Defending the Indefensible: Mahathir and the ‘Crisis of Islam’

No matter what the excesses of colonialism, the remark by the veteran Malaysian leader about killing millions of French people in retaliation cannot be morally justified 
Defending the Indefensible: Mahathir and the ‘Crisis of Islam’

It seems Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad is disgusted. Using his official Twitter handle, he claimed on October 30, “I am indeed disgusted with attempts to misrepresent and take out of context what I wrote on my blog yesterday.” But what kind of misunderstood context or misrepresentation of meaning would justify this egregiously irresponsible contention: “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”?

His remark, which was widely circulated on social media, tweeted and posted to millions of his followers, sparked an understandable worldwide outrage. While the offending statement was taken down on both Twitter and Facebook, none of Mahathir’s explanations could erase, occlude or divert from the horror of his indictment of French people and provocation to Muslims to “kill millions” of them.

The 95-year politician is somewhat of a living legend in Malaysia, which he twice led as prime minister, holding this most important office for a total of nearly 25 years. Malaysia itself is a multicultural and multi-religious constitutional monarchy. Though ethnic Malays are supposedly just over 50% of the total population of about 32 million, reliable figures are not easy to obtain. The term Malay is often conflated with Muslim and Bhumiputra (son of the soil). Though other groups, including ethnic Chinese (20%) and Indians (7%) make up some 40% of the population, Islam dominates the religious and cultural landscape of Malaysia as the Malays do its political leadership. Those who remember Malaysia of earlier decades aver that it is increasingly Arabised, Islamised, even radicalised.

As a consequence, was Mahathir trying to score political points at the age of 95? Even so, his remark was bound to be more embarrassing and damaging to his reputation than conducive to garnering support among his followers in Malaysia or among most Muslims in the rest of the world. The only ones who would take heart or find encouragement from his call to kill innocent French men and women would be Islamic radicals, jihadist terrorists and violent fanatics. The question, then, was why was Mahathir intentionally or unintentionally playing to this highly dangerous and dreaded gallery?

No matter what the excesses of French colonialism in Northern Africa or elsewhere, no matter what the crimes, going back even further in time, perpetrated during the Crusades by their ancestors, the call to kill them in retaliation cannot be morally justified. How can we be punished for the misdeeds of our forefathers? By that token, what of massacres and genocides of Islamic conquerors? 

Let me name only two, closer home. Consider how Timur treated the citizens of Isfahan when they repulsed his tax collectors. He massacred between 1 to 2 lakh of its residents. One eyewitness recorded over 28 gigantic towers made with piles of some 1,500 decapitated heads each. Timur’s capture and sacking of Delhi in 1398 was even more horrific. Lakhs were killed and enslaved, with untold loot falling into the conqueror’s hands. 

Less than 350 years later, Nadir Shah, after capturing Delhi, slaughtered an estimated 20,000-30,000 men, women and children in just six hours on 22 March 1739. In addition, another 10,000 women and children were reported by a Dutch Delhi dweller to have been taken as slaves. The obvious question to Mahathir is whether it would be justified to call for a reciprocal massacre in this day and age? Or are we, much more simply, to deny that horrors by Islamic armies ever happened?

Instead of condemning in unequivocal and unambiguous terms the ghastly beheadings carried out by Islamic militants in France, Mahathir chose to blame the French instead. This is not just typical whitewashing or apologetics, but much more dangerous distortion and indefensible polemics. Especially when it comes from a supposedly responsible ex-head of government. 

Let us make no mistake: Mahathir did not retract his statement, let alone atone for it. Instead, he said he had been quoted out of context. He even called French President Emmanuel Macron uncivilised in a tweet on October 29: “Macron is not showing that he is civilised. He is very primitive in blaming the religion of Islam and Muslims for the killing of the insulting school teacher. It is not in keeping with the teachings of Islam.” But what did Macron say to spark such outrage on part of the nonagenarian veteran? Macron, vowing to come down hard on Islamic radicalism, had called Islam a religion “in crisis”.

The irony of Mahathir’s abhorrent call to violence was, perhaps, lost in the controversy—it is precisely remarks such as his which indicate that at least some actors and aspects of Islam are in crisis. If they were not, then how would one explain the former Malaysian PM’s denial of facts, defence of the indefensible and justification of violence by call to counter-violence? Indeed, no religion is perfect, nor is any religion entirely devoid of positive precepts and practices. Great religions survive and propagate themselves not merely through fear, intimidation or threats, but also through genuine self-criticism and self-correction.

A leader of Mahathir’s stature should have showcased to the world this interrogative and reformative aspect of Islam, rather than its bullying, belligerent or self-righteous visage. Instead, he seems to have slipped, falling into a trap of his own making, in condemning the French nation instead of those who killed innocent men and women in the name of Islam, even though the victims had nothing to do with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Sorry, Dr Mahathir, it is we who are disgusted. We thought of you not just as Malaysia’s strongman, but as a statesman of world stature. You proved us wrong. Your tweet/Facebook post was taken down for the right reasons. No matter how you wish to spin it, your endorsement of Muslims’ “right to be angry and kill millions of French people” cannot be countenanced under any pretext or context. An unconditional apology is still awaited and would be appreciated not just by France but by the free and civilised world.

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

Makarand R Paranjape

Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal

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