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JEFF JACOBY

Rousing Muslim bigotry

FOR MONTHS following the atrocities of 9/11, US officials from President Bush on down repeatedly declared that Islam is a religion of peace and that no American should think ill of Muslims or their religion because of the terrorist attacks. In fact, Bush said, any Americans who would lash out at Muslims or attempt to intimidate them "represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior."

The president had occasion to return to the subject of religious bigotry this week, but it was Muslim hatred -- not hatred of Muslims -- that decency required him to condemn. At a gathering in Thailand, Bush made a point of telling Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that he had been "wrong and divisive" when he uncorked a toxic rant against the world's Jews last week.

Bush's conversations with foreign leaders are not usually publicized, but this time the White House spokesman related the president's words: "It stands squarely against what I believe in."

Mahathir delivered his diatribe at an Islamic summit meeting on Oct. 16. His theme was the anti-Semite's timeless plaint: The Jews are few but crafty, and the world is in their grip.

"The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy," Mahathir told the leaders of 57 Muslim nations. "They get others to fight and die for them." He lamented that Jews are an enemy "who think. They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. They invented . . . socialism, communism, human rights, and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong -- so they may enjoy equal rights with others. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries."

And how should the world's Muslims deal with the Jews? Mahathir urged them to learn from Mohammed's example -- to buy time by making "strategic retreats" and signing peace accords, then building up their strength until they are ready to launch a "counterattack" that will lead to "final victory."

Mahathir's Judeophobia is an old story. More than 30 years ago he wrote: "The Jews . . . are not merely hook-nosed but understand money instinctively." He has blasted Jews as "monsters"; in 1994 his government banned the movie "Schindler's List" for being too pro-Jewish. When the Malaysian currency collapsed in 1997, Mahathir blamed it on George Soros, an American investor. "We do not want to say that this is a plot by the Jews," he thundered at a rally, "but in reality it is a Jew who triggered the currency plunge -- and coincidentally Soros is a Jew."

The Bush administration tried to cast Mahathir's latest screed as simply the invective of a lone bigot. "The comments were hateful," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters, adding "I do not think they are emblematic of the Muslim world."

Would that were true. Unfortunately, while many in the West voiced outrage at Mahathir's poisonous remarks, the Muslim world's official reaction ranged from utter indifference to hearty approval.

The audience to whom Mahathir spoke -- the presidents, kings, and emirs of the nations that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- rewarded him with a standing ovation. The applauders included not only the Muslim world's dictatorial fanatics but also its reputed moderates, including President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Even America's Muslim allies and clients admired Mahathir's views. The foreign minister of Egypt -- a country that receives $2 billion a year in US aid -- pronounced the speech "a very, very wise assessment." Hamid Karzai, the US-installed president of Afghanistan, praised it as "an eye-opener to a lot of us and . . . what the Islamic world should do."

Mahathir's speech raised no storm of controversy among most Muslims because the Muslim world by and large has no problem with anti-Semitism. Even in the United States there was little shocked repudiation of Mahathir's venom by American Muslim leaders. A Nexis search turns up just one mild quibble: When CNN invited the head of CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, to comment, he said only that he doesn't believe Jews run the world, "so I see that statement as a misguided opinion."

On Tuesday I asked six American Muslim organizations -- CAIR, the American Muslim Association, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Islamic Institute, the Islamic Society of North America, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- whether they had any reaction to Mahathir's words. Three never replied; two replied by saying they had no comment. Only MPAC condemned Mahathir for his "extremely offensive, anti-Semitic comments."

The Muslim world suffers from many problems, but none is more crippling than its culture of intolerance. Rampant anti-semitism anywhere is always a sign of grave moral sickness. Until more Muslims are prepared to confront and conquer that sickness in their midst, the Muslim world will remain the benighted backwater that so many Muslims deplore.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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