Malaysia: PM Wasn't Slurring Jews

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, center, greets worshippers at the Putra Mosque after prayers Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 in Putrajaya, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Mahathir faced furious criticism after statements he made Thursday saying that the "jews ruled the world by proxy." (AP Photo/Ed Wray)
Malaysia, faced with angry criticism from the United States and Europe over comments made at an Islamic summit, apologized Friday for "any misunderstanding" over Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's assertion that Jews rule the world.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, struggling to contain the controversy wrought by his blunt-spoken boss, insisted he was not apologizing for Mahathir's speech itself on Thursday but said the remarks had been taken out of context.

Mahathir told leaders of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim grouping, that "Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."

The speech drew immediate criticism from Israel and other countries and raised fears that it could fan violence against Jews. But it got a standing ovation from the kings, presidents, sheiks and emirs — including key U.S. allies — gathered in Malaysia's capital, Putrajaya.

Israel compared the remarks of the Malaysian Prime Minister to the anti-Semitic rhetoric that proceeded the Holocaust.

"Therefore, Israel calls on the entire civilized community to condemn his words," government spokesman Dore Gold told CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger, adding that the remarks are a desecration of the memory of six million victims of anti-Semitism killed during World War II.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Mahathir has used anti-Israel statements in the past to prove he's tough on the West. But, he said, Thursday's speech was still worrisome.

"What is profoundly shocking and worrying is the venue of the speech, the audience and coming in the time we're living in," Cooper said in Jerusalem. "Mahathir's speech today is an absolute invitation for more hate crimes and terrorism against Jews. That's serious."

The head of the U.S. Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, echoed that sentiment, saying that the prime minister "has made what amounts to a call for global war against the Jewish people by 1.3 billion Muslims.

"His statement will reverberate across the Muslim world, where there are those who are more than willing to take them at their face value, and that can lead to violence against Jews and Westerners.

Mahathir had used allegations of Jewish dominance to buttress his chief point, that Muslims needed to embrace modern knowledge and technology and overcome divisions over religious dogma that have left them weakened on the world stage.

But the statements about Jews stood out, and condemnations were swift and unambiguous from the United States, the European Union, Australia and Germany, which summoned Malaysia's charge d'affaires in Berlin to protest the comments as "totally unacceptable."

"I'm sorry that they have misunderstood the whole thing," Syed Hamid, the foreign minister, told The Associated Press. "The intention is not to create controversy. His intention is to show that if you ponder and sit down to think, you can be very powerful."

Mahathir declined to speak to reporters who approached him Friday, telling them to wait until an evening news conference.

Syed Hamid said the world's Muslims were in a "quagmire" and feeling "sidelined or marginalized," reflecting a widespread perception in the Islamic world as the war on terrorism has evolved into U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel has increased repression of the Palestinians.

"Please forget about anti-Semitism," Syed Hamid told reporters.

He added that Mahathir's "message is to stop violence, which is not the answer for us to succeed in our struggle. People may not be very happy but this is the reality: the Jews are very powerful."

Syed Hamid noted that Malaysia has a state policy of religious harmony, in which the ethnic Malay Muslim majority lives alongside large non-Muslim Chinese and Indian minorities. The country is one of Southeast Asia's most modern and wealthy, and has jailed terror suspects without qualms.

"How can we be anti-Jew? It is far from the truth," Syed Hamid said.

Mahathir, a respected leader in the developing world with a long history of making articulate, provocative comments, is retiring Oct. 31 after 22 years in power. He told the Islamic leaders that Muslims had achieved "nothing" in more than 50 years of fighting Israel.

"They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back but by thinking," Mahathir said of the Jews. "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."

Mahathir said the world's "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews," but suggested the use of political and economic tactics, not violence, to achieve a "final victory."

In their reactions to the speech, most of the leaders at the summit focused on the aspects that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher called "a good road map" toward Muslim empowerment.

Asked by the AP whether he thought the speech was anti-Semitic, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said: "I don't think so."

"Dr. Mahathir spoke of the inhibitions within the Islamic world and that those inhibitions must go away, and I entirely agree with that," Karzai said.

But State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called Mahathir's remarks offensive and inflammatory. "We view them with the contempt and derision they deserve," he said.

The leaders of the European Union, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, planned to adopt a statement saying the 15-nation bloc "deeply deplores" Mahathir's words, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

"The prime minister used expressions that were gravely offensive, very strongly anti-Semitic and…strongly counter to principles of tolerance, dialogue and understanding between the Western world and the Islamic world," Frattini said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard called Mahathir's comments offensive and repugnant.

"Any suggestion from anybody anywhere in the world of dividing the world into Jewish and non-Jewish groupings is historically indefensible and wrong," Howard told Australia Radio.

Leaders at the summit included Karzai, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines were special guests because of their large Muslim minorities.

Five years ago, Mahathir earned the enmity of human rights activists when his government jailed his political rival, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of sodomy.