National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 7, 2003

Ugly, angry words bury possibility to build peace


The anti-Semitic remarks of Mahathir Mohamad at the Organization of the Islamic Conference on Oct. 16 were most unfortunate. Mahathir, until last week the long-serving prime minister of Malaysia, might have been able to use his position as an elder statesman to unite the Muslim world for peace and prosperity. Now he can’t.

Although Mahathir had made similar remarks in the past when discussing Israel and the Palestinian people, his anti-Semitism this time occurred in an arena that projected it to the wider world and effectively buried a part of his message that the world also should have heard. He and others had called on the world’s Muslims to look for creative solutions for problems, to find alternatives to violence.

“For well over half a century, we have fought over Palestine. What have we achieved? Nothing. We are worse off than before,” he said. “Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people?” he asked.

A closer look at Mahathir’s speech reveals a prescription for uniting the ummah, or Muslim community, nearly identical to the formula he has used in ruling Malaysia for the last 22 years. He told Muslim leaders:

“We must build up our strength in every field, not just in armed might. Our countries must be stable and well administered, must be economically and financially strong, industrially competent and technologically advanced. ”

For the last two decades, the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia has been guided by Mahathir’s vision to make it a fully industrialized, modern nation by 2020. A primary plank in this vision was legislated preferences for the bumiputra, or “sons of the soil,” the Malay ethnic majority whom the British colonizers had passed over. Malays were given preference in government assistance, primarily educational benefits. Malay businesses were given preference in government contracts as well as in investment assistance and opportunities.

Under Mahathir, more boys and girls went to school. Factories and ancillary businesses opened in rural areas and metropolitan areas grew, especially Kuala Lumpur, the capital.

Mahathir built a middle class, made life better for most of his people.

But those who lived under his rule know that, as in other areas of East Asia, the cost of economic advance is often the protections of democracy. Mahathir governed ruthlessly. Under his rule, Malaysia lost press freedom and its judicial system was weakened. Political opponents were always at risk of draconian internal security laws.

Mahathir is a product of his time. Born in the waning days of the British Empire and coming to maturity in Malaysia’s early independence, his language and vision have always been fiercely nationalistic and anti-colonial. Beyond the rhetoric, however, Mahathir was a supreme pragmatist.

As an elder statesman from a moderate non-Arab, Muslim nation, Mahathir could have been a significant bridge between the Muslim world and the West.

Malaysia will chair the Organization of the Islamic Conference over the next three years. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir’s successor as prime minister, hopes to turn the Islamic conference into a more active forum to promote tolerance and economic cooperation. If this happens, it will have to be done without Mahathir.

Dennis Coday, an NCR staff writer, returned last spring from Thailand where he wrote on Southeast Asia for NCR and other publications.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: