Outside View: Mahathir and Modernity

By TOVAH LADIER, A UPI Outside View commentary  |  Nov. 12, 2003 at 12:58 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Malaysia's just-departed Premier Mahathir Mohammed was back in the media as a result of his recent disturbing anti-Semitic screed at the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

These comments are not new; just another chapter in his increasingly virulent anti-western rhetoric that he unleashed at, for example the NAM meeting in February and at his party's conference in June. And Mahathir has expressed a belief that Jews control the world for more than a decade, and his scapegoating of Jews for Malaysia's economic problems in the late 1990s long predate this latest.

Many in the West like to dismiss Mahathir's rhetoric as "merely" for local consumption. Political and business leaders often point to him as the prominent example of a Muslim leader who wants Muslims to reform and embrace modernity. Further, they say no one really pays attention to his extreme comments that are only intended after all to motivate Muslims to modernize. And some, like Paul Krugman in his Oct. 21 New York Times article, argue that Mahathir's rhetoric simply reflects the depth of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in Southeast Asia as a result of the Bush Administration's policies, in particular its support for Israel.

This is a grave mistake. While the West may ignore him, Malaysians and Muslims worldwide do not. This is apparent in the rapt faces of his audiences and the standing ovations from Muslim leaders. He is an influential Muslim leader, because he has transformed Malaysia into the only Muslim majority country with a successful modern economy. But his remarks also feed into the Muslim sense of victimhood.

Muslims listen and what he says has a major impact on their understanding and perceptions of the world. Paul Krugman has it backwards. Mahathir -- assisted by the steady stream of anti-West and anti-Semitic images from tendentious media like Al- Jazeera -- is a major contributor to the Muslim anti-American and anti-Semitic worldview; he is not simply reflecting it.

It is accurate that Mahathir wants to see the Muslim world modernize and to understand that Islam does not preclude education and technological advances. However, Mahathir's fundamentally anti-modern attitudes are a dangerous barrier to coexistence in a world of diversity.

Modernity must include the acceptance of diversity and pluralism -- for the simple reason that the world as it exists today is comprised of differences and that is not going to change -- and coexistence requires underpinnings of basic civility that accompanies the acceptance of diversity. Mahathir, however, preaches clash, not coexistence, with the West, and the perpetuation of Islam's "us" versus "them" worldview.

The result of Mahathir's vitriolic comments about the West is a Malaysian Muslim population that is increasingly anti-western and anti-modern -- and thus unprepared for the give-and-take of the modern world on a wide range of issues involving Muslims and the West.

Even within Malaysia, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society where Muslims constitute about 60 percent of the population, Mahathir's rhetoric and Islamization policies have led to growing polarization of religious and ethnic communities. Schools are separated by religion and ethnicity, the educational system incorporates religious instruction, and Muslim children can attend popular Islamic religious schools instead of national schools.

The conservatism of the Government's Religious Affairs Department is reflected in the fact that Shia Islam is now prohibited in Malaysia and the Department is supporting a law to ban Muslims "with no in-depth knowledge of Islam" from making any public comments on religious issues. And support for a law providing death for "apostasy" is gaining support.

This growing polarization is reflected in a recent research survey by Professor Pek Koon Heng of American University, a leading Malaysian political scientist. The survey found that almost three quarters of Muslim Malaysian students say religion is the primary factor shaping their ethnic identity, followed by language. Local Malay culture is a distant third at 35 percent. Sixty-two percent of young Malaysians cite Islam as the basis of a common Malaysian national identity. The value of cultural and religious diversity is cited by only 29 percent.

Contrast this with the ethnic Chinese students where 70 percent say that cultural and religious diversity is the basis of their national Malaysian identity. Asked which government policies have been most effective in promoting allegiance as a Malaysian, 63 percent of Muslim students choose Islam as the official religion followed by language. For the ethnic Chinese, multiculturalism and vernacular education are the basis for a successful Malaysia.

Asked what changes they would like in their society, Malaysian Muslim students say they want to see the introduction of more Islamic religious elements and greater use of the Malay language. Ethnic Chinese say they want to see more multiculturalism and greater use of English.

Modernity and toleration are vitally linked. We in the U.S. have to do more to convey this and to help Malaysia and the Islamic world see a vision of diversity in which Islam is an integral part. Malaysia's economic success and its historically open and tolerant Islam are too important to let falter.

-- Tovah LaDier is president of the Global Policy Exchange based in Alexandria, Va.

-- United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues.

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