Center for Strategic Communication

Mahathir bin Mohamad

File away another patently offensive remark by former Malaysian Prime Minister (1981-2003) Mahathir bin Mohamad, who once again spewed anti-semitic and anti-Western conspiratorial claptrap. In Beirut last week for the 7th annual Conference for Al Quds, an organization that opposes what they view as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Mahathir let fly with his invective. He argued that if the US could make Avatar, it could also have faked the 9-11 attacks (there’s the conspiracy!). And he argued that despite occasional massacres, Jews have thrived and hold some governments  “to ransom,” including the “Jewish lobby” in the United States. The Jakarta Globe story is here.

Anyone remotely familiar with Mahathir and Malaysian politics is familiar with these kinds of statements. It was Mahathir, after all, who blamed the 1997 East Asian financial crisis first on Jews, then on George Soros. The Anti-Defamation League has a brief compilation of some of Mahathir’s anti-semitic slurs here, dating to 1970. Offending Jews and others has long been Mahathir’s modus operandi, but since stepping down as Prime Minister, it seems as though he is after more attention (and adoration). But first let’s view his statements.

The “Avatar” argument is just silly. Aside from the conspiratorial element of the argument (which I realize still has many adherents, in the Muslim world but also here in the US), it is simply not logical. Avatar was produced in 2009 (although its roots are deeper; director James Cameron felt that the technology wasn’t ready for the film until 2005). The 9-11 attacks occured in 2001, eight (or four) years prior. This argument doesn’t makes sense temporally or logically… unless one buys whole hog into the conspiracy and leaves the real world behind. I suppose that is one of the great things about conspiracies: Logic doesn’t have to play much of a role in the thinking, and arguments that contradict the conspiracy are trotted out as proof of deeper conspiracy in a rapidly degenerating downward spiral. At least in subsequent statements Mahathir acknowledged that it was true the Twin Towers had fallen, but that the American/Zionist conspiracy remains.

Mahathir’s remarks about Jews, which seemingly condone the killing of Jews as a means to control their supposed influence, are simply a continuation of his ugly anti-semitic history. Although well regarded political scientists John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Kenneth Walt (Harvard) wrote a book in 2007 describing not a Jewish Lobby but an Israel Lobby (there is a significant difference), the book was only about the alleged Lobby’s effects — supposedly detrimental — to both American and Israeli foreign policy. The book caused much controversy, as the authors expected, and accusations of anti-semitism, which they flatly denied; more here.

Controversial academic writing is one thing, but one doesn’t usually expect this level of wacky conspiratorial thinking from the former leader of a state on friendly terms with the US. Mahathir’s explanatory statements on his comments at al Quds and a subsequent explanation of the explanation are in English here and here. I recommend reading the comments below the former PM’s posts; he’s got no shortage of sycophants who seemingly eat up his every word. Mahathir has attracted an audience outside of Malaysia as well, who are equally conspiratorial in their thinking. One of my favorite comments is from someone with a western name who feels sorry for Mahathir, who, like Iran’s Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been “unfairly” labelled an anti-semite. That’s great company for the ex-PM to keep, but I thought that Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitism has been established by the words of Ahmadinejad himself, just as the responsibility for 9-11 has been admitted by al Qaeda.

I can’t comment as to whether Mahathir really holds these offensive beliefs. Trained as a medical doctor and skilled in politics, there is no doubt that he is an intelligent man. But events in Malaysia may help explain Mahathir’s ridiculous rants.

After developing a dislike for the policies of Anwar Ibrahim, the man he was grooming to take over as PM, Mahathir fabricated charges of sodomy in 1998 and had Anwar imprisoned. He chose who he thought would be a safe replacement, and then stepped down in 2003, handing the reigns to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Badawi pursued his own policies, at times rankling Mahathir, who found himself sidelined by his party, UMNO (after clearly hoping for a position similar to Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, who after stepping down as Prime Minister took the position of Mentor Minister, and who still plays a significant role in Singaporean politics). Despite trying to elbow his way back into the room, Mahathir remained marginalized. So he turned to the one outlet where he could still appear to be a player, the blogosphere, and where he became an armchair critic of the Badawi administration. Najib Tun Razak succeeded Badawi as PM in 2009.

It’s more than a little ironic that Mahathir, who controlled the Malaysian press with an iron grip during his rule, has turned to the kind of criticism that he would have jailed people for making during his own rule. But in this context it’s perhaps easier to understand why Mahathir would publish such rubbish in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence (remember that “overhwelming contradictory evidence” is often cited by conspiracy theorists as evidence of the conspiracy). The poor man still craves the attention (and adoration) he felt as Prime Minister, and has found his realm. Judging by the comments on his blogs, he has found like minded company that will remain, along with him, marginalized.

I almost feel bad responding as it gives Mahathir more attention. But when the former leader of an important state such as Malaysia makes comments such as these, it’s better to try understand his thinking. It’s clear he has his fans in Malaysia and elsewhere, but it’s also clear that they will remain a fringe element for whom logic does not apply.