Mahathir and the General

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad launches the Central Bank's International Center for Leadership in Finance in Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 28, 2003 (Photo: Jimin Lai/AFP-Getty Images).

The fates decreed that Oct. 10’s newspapers should publish two provocative reports, the first about an insult made by one of the senior officials in the U.S. Department of Defense, directed at the creed of Muslims and their God, and the second recording the powerful reactions to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s speech at the Organization of Islamic States summit, in which he talked of the influence of Jews and their dominance over the world’s fate. The simultaneous nature of these two reports highlighted the affair’s contradictions and invited us to draw a lesson from it.

The first report, from Reuters, cited a NBC News broadcast showing a uniformed Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, speaking about Islam and Muslims at a church in the United States. Muslims want to destroy Americans, Boykin said, “because we are a Christian people,” and Muslims “are spiritual enemies who worship the Prince of Darkness, an enemy who worships Satan.” He added that Americans’ God is real, whereas the God of Muslims is nothing but an idol.

The report also mentioned that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether he thought it appropriate or helpful that a high-ranking official from his department should make public announcements of this nature. Rumsfeld reportedly refused to answer the question, saying instead that he only knew that Boykin was a highly decorated officer, and that a lot of people in the army, civilian life, Congress, or various government departments expressed their personal opinions—this was part of American life, because we are a free people. To escape having to comment on Lt. Gen. Boykin’s words, he said he hadn’t seen the videos and didn’t know the full context of Boykin’s remarks.

The Reuters report included only two comments on the general’s words. The first came from Air Force Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who ignored the contents of the speech, saying only that he would have preferred it if Boykin had not worn his uniform to such events.

The second comment came from the director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, [Ibrahim Hooper], who was quoted as saying that appointing a man with these extremist ideas didn’t send a good message to an Islamic world already suspicious of American intentions.

While reaction to Boykin’s words carried on in this vein, what was said by Mahathir really got the world sitting up and taking notice. The United States attacked him, and the deputy spokesman of the State Department described his observations as insulting, damaging, and as deserving nothing but ridicule and scorn. The European Union accused him of anti-Semitism. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said that Europe strongly condemned Mahathir’s statements, and Belgium’s foreign minister, Louis Michel, called the remarks “totally crazy and anti-Semitic”. The German Foreign Ministry called on the Malaysian chargé d’affaires in Berlin to register its displeasure with Mahathir’s comments and to inform him that the German government regarded Mahathir’s views as completely unacceptable.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Mahathir’s words were harmful and dangerous, and newspaper sources claimed that Australia was thinking of suspending relations with Malaysia to express its strong protest…and so on. The American general’s words—which drew no official objection from the Islamic world, and were accepted with utter silence in the West—were a damaging slander against the Muslim creed, especially since they repeated the statements of some fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the United States.

Mahathir’s words didn’t deal with Jewish belief. They discussed the Jewish historical experiment. Despite this, they produced powerful reactions from all over the world, with astonishing speed, as if the Muslim faith were fair game to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, whereas Jewish history is surrounded by a halo of holiness and invulnerability. All this uproar just lends credence to Mahathir’s words about [the Jews’] influence in determining the world’s fate.

True, Boykin apologized for what he said two days later, not as the result of pressure from Muslims or others, but rather because his words were a source of embarrassment to the Pentagon. Boykin’s words were particularly embarrassing since the U.S. political plan aims to win the hearts of Muslims and to flatter them—either to gain their support in what the Americans term attacking terrorism or to lessen the impact of the American occupation of Iraq, which they plan to prolong for many years to come.

Now, I’ll open a bracket here and mention that the international furor over Mahathir’s statements about Jews came just after the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli crimes for the third time in a month. The first veto was of a draft resolution dealing with Israel’s threat to exile Yasser Arafat, the second was connected to the terrible wall that Israel is building on Palestinian lands on the pretext of security, and the third with the Israeli air raid against an installation in the suburbs of Damascus on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

If you were to close the brackets here and turn to the bigger picture, you would observe the following:

  • That the furor in various world capitals and the protests against the Malaysian prime minister’s statements prove he was right about Jewish influence in the West, although the haste of European leaders to register their disapproval is the result of European sensitivities about the issue ever since World War II, just as the American position has its own special considerations. But these sensitivities don’t mask the reality of powerful Jewish influence in Western capitals. This is a political assessment that has nothing to do with racist positions, although Israel has started to silence and oppress any criticism of Jews or its policies by calling any criticism anti-Semitic.
  • That Arabs and Muslims are alone in the world, without friends or allies. Any observer considering Western capitals’ haste to condemn Mahathir’s words, Washington’s reckless defiance of world opinion in its gagging of any condemnation of Israel’s crimes, and the almost guaranteed indifference and silence that meets any expression of solidarity with Muslims and Arabs must conclude this is the case. We must conclude that Arabs’ and Muslims’ value has lowered, or disappeared entirely, on the world stage. No one gives any credence to their words, or pays any heed to their expressions of friendship.
  • That the silence of organizations and foundations in the Islamic world in the face of what is happening is truly shocking, especially considering that what the American general said was not so much personal opinion as the prevalent culture in fundamentalist evangelical circles in the United States. In this context, his apology was important, but it wasn’t enough. Gen. Boykin didn’t call for an end to this relentless attack on Islamic belief from evangelical Christian circles in the United States. These attacks must come to end. The leaders of the Islamic world must confront these attacks with conviction instead of remaining silent while the rest of the world moved to defend the Jews and praise Israel in the hours following Mahathir’s address.
Of course, we can’t blame Western leaders for not expressing their solidarity with Muslims in the face of an attack on Islamic belief and religion if [Muslim] capitals have already fallen silent, forbidden to comment or protest.

I don’t know the calculations that necessitated the silence of the Muslim capitals, and the hidden reason that might explain the silence doesn’t occur to me, but I just can’t conceal my surprise that public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world has come down with this very disease, because I reckon that if something like this happened to any other religion, then civil-society organizations would let their voices ring out in indignation and repulsion with a deluge of protests: street demonstrations, protests on the Internet, and letters to the editors of daily papers.

The surprise increases when the observer compares the unbelievable degree to which Arabs participated in the “Superstar” competitions on TV [an Arab version of England’s “Pop Idol” TV show] with our countrymen’s refusal to take a stand over the issue we’re discussing here. An Arab official told me that 20 million phone calls were made supporting a singer in one episode of “Superstar” from one Gulf State.

I feel a mixture of shock and sadness. Shock, because Boykin said what he did, and sadness because you’ll never find a reaction in the whole Islamic world like its reaction to the “Superstar” episodes.

I know that people are protective of their religion, and thanks be to God for that, but everyone lies in a coma, their judgment affected by error and confusion.