Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's speech to the opening session of Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on October 16th has sparked outraged condemnations from around the world for its anti-Semitism.
"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," Mahathir said in the most widely quoted excerpt.
He continued elsewhere in the speech: "They invented and successfully promoted Socialism, Communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so they may 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."
Enraged pronouncements quickly followed.
"His unacceptable comments hinder all our efforts to further interethnic and religious harmony, and have no place in a decent world," European leaders meeting in Brussels said in a statement.
On Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly told the Malaysian Prime Minister at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok that they both attended that his comments were "wrong and divisive" and that his speech "stands squarely against what I believe."
However, for many Muslims around the globe, these kinds of holier-than-thou recriminations are either overly simplistic or just plain disingenuous.
Anti-Semitism in the Muslim World
Any discussion of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world would fall short if it did not consider the import of two realities.
The first is that Muslims have not borne the same kind of societal culpability and guilt that Europeans and North Americans have over their relations with Jews. Muslims have not sustained traditions of blood libel accusations or holocaust against Jews. Muslim countries have also not benefited from decades of media-sponsored sensitivity and political correctness training over how to refer to Jews (although one wonders whether these efforts have only served to sublimate still prevalent anti-Semitic feelings in the West).
The second reality is that for the majority of Arabs and Muslims, most knowledge of Jews comes through the reported actions of the self-proclaimed representative of world Jewry, the State of Israel. A steady dose of dispossession, massacres, home demolitions, invasions and cross-border incursions, mixed in with thirty-six years of military occupation, have shaped common perceptions in the region of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its expansion into a Jewish/Muslim clash. (A sad extension of this has been the increasing currency in some quarters of the vilest anti-Jewish stereotypes borrowed from across the Mediterranean.)
Although Jews did not "invent" the concepts Mahathir mentions, they have played important roles in conceiving some of them and making others integral parts of liberal European and Western culture. But Muslims should not be as generous as Mahathir was (although generosity may not have been his intention)--respect for "human rights" is not solely a European or Jewish concept, for example. All people (whether European, Arab, Asian, African, etc.) naturally give a high value for human rights, although the cultural expressions and nuances may vary. The fact that so many live under despots and tyrants is not a reflection of people's consent, but more of the realities of brutal power and exploitation.
As far as his claim that Jews have used these concepts to gain control of powerful countries, this makes the process sound much more devious than it really is.
Why should it be surprising when a highly educated minority group takes advantage of something like "human rights?" They'd better. That's like being surprised over US Muslims taking advantage of US civil liberties or the Bill of Rights to defend themselves these days against state-sponsored discrimination and harassment. For any minority, especially given the dark Jewish experience in Europe, this is just a matter of survival.
Would it come as a surprise to anyone if, twenty years from now, we found a sudden increase in the number of Muslim American civil rights lawyers?
Another issue that has been used to spread contempt and hostility toward our Jewish brothers and sisters is the prominent role played by Jews in shaping public policy. Although Jews do occupy powerful positions of influence in the Bush administration, what matters about people like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle is not the fact that they are Jewish, but that they are right-wing, staunchly pro-Israel ideologues. The same is true of the many non-Jewish architects of the President's foreign policy. In fact, they are no different from some of the Muslims, like Amir Taheri, Mansoor Ijaz and Ahmed Chalabi, who are supporting the same project with equal vigor.
The only conspiracy in play here has nothing to do with Jews or Muslims--it is the age-old one about power, exploitation and greed.
But with an administration that has been so dismissive toward Arabs and Muslims, condemning Mahathir's speech while explaining away anti-Muslim remarks by General William Boykin made the same week rings especially hollow.
Mahathir was wrong--not for stating the obvious, that Jews exert a powerful influence on the world stage--but for repeating the old European suggestion of a Jewish conspiracy.
"We also know that not all non-Muslims are against us. Some are well disposed towards us," He said. "Some even see our enemies as their enemies. Even among the Jews there are many who do not approve of what the Israelis are doing." He must have known that inserting his claims about Jews in his wide-ranging speech would hinder his message reaching the many in the West that are "well disposed."
The Speech Not Reported in the West
But Mahathir's speech, taken as a whole, included a plea for tolerance and unity among Muslims, for stepping away from dogmatism and violence-including suicide bombings--and toward a common vision that is worthy of the Prophet Muhammad's message.
"Over the last 1,400 years the interpreters of Islam, the learned ones, the ulamas have interpreted and reinterpreted the single Islamic religion brought by Prophet Muhammad S.A.W, so differently that now we have a thousand religions which are often so much at odds with one another that we often fight and kill each other," Mahathir proclaimed in the speech.
"Islam is not wrong but the interpretations by our scholars, who are not prophets even though they may be very learned, can be wrong. We have a need to go back to the fundamental teachings of Islam to find out whether we are indeed believing in and practising the Islam that the Prophet preached. It cannot be that we are all practising the correct and true Islam when our beliefs are so different from one another."
It is this kind of sentiment that has resonated so much with many Muslims around the globe.
But when his speech is met with such hostility by people who are all too ready to target Muslims on the basis of their faith and their cultures, it is no wonder that Muslims and Arabs would rush to his defense. In a web poll on Al Jazeera's Arabic website over the weekend, 95% of over 56,000 voters supported Mahathir's remarks.
Knee-jerk reactions and condemnations by the "international community" (defined primarily as Europe and the US, since even staunch US allies like Afghan President Hamid Karzai defended Mahathir) serve only to illustrate a perceived double standard.
So now, we have fallen once again for the "you are with us or with the terrorists" nonsense. There is no middle ground permitted. And of course Muslims are on the wrong side. How can they give a standing ovation to Mahathir? How can they be such rabid anti-Semites? Perhaps it is a sign of the inferiority of their (Semitic?) culture (to recall Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi comments two years ago) or that our god is bigger (according to General William Boykin).
A more reasoned response to Mahathir, one that categorically condemns and corrects some of his speech's claims about Jews while affirming the importance of the overall message, is what's needed.
Ahmed Nassef is editor-in-chief of MuslimWakeUp.com, a progressive Muslim online magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com