October 23, 2003

Origins of Malaysian Anti-Semitism

Paul Krugman believes that populist Malaysian anger at the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq and at Ariel Sharon's policies in Israel--anger triggered by the Bush administration's mishandling of post-911 international relations--combined with Mahathir Muhammed's desire to protect his domestic flank are the chief reasons why Mahathir Muhammed unleashed the dogs of anti-semitism last week. After all, Paul Krugman argues, Mahathir Muhammed is a canny politician. And why would any canny politician say something to alienate the United States without a compelling political reason to do so?

Daniel Drezner disagrees: he believes that the reason Mahathir Muhammed said what he said is that he believes it--and that any rhetorical balancing provoked by the fact that the Bush administration is losing the hearts and minds of the Islamic world is so far down as not to be worth mentioning:

danieldrezner.com :: Daniel W. Drezner :: Falsifying Paul Krugman: Here's why Krugman's hypothesis is wrong: 1) There is no domestic flank to protect. Mahathir's speech was to the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- an international body -- on the current state of the Muslim world. There was no domestic component to his intended audience. [But surely Mahathir knew that media coverage would lead to his domestic flank becoming aware of the speech!--ed. Yes, except that since Mahathir is stepping down as Prime Minister at the end of the month, he doesn't really need to be concerned about the domestic flank. Indeed, in his comments to the brouhaha, it's clear he thinks he was speaking truth to power. If that's the case, why the anti-Semitic rhetoric? Maybe, as Chris Lawrence suggests, Mahathir plans to pull strings from behind the scenes, a la Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kuan Yew--ed. Even if that's true, there's no need to protect a domestic flank, since this kind of power exercise does not need a popular domestic base.]

2) The dependent variable has taken this value before without the presence of the independent variable. Mahathir's exhibited this behavior prior to the current administration taking power. As Krugman and I have pointed out, Mahathir used similar rhetoric during the Asian financial crisis, which was in a pre-9/11 world. Krugman takes this to mean that whenever Mahathir faces domestic pressure, he'll resort to anti-Semitism, and that in 2003, the domestic pressure [is the result of populist anger at] the Bush administration. The problem with this logic is that the pressure that Mahathir faced in 1997 was far stronger than anything he's facing now from the United States. Indeed, as David Sanger pointed out yesterday, until recently, Mahathir warmly embraced the U.S.-led war on terror, and the Bush administration embraced Mahathir right back....

Paul has been to Malaysia, has studied Malaysia a lot more than I have, and I believe has spoken more than my three words ("Good evening, sir") to Mahathir Muhammed. But it seems clear to me that Drezner's arguments are by far the stronger ones here: Mahathir Muhammed looks to be shifting from the "canny politician" to the "tell truth to power" mode.

Of course, that this is his idea of the "truth" is extremely depressing. If we cannot win the heart and mind of a guy like Mahathir Muhammed to the side of believing in a world in which the disagreements among religions of the Abrahamic tradition are dismissed as minor and unimportant compared to the great and noble ideas that all share...

Posted by DeLong at October 23, 2003 07:44 AM | TrackBack



How to be a Muslim moderate : An Islamic leader camouflages some truth-telling about the Islamic world with anti-Semitic lies
By Zev Chafets

On Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made headlines by charging that a Jewish conspiracy controls the planet.

"The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy," he told the leaders and representatives of 57 Islamic nations who were gathered in Putrajaya, Malaysia, for their biggest summit meeting since 9/11.

"We are up against a people who think. They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so that they can enjoy equal rights with others. With these, they have gained control of the most powerful countries."

Naturally, this screed elicited loud protests from Jewish leaders and Western governments. A State Department spokesman denounced the remarks as "offensive and inflammatory" and said the U.S. government views them "with the contempt and derision they deserve."

On the other hand, Mahathir received a standing ovation from his Islamic colleagues. Supposed moderates cheered along with everyone else. Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised the speech as an "an eyeopener."

"It is great to hear Prime Minister Mahathir speak so eloquently on the problems of the Muslim world and ways to remedy them," he told reporters after the speech.

How could Karzai, an American client of surpassing moderation, laud such a paranoid rant? The answer, I think, is that Karzai heard a different speech than the one reported in the press a rather subversive speech camouflaged by the virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric that typifies all Islamic gatherings....

Posted by: jd on October 23, 2003 01:18 PM

Some of the people I've seen criticizing Krugman seem all too eager to go to war against the entire Islamic world. To me, for reasons which seem obvious, that is a comsummation devoutly to be avoided. I am not at all eager to see it proved that every single Muslim is a Nazi.

I shouldn't say this, but sometimes it seems that Sharon made a deal down at the ranch with our weak-minded President: "I'll take care of our Muslims, and you take care of the rest of them." Even if the destruction of the Muslim world were a valid goal, that wouldn't be a good deal for the U.S.

Posted by: Zizka on October 23, 2003 01:45 PM

Some of the people I've seen criticizing Krugman seem all too eager to go to war against the entire Islamic world. To me, for reasons which seem obvious, that is a comsummation devoutly to be avoided. I am not at all eager to see it proved that every single Muslim is a Nazi.

I shouldn't say this, but sometimes it seems that Sharon made a deal down at the ranch with our weak-minded President: "I'll take care of our Muslims, and you take care of the rest of them." Even if the destruction of the Muslim world were a valid goal, that wouldn't be a good deal for the U.S.

Posted by: Zizka on October 23, 2003 01:46 PM

Zev Chafets and Paul Krugman are arguing for more of a subtle text than I found on an initial reading of the Mahathir speech.

Posted by: jd on October 23, 2003 01:51 PM


Indirectly, cautiously but unmistakably, Mahathir informed his guests that the Muslims are too weak to fight, that the jihad from Palestine to Putrajaya is a disaster and the Muslims have no one to blame but themselves.

Given the low state of the Islamic world, this may seem self-evident. But saying it out loud at an Islamic summit is a rare act of intellectual honesty.

"There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people," Mahathir said. "They feel they can do nothing right. They believe that things can only get worse."

This sense of failure has, he noted, bred violent frustration. "Our only reaction is to become more and more angry, and so we find some of our people acting irrationally. They launch their own attacks, killing just about everybody, including fellow Muslims."

What was he talking about? The attacks of Al Qaeda certainly, but also the Palestinian intifadeh.

Mahathir denounced the behavior of would-be martyrs as "irresponsible and un-Islamic acts" a characterization that brought him to the very brink of what is acceptable speech at a Muslim summit.

Which is where the Jews come in.

Posted by: jd on October 23, 2003 01:59 PM


Mahathir wasn't quite willing to say that jihad is inherently an uncivilized mode of expression. Instead, he framed the thought in practical terms. "We must not antagonize everyone," he said. "We must win their hearts and minds. ... We must not strengthen the enemy by pushing everyone into their camps."

The Malaysian prime minister was talking about more than improving Muslim public relations. In effect, he was calling upon his fellow leaders to leave the Middle Ages for the modern world. This means, in practice, breaking the grip of the clerics over political culture and, especially, education.

Mahathir didn't want to say explicitly that Islamic education is responsible for the current backwardness of Muslim societies. So he again invoked the practical benefit of secularism in the war against the Jews.

Posted by: jd on October 23, 2003 02:02 PM

Boy! Paul Krugman sure stuck his foot in the deep doo-doo on this one. 750 words is not nearly enough, especially considering the general ignorance of his readers with respect to states of affairs in that part of the world and the political climate in the U.S.A. And this is a case where the stretch from experience in international economics to foreign policy is a bit of a reach.

But let's consider the case. If, back in the good old days, a Soviet leader had begun a speech to a Party conference by denouncing "capitalist-imperialist-revanchist forces" and then proceeded to decry poor productive performance and to suggest the educational standards and research needed to be uncoupled from strict ideological conformity, would the Kremlinologists all conclude that he had just called for an intensification of Cold War hostilities? Mahathir is an authoritarian and a bigot; this is not news. But the antisemitic tripe was a "capture of benevolence"-(!-I forget the exact latin tag for this openning rhetorical move)- in a speech that decried the backwardness of the Islamic world in contrast to its once illustrious beginnings and called for concerted efforts at renewal. And let's consider something of the background context. 1) The Islamic world has a need to separate itself out from and contain Al Quaeda style jihadist apocalyptic nihilism and recover the legitimating force of mainstream Islamic tradition, already strained by modernizing disruptions. 2) The Islamic world perceives itself as under threat and potentially even attack from the overwhelming military and economic power of the United States with its "War on Terror", which has just launched 2 wars against Islamic countries-( one justified and badly mishandled, the other unjustified and badly mishandled, in my view)- and perceives these U.S. policies as being aligned with Likudnik policies and objectives that are oppressive, racist and anti-Muslim, not without reason/warrant in actual fact. Now Mr. Mahathir's regime has its thuggish and deplorable apects, which are not to be condoned, but it also has been a relatively stable and prosperous one and has shown some willingness to cooperate internationally- (this, I take it, was Krugman's basic point). And if he rails against outside enemies, real or imaginary- (and how many Jews are there in Malaysia?)-, to support the legitimation of his authority, when is the last time a political leader ever did that? Now separating out the rational and irrational elements in politics or, for that matter, anything else, is a difficult matter; there is no transcendental standpoint from which it can surely and securely be done. And constructing some ideal type of perfect democracy by which to judge political affairs-(and people who live underneath glass houses shouldn't throw stones)- is not always the most relevant tack. Even in the most authoritarian regimes there is always a margin of human freedom- this is definitional for human existence- and the paradox between freedom and authority, for good or for ill, is what politics is always about. Focusing solely on the antisemitic content of Mahathir's speech and denouncing it as a whole from the standpoint of our distant and much different world is simply to reflexively re-enforce Mr. Mahathir's position.

Perhaps this is just a piece of secular idiocy on my part, but if power differentials, especially such overwhelming ones, were not to be pursued and re-enforced to the maximal degree of their exploitation, to the point where they become the only significant source of language, but rather resolved- though not abolished, which is impossible- in the sense of being more equanimously and equitably constrained for the mutual benefit of all, then perhaps more rational ideas would take root and prevail.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 23, 2003 03:23 PM

That little hissing sound you just heard was Ockham's Razor, reaving the air in two.

There is a much simpler and more commonplace explanation for Mahathir's outburst: HE'S NUTS. I used to hang out with some folk who did some infrastructure subcontracting at the Kuala Lumpur airport, and they said Mahathir's been pretty gaga for at least the past five or six years and most everybody knows it. That's why his deputy Anwar tried to ease him out a while back--but without lining up quite enough support first, so that he wound up getting jugged on fabricated charges.

Anyhow the real problem is not what Mahathir said, but why it resonated with his audience; and the same is true of G. W. Bush.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on October 23, 2003 06:06 PM

The notion that Mahathir's heart and mind are there to be won by the US is stupendously naive. Mahathir has been playing this game - defining foreigners as the rhetorical enemy so as to unite Malaysians behind him - for 25 years. He'll support or oppose the US as it suits him, when it suits him.

Posted by: Matt on October 23, 2003 08:09 PM


1) Mahathir is retiring from office, so it doesn't matter.

2) The issue is not whether you can win the "heart and mind" of Mr. Mahathir or his like, but whether you can regard him as a rational actor. The picture on that is mixed, but it also depends on how you play the game.

3) The notion that one can win "hearts and minds" through the exercise of massive hegemonic violence and narrowly tailored coercive policies- now that is stupendously naive.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 23, 2003 08:52 PM

Another reason for agreeing with Dan is the specific content of the accusations. These are not the quarter-way plausible ones- Jews run the banks, the quality press, the Pentagon is in the hand of Likudniks: these charges are based on puffing up the genuine but limited influence of individuals and groups. They are the absurd ones that “the Jews” – the people, not individual Jews - invented communism, socialism, democracy and human rights - all the bits of modern political culture he doesn’t like. This is straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, where the Jews, organised in an invisible conspiracy, are also blamed for underground railways (for blowing up in due course). There is no market in the streets of Kuala Lumpur or even Ramallah for this stuff, it’s the fantasy doctrine of true anti-Semitic believers.

Posted by: James on October 24, 2003 02:43 AM

John Halasz,

As usual, very nicely thought out and backed up. One point though, I'd like to raise. I am always dubious of the notion that power and office are synonymous. Mathahir is leaving office, but that need not mean he suddenly feels relieved of, as another comment puts it, protecting his flank. I suspect he will try to hold on to power, groom his successor, maintain influence and do all the things that politicians, young and old, are prone to, until his health becomes his overwhelming concern. Playing to the domestic audience cannot be dismissed, but it does not mean a cagey guy like Mathahir (cagey even if he is nuts) can't have more than one goal in saying what he says. After a lifetime of saying similar things, he may be convinced himself. Speaking "truth to power" can have domestic political value, as well.

Posted by: K Harris on October 24, 2003 06:33 AM

I don't buy Drezner's argument. It depends on his conclusion that Mahathir doesn't have a domestic base to protect when he quite clearly does.

Malaysia is not exactly a perfect liberal state, but it is a functioning democracy and is certainly not a dictatorship like China. Mahathir clearly intends to continue influencing Malaysian politics, but he does this through continued backroom leadership of his political party, UMNO, and its patronage machine. If UMNO was voted out of power in the next elections (which is unlikely but possible), its most likely successor would be the PAS --- an Islamist party which advocates Sharia law.

A random CNN article about the most recent UMNO/PAS electoral battle.


Mahathir certainly does have a domestic flank to protect: UMNO's continued electoral dominance in the face of a right-wing Islamic party, one whose victory would not only wreck his historical legacy in Malaysia but also almost certainly launch corruption investigations into Mahathir's family and perhaps against Mahathir himself.

Posted by: Henry Shieh on October 24, 2003 07:35 AM

Mahathir made an awful anti-semetic speech, but it was made for a carefully designed purpose, and as a cover for other criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism. The speech was awful, but rational, and we should examine it carefully. Comdemn the speech but pay attention. Mahathir will continue to be influential in Malaysia and the Pacific.

Posted by: jd on October 24, 2003 10:43 AM

PK adds to his 750 words:


Posted by: bakho on October 24, 2003 02:53 PM

hmmm Drezner and Brad seem to be right but I started late in the contest to be Paul Krugman's most fanatical fan. Let's see what I can do.

First in absolutely sincere fandom I should admit that I didn't think that MM's extreme rejection of the IMF during the financial crisis might have something to do with extreme dependence on IMF not approved cronyism and pro-majority racial discrimination (Bumiphutra) in Malaysia. Given this lapse, I am grateful to PK for pointing out this obvious factor.

Yes yes it looks like MM is saying what he thinks is true. Also the guy really is nasty. Before becoming prime minister he wrote a book saying ethnic chinese should leave Malaysia and he stood by that line when he took office. As a new prime minister he should have been cooling the racist rhetoric not scaring the people who have a share of Malaysia's wealth larger than their share of the population but smaller than their share of contributing to Malaysia's wealth do to longstanding official discrimination(Bumiphutra). He is so antisemetic that he banned a performence of something by Mendelsohn because Mendelsohn was Jewish. Did you know that Mendelsohn was Jewish ? I mean the composer guy whose name I may have miss-spelled.

But what about the fact that he is about to retire so doesn't have to worry about domestic politics. Well now I am going to be shocking and consder Nelson Mandela in the context of discussing Mahathir Mohammad. Wish I could hear the gasps, I am shocked myself.

I note that in his last days in office Mandela was much more outspoken about remaining White racism in South Africa than he had been in years. The widespread theory is that he was trying to help Thabo Mbeki avoid trouble with Whites saying "I'm not racist, Mandela was fine but this Mbeki guy is just too extreme." Now, in spite of this help, I (a White) now say "I'm not racist, Mandela is one of the most admirable people I have been honored to share the world with, but this Mbeki guy has got to stop ranting about how HIV doesn't cause AIDS before another few million of his country people catch it".

Back to Malaysia and MM. The point is a relevant domestic factor is that MM might want to look bad to us to help his successor look relatively OK while pandering to domestic racists. He sure isn't Nelson Mandela but the assumption that his interest in politics is purely focused on himself not his party might be incorrect.

feeble but the best I could do.

Posted by: Robert on October 27, 2003 01:40 PM

"I shouldn't say this, but sometimes it seems that Sharon made a deal down at the ranch with our weak-minded President: 'I'll take care of our Muslims, and you take care of the rest of them.'"

Non-sensical drivel. As usual.

It would be quite remarkable, if G.W. Bush is out to "destroy the Muslim world," that he has presided over two wars and occupations that have probably had fewer civilian casualties than any other two wars and occupations in history. All the while commanding armed forces with the greatest advantage in power of any armed forces in history.

Then, there is the fact that the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are still Muslim. (In fact, it's a demonstrably true that religious freedom for Muslims in Iraq now is GREATER than it was under Saddam Hussein.)

But you've never let inconvenient facts get in the way of your posts...

Posted by: Mark Bahner on October 27, 2003 04:22 PM
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