Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to spark controversy with his remarks about Jewish influence. Despite strong condemnation of his words, he reiterated them in an interview Tuesday with an English-language newspaper in Bangkok, where he is attending an Asia-Pacific leaders' summit.
During his 22 years in office, Mahathir Mohamad has never shied away from the spotlight. In a soft, sometimes near-monotone voice, he has attacked Europeans, Jews, homosexuals, international financiers and environmentalists.
So with retirement looming at the end of this month, Mr. Mahathir let loose another broadside during an Islamic leaders' summit in Kuala Lumpur.
"The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million," he said. "But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. They have now gained control of the most powerful countries. And they - this tiny community - have become a world power."
His remarks drew a standing ovation from the assembled Islamic leaders, but brought worldwide criticism elsewhere, as a false stereotype that has led to genocide in the past. However, he has refused to recant, and has indeed repeated his views in other forums, most recently Tuesday in the Bangkok Post.
Analysts believe that Mr. Mahathir is not just trying to shock people, although such remarks obviously have that effect. Martin Rudner, a Malaysian affairs specialist at Carleton University's Norman Patterson School of International Affairs in Canada, says Mr. Mahathir really believes his own rhetoric.
"He is essentially a racist, not in a pejorative sense, although we in the West would see it as pejorative," said Mr. Patterson. "But he actually believes and says so that biological and genetic characteristics define people, including, by the way, his own people."
As a young politician, Mr. Mahathir authored a controversial book entitled The Malay Dilemma. In it, he argued that Malays were inherently unable to compete with the economically vibrant Chinese community in ethnically diverse Malaysia, and urged special treatment - essentially, affirmative action - for Malays in jobs and education. The book was banned for some 20 years. But as Mr. Rudner pointed out, affirmative action for Malays became government policy after Mr. Mahathir came to power in 1981.
"He would attribute his success in modernizing society, in bringing the Malays from being a relatively backward, rural, peasant community to equal to the Chinese, at least in Malaysia itself, and the whole country as a dynamic, forward-looking, modern society," said Mr. Rudner. "he would say, 'that is precisely because I adopted policies which offset the genetic deficiencies of my people,' and that's frankly what makes it so dangerous. From his point of view, he thinks it's right."
At one point, Mr. Rudner points out, Mr. Mahathir's policies on population control took on a racist tinge as well.
"Now for example, he's gone to wild lengths in his own country on this," he explained. "For example, at one point he had concluded that Malaysia needed more people with better education and skills. And therefore, it's only educated people who should have children, and they should be encouraged to have children; while less educated, less successful, less economically successful people should desist from having children."
In his speech, Mr. Rudner said, the Malaysian leader was trying to exhort Muslims to hone their minds to fight what he perceives as a threat from Jews. Bill Case, a Malaysian affairs specialist at Griffith University in Australia, says Mr. Mahathir is under ever-greater pressure by the forces of political Islam in his country.
"So what we find is that Mahathir's government has been drawn away to some extent from the non-Islamic, or Chinese, community, and must more fully and publicly embrace, I guess, these Islamacist symbols," he said." And the result has been a sort of spiraling Islamicization in that country."
Ironically, Mr. Rudner says, Mr. Mahathir himself was subjected to racist stereotyping. As a young politician, Mr. Mahathir displayed great cleverness, which earned him a nickname among his rivals. He was dubbed "Yahud" - the Jew.