Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, the first commoner to hold high office in Malaysia, is an Asian colossus. In his long reign as prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, he presided over Malaysia’s modernisation.
He was authoritarian and ruthless in consolidating power—but also admired at home and esteemed abroad for supplying steady leadership in a turbulent era and for being friendly to businesses.
Mahathir was soft-spoken, avuncular, defiant, measured
He grew wary of the West in the 1990s. And his sunset years in office coincided with the war on terror. He cooperated at first with Washington, but emerged quickly as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. That criticism, blending with his maturing disillusionment with the West, frequently segued into opinions on Jewish influence.
In 2018, Malays, staring at potential bankruptcy brought on by the bottomless corruption under Najib Razak, again turned to Mahathir. At 93, he was returned to the prime minister’s office—the oldest head of government in the world—to repair the damage.
He was pushed out of office earlier this year and remained out of international headlines until the end of October, when he reacted to the decapitation of Samuel Paty by saying that Muslims’ historical grievances against France endowed them with the “right to be angry and kill millions of French people”. Twitter deleted his post.
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, denounced Mahathir’s remark as “absurd and abhorrent”. The French minister for Digital Economy, Cédric O, urged Twitter to permanently suspend Mahathir from the platform. Mahathir, for his part, said he had been misunderstood.
A month after posting the remark that earned him rebukes across the world, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister spoke to me in an exclusive interview for The Critic.
From his office at the Albukhary Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir—who looks at least a decade younger than his 95 years—addressed the controversy, deplored France, and discussed other issues, ranging from China’s treatment of Muslims, Kashmir, France, Brexit, and, of course, Jewish influence. He was soft-spoken, avuncular, defiant, measured. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Kapil Komireddi: Dr Mahathir—after the beheading of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty – who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils as part of a tutorial on freedom of expression – by an enraged Muslim, you wrote on Twitter that Muslims had “the right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”. Your comment was censored by Twitter. Can you explain what you meant by “massacres of the past”?
Mahathir Mohamad: France occupied many of the North African countries, and also some African countries. In the east, they had the Indo-Chinese countries. But the way they treated their colonial people is not something that France can be proud of. They were very harsh, and many people who tried to overthrow their colonial rule were actually arrested and confined. Some were sent to Devil’s Island. Some were guillotined. The number of people killed was very big during the colonial period. So, one would expect, if we follow Islamic law—that there is an “eye for an eye” and all that—then, for killing all those people, the Muslims would say that, well, we are entitled to kill the oppressors in return. But I pointed out very clearly there—which was not quoted by the media—that this did not happen, that the Muslims did not take revenge, that the Muslims, in fact, were able to live with the French in a very amicable manner. I pointed that out clearly to say that you should not be doing all these things because although the Muslims, according to their own law, have a right to retaliate, they didn’t.
But why do you go and provoke them unnecessarily? You know how sensitive they are about their Prophet. And just to make fun of their Prophet is an insult to them. They may think it’s all right to make fun of Jesus Christ. That is their faith. But Muslims feel very strongly about their religion. And here in Malaysia we have people of many different religions. We are sensitive about this. We don’t go around provoking each other so as to create enmity and maybe violence. But the French think that provoking people, insulting people is a human right. It is not. Human rights have got limits. You don’t go up to a man and curse his family, and when he says, why do you say so, why do you do this to me, you can’t say, it’s my right, this is a human right, right of freedom of speech. That’s nonsense. All freedoms have got a limit. You can’t hurt other people and say this is my right.
KK: You give the analogy of someone going up to a stranger and cursing him. Samuel Paty actually invited Muslim pupils who might be offended the chance to leave his class. He did not go out and insult anybody gratuitously. He was a teacher teaching a class in a school. Somebody went out of his way to take offence. Would it not be more profitable to condemn—and to eliminate—the tendency to take such murderous offence? Some years ago, you told students in New York that “we have to be willing to listen to views which are not in our favour because of free speech. Free speech is about free speech”. Is this not the lesson we should be promoting and teaching right now?
MM: Well, the majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims did not descend on Paris to cut out the head of this man. But people react differently. Some people are very, very emotional—have very strong feelings about this. So you can’t say that what is done by one man reflects the feelings of 1.7 billion people. You have to remember that we act and react differently to different circumstances. I may be tolerant but I cannot stop some people from being very intolerant. That is why we have crime in our society. Why is there crime? People know that stealing is wrong—but some people do steal.
So, to blame the rest of the community because one man stole something is wrong. I mean the French should understand this, but they try to make out as if this is an Islamic injunction—that we are taught to kill people. It is not. In Islam, you are not allowed to kill people, even if they are not Muslim. You are not allowed to kill people because to kill one man is like killing the whole of humanity. That is what we are taught. But then the reaction of people cannot always be identical and uniform. Some people feel very strongly—others feel it’s okay. And, of course, at one time in Europe they were burning people, heretics. They have forgotten that. They were very intolerant then. It took them a long time to learn to be tolerant of people who insult Christianity. But the Muslims have not reached the stage where they can be tolerant about such things.
KK: Shouldn’t the onus be on making sure the Muslims reach that stage, rather than changing our values so as not to offend, as you put it, the one or two people who react violently?
MM: We can’t change everyone because we don’t know what some individuals may feel. But as you know, in Malaysia, we have people of different religions. What we do is tell everyone, please don’t go around hurting the feelings of other people. If we can do it, the French should be able to do it.
KK: You feel they can learn something from Malaysia?
MM: Quite definitely. They should tell the French that this is a sensitive thing. Please don’t unnecessarily provoke other people’s religious sensitivities.
KK: You mentioned “massacres of the past” in your post about France. It’s an interesting phrase that prompts us to consider our relationship to history. The man who is said to have stabbed three people in Nice in October is Tunisian, from North Africa, a region of the world that was violently overrun by Arab imperialists, who totally altered the character of the place and its people and imposed a foreign religion on them. Would it be reasonable to cite the past to launch massacres against the Arabs? Would it be okay for the people of the Balkans to massacre Turks for the horrors of Ottoman imperialism—which in some instances makes European imperialism look like a picnic? Can we conceivably arrive at a reconciliation if we turn to history to sanctify violence today?
MM: You can’t generalise. What happened in Nice was that some people felt very strongly, but the rest of the Muslim community did not feel that strongly—they did not have the strong feeling to motivate them to go and kill. This is something that people should understand—there are people with a criminal mind, and there are people with rational minds. Sometimes we find people are very, very rational, to the point where you can do anything and say anything to them and they don’t mind. But, generally, there are people who feel strongly but do not react in a violent way. What we need to understand is that to condemn whole groups of people for the actions of one is wrong—it’s not right.
KK: You feel whole groups are being condemned?
MM: Well, the implication was that Muslims promote violence. When I didn’t say it at all—I condemned the killing of the teacher. I didn’t say it at all. This tendency of a whole nation to lie and to twist what I say is something unforgivable because these are educated people, they know how to read, they can understand the English words that I use. But they choose to pick only one part of my sentence and disregarded what I said after that, and that is deliberate. I cannot believe the whole of the French nation and Mr Macron were illiterate. They can read. I think we should be a little bit more disciplined. We can accept one man being irrational, but to have the whole nation become irrational and say that it’s fine to provoke and insult another people’s religion—I think that’s very wrong.
KK: Now let us come to the taking offence part. What has stirred up so much rage is, let us not forget, is a caricature—a cartoon. For a neutral observer, even for a sympathetic observer, it’s simply staggering to contrast the outrage over this with the total silence that prevails in the so-called Muslim world over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims by China. The prime minister of Pakistan refuses even to acknowledge that the camps exist. The very same Islamic countries that claim to be so outraged by a cartoon and promoted a boycott of Denmark and now promote a boycott of France have put their name to a letter defending China’s treatment of its Muslims. What is this if not a “crisis in Islam”—as President Macron calls it—when leaders who claim to speak for Islam and Muslims justify bloodshed in reaction to a cartoon while endorsing the torture of human beings?
MM: We have to take into consideration the power and the culture of the people we criticise. We believe that the Western people are highly civilised people, not given to doing things without thinking of the consequences. But even then, I would like to point out that, in Europe, you cannot say anything against the Jews. You will be called “anti-Semitic”. Why is there a ban on saying nasty things about Jews but no ban on the caricatures of the Prophet? There are two different values. When you like a group, and you want to protect it, you apply different measures. So Europeans cannot say that they treat everybody equally. And certainly, in the case of the Jews, they are so protective of the Jews that if you say that the number of people killed in the Holocaust is less than six million, you can be arrested and sentenced to jail. In fact, one British journalist was sentenced to jail.
KK: But prime minister, what do you say about China? You’ve pointed out what you see as a double standard in your answer. But I look at Xi Jinping and he strikes me as the most virulent “Islamophobe” in the world. His regime called Islam a “virus”—something President Macron hasn’t done. And there is no outrage against that. I’m amazed that nobody in the Muslim world is offended by that. They are all blaming President Macron, but this regime called Islam a “virus” and there’s no outrage against Xi Jinping.
MM: Yeah, but what can we do? Catch some Chinese and kill them or what? What is expected of us? We know the Chinese. It may become worse if we do something that annoys them even more. But they have been friendly with Malaysia. Malaysia is a Muslim country. They have been very friendly with us. They have been friendly with many Muslim countries. The Muslim countries also did not react against them for what Xi Jinping may have said. But the thing is that we expect better things from Europe than we expect from other countries because Europeans claim that they are the most civilised people, that they are very rational, that they invented the idea of “human rights”. Now display it! If you invented this value system, now practise it.
KK: You hold them to a higher standard?
KK: You have been a steadfast supporter of Palestine. You have often cited the plight of the Palestinians as proof that Jews exert enormous influence. In 2003, I recall you said, “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews”. You refused to grant entry to Israeli athletes and Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with Israel. But now you are seeing Arab states racing to normalise relations with Israel. Does this suggest a rift in the community of, as you put it, “1.3 billion Muslims”? Are you upset with the Arab states for abandoning the Palestinians?
MM: On their own they wouldn’t do it, but they were under pressure by the Americans. And you know the Americans—when they apply pressure, you feel the pain. And if you don’t follow what they tell you to do, you are going to suffer in many ways. So they [the Arab states] want to remain friendly with America. They can’t make enemies of everybody. They want to be friendly with America. They buy arms from America. Most of the killings done by these Arab people are through the use of arms made in America. So in a way America is liable. They were the ones who provided the arms to kill Muslims. Their politics, of course, is very different from others’. They play people against each other. When a country is stable, they decide that there should be regime change. They are against oppressive authoritarian rulers—but on the other hand their attempts to remove these rulers has totally destabilised many countries. Those countries now—many, many people were killed [by regime change wars] than were killed by dictators.
KK: To what extent do Arab states have personal responsibility for the choices they make? In 2003, you resisted American pressure to a great extent—you stood up to America—but these Arab states are not.
MM: Well, we can say that all countries behave in the same way. Malaysia stands out in a way because we don’t react in the way we are expected to. When we find something is wrong, we insist upon saying that it is wrong, irrespective of who did the wrong thing—
KK: Except when it comes to China. In 2003, you were one of a few major world leaders who opposed the war in Iraq. You stood up to America. But why not the same attitude to China when it comes to their treatment of the Uyghurs? Why not the same righteous condemnation?
MM: They wouldn’t care [laughs]. Their reaction is different. They will say that they have done nothing wrong. That is what they are telling us now. But we try and maintain contact with them to try and mitigate the situation with a much more soft approach, I would say.
KK: Do you think that is yielding any result—that it is making a difference?
MM: Well, I don’t know. The fact is that they need to explain themselves, and this also imposes certain constraints on them.
KK: You were much admired in India. You are the recipient of the prestigious Nehru Award. And yet it’s fair to say that, under your premiership, relations between the two countries suffered. You appeared to be championing Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. You also criticised India’s Citizenship Amendment Act that gave expedited citizenship to minorities from neighbouring countries. Why did you fault it?
MM: India, from the very beginning, prides itself as a secular state. Religion didn’t make any difference within their people. In fact, so many Muslims preferred to stay back in India rather than move to Pakistan because they believed the promises made by the Founders were real promises that would be adhered to by India all the time. But then there seems to be a change. There is not that kind of considerate attitude towards minorities. And in this particular case, the invasion of Kashmir is uncalled for. We must work out how to let them [Kashmiris] rule their own country without interference by Pakistan or by India.
KK: You say India invaded Kashmir, but Kashmir is a part of India, India would say. Kashmir acceded lawfully to India in 1947, didn’t it?
MM: Was India inside Kashmir when it was founded? When you had your independence, do you include Kashmir as part of India at that time? Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu ruler, but the population was largely Muslim. It’s quite different from Hyderabad. Hyderabad had a Muslim ruler with a Hindu population. But you know India moved into Hyderabad—just moved in—and there was nothing that Hyderabad could do. I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. People want to be associated or not associated? In the case of Malaysia, two other states in Borneo joined us, but we went through a very long process of assessment as to whether the people want to join us or not. In the case of Kashmir, if Kashmir is a part of India, let us see what the Kashmiris have to say about that. Can there be a commission that can be set up to find out what the true feelings of the Kashmiris are? Do they want to be a part of India or not? A part of Kashmir is with Pakistan. The country has been divided because, even at the early stage, there was this feeling among Kashmiris that they are a Muslim state, although they had a Hindu ruler—but they were not given that opportunity to have a referendum as to whether they want to be with one party or the other.
KK: Do you feel that this can ever be resolved while Pakistan refuses to adhere to the UN resolutions, which call on it to vacate the portion of Kashmir that it has occupied—the first condition of any movement? Would you urge Pakistan to do that?
MM: Well, that applies also to India. There are parts of Kashmir which are under Indian control, have always been under Indian control. Malaysia avoids even visiting Kashmir in order not to offend either India or Pakistan. On that matter, we were impartial—we were neutral. And we do not want to be involved. But we feel that this invasion is uncalled for.
KK: And you would call it an invasion?
MM: I would call it an invasion.
KK: As an important Commonwealth leader who has dealt with generations of British leaders, how do you assess Britain’s prospects after Brexit?
MM: Well, Britain has always been—considered itself as not really a part of Europe. Very frequently in the past Britain was at war with European countries. It competed with European countries during the colonial period. So the feeling in Britain is that it is not quite European, that it is a special entity, and that influences the thinking of many Britons. So that is why, although it was not expected, when there was a referendum on whether to leave the European Union or not, against the hope of David Cameron, the people chose to get out of the European Union. While the politicians, the top politicians, may think in terms of the benefits of working with Europe, the average Englishmen don’t want to be associated with it. They think they can do things better by themselves. So that has resulted in their decision to leave the European Union. I think Britain will recover quite well, but it will take time.
KK: You are now 95. Is this retirement for you—or are you planning a comeback?
MM: [Laughs] I don’t want to come back. I am 95. I know I am very old and doddery. But, on the other hand, people come to see me. They ask me to do this and that for them. And it would be very selfish of me to think about myself, my comfort, and my enjoyment of the rest of my life instead of doing something for them. So I respond to pressures from other sources.
KK: It’s a possibility you are not ruling out?
MM: I don’t see how it can happen. But if I say that I don’t want to be prime minister, some of these people get very upset. I have always said that I will work until I die. So if the people want me to work, I will work.
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