-wishers as he leaves a mosque in Putrajaya yesterday.
"People call Muslims terrorists, they even say ... Muhammad, the prophet, was a terrorist," Mahathir said.
"People make such statements, and they seem to get away with it. But if you say anything at all against the Jews, you are accused of being anti-Semitic," Mahathir told a news conference after the close of a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the largest group of Muslim nations.
Canada, Britain, the European Union, Israel and Australia all criticized comments made the day before by Mahathir, when — in a speech calling on Muslims to embrace science and technology, and put behind them divisions over religious dogma that have left them weakened on the world stage — he told delegates of the 57-member organization that "today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."
Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that a reference Mahathir made to the Nazi Holocaust was a "desecration of the memory of 6 million innocent victims of anti-Semitism."
"It is a shame that in the course of a speech ostensibly dedicated to solving problems in the Muslim world ... Dr. Mahathir Mohamad could not restrain himself from resurrecting vile invectives, innuendos and outright lies taken straight from classic anti-Semitic propaganda," the ministry said.
Britain called in the Malaysian High Commissioner to upbraid him for Mahathir's "racist" remarks, while in Bangkok, Bill Graham, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, called them "totally unacceptable.
"All reasonable people are, in my view, dismayed by Mahathir's what I would call conspiracy theory," Graham said, adding he'd instructed his officials in Ottawa to call in the Malaysian High Commissioner to Canada and register a formal protest.
"What is important is that we make it clear to our own citizens that we totally reject both the premise and the spirit of where this is coming from," said Graham, in Thailand for an upcoming Asia-Pacific conference.
Arab leaders insisted Mahathir was simply telling it like it is.
"I don't think they are anti-Semitic at all. I think he was stating the facts," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said.
"There are people wanting to create trouble, invent problems that do not exist," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. "I would advise them to read the whole speech."
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid said most foreign media missed Mahathir's main point, that Muslims should make peace as they could not win the Palestinian conflict through violence.
"We do not agree with suicide bombing, and he has said this," the Malaysian minister said. "I'm sorry he has created this adverse interpretation."
Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Mahathir's comments as "offensive," adding, "Any suggestion of dividing the world between Jews and Muslims is dangerous."
Italy, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, said "Europe profoundly deplores" Mahathir's statements.
"The prime minister of Malaysia used gravely offensive expressions not only towards the Jews — expressions that are strongly anti-Semitic — but also words that ran counter to the principles of tolerance and dialogue between the West and the Muslim world," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said at an EU summit news conference.
Mahathir, 77, who retires Oct. 31 after 22 years in power, was unapologetic yesterday, stressing that remarks by his foreign minister expressing sorrow over misunderstandings were not an apology for his speech. And he said he opposed terrorism, suicide bombings and Israel's policy of massive retaliation in response to Palestinian violence. "What I said in my speech is that we should stop all this violence," he said.
Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan, said "it is great to hear ... Mahathir speak so eloquently on the problems of the ummah (Muslim world) and ways to remedy them.
"His speech was an eye-opener to a lot of us and ... what the Islamic world should do."
AP, REUTERS, CANADIAN PRESS