Despite President Bush’s insistence that the war on terrorism is not a religious conflict pitting the West against Islam, prominent members of his administration and leaders of Islamic countries are pushing inexorably in that direction.
And as the president came to the defense of the Jewish community this week, Jewish leaders were warning of dire long-term consequences in the wake of the anti-Semitic tirade unleashed last week by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman told The Jewish Week that Mahathir’s speech at an international Islamic summit, in which he said "Jews today rule the world by proxy and get others to fight and die for them," is "the most blatant expression of anti-Semitism in the beginning of the 21st century."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Mahathir has "placed the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes right into the mainstream of Islam and stoked it in Asia [where few Jews live]. This is a very, very serious development with long-term ramifications."
The developments this week, including the comments by a high-ranking Pentagon official portraying America’s battle with Islamic fundamentalists as a fight between Satan and Christians, seemed to indicate that the language of the war on terror is taking on apocalyptic overtones. This in spite of Bush’s call that the war on terrorism is a fight against "the evil-doers," regardless of their faith.
Foxman said it is clear the war on terrorism is a war of religions, noting that the Islamic summit was defined not by geography or politics but by religion.
"If you are an Islamic country, then you can come to this meeting," he said.
Foxman and other terrorism experts said al-Qaeda identified Jews and Christians as the enemy, so the nature of the conflict already was determined.
"Of course it’s a religious clash," he said.
The scandal involving Army Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and an evangelical Christian, hit the closest to Bush.
Boykin, according to published reports, has been delivering speeches in church, in uniform, portraying America’s battle with Islamic fundamentalists as a fight between Satan and Christians. In June Boykin was named head of a new Pentagon office charged with hunting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Media reports last week revealed that Boykin made speeches in church saying Islamic extremists hated the United States because "we’re a Christian nation."
During one church appearance, Boykin told of a Muslim fighter in Somalia who said U.S. forces would never get him because Allah would give him protection.
"Well, you know what I know, that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol," Boykin said.
Boykin also said that Bush "is in the White House because God put him there," and that "we in the army of God … have been raised for such a time as this."
As Boykin’s comments surfaced, Mahathir was in Malaysia telling the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference that the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims would not be defeated by "a few million Jews."
The 77-year-old Mahathir, a major Asian leader who retires at the end of the month after 22 years, added that the Jews "invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so that they can enjoy equal rights with others."
Islamic leaders, including so-called moderates from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, gave Mahathir a standing ovation.
"I don’t think they are anti-Semitic at all. I think he was stating the facts," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told reporters.
Several New York newspaper columnists credited Mahathir with courage for speaking the truth to his colleagues about their own responsibility for the weakness and frustration of Muslim nations, and criticizing fundamentalist Islamic clerics for blocking the need to modernize, politically and economically.
"Mahathir informed his guests that the Muslims are too weak to fight, that the jihad (from Palestine to Putrajaya) is a disaster and the Moslems have no one to blame but themselves," wrote Daily News columnist Zev Chafets, calling it "a rare act of intellectual honesty."
Paul Krugman of The New York Times called Mahathir’s anti-Semitic remarks a part of his "domestic balancing act" to please the Malaysian Muslims majority.
But Krugman warned that Mahathir’s need to include anti-Jewish hate "tells you more accurately than any poll just how strong the rising tide of anti Americanism and anti-Semitism among Muslims in Southeast Asia has become."
Foxman went further, denouncing the speech as a "call for a global holy war against the Jewish people by 1.3 billion Muslims."
The United States, Canada, Israel, Germany, Britain and Australia individually denounced Mahathir’s remarks.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said a reference Mahathir made to the Nazi Holocaust was a "desecration of the memory of 6 million innocent victims of anti-Semitism."
Some Canadian Jews were "surprised and disappointed" that while Foreign Minister Bill Graham condemned Mahathir, Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused.
On Monday, four days after the speech, Bush told Mahathir in a private chat in Bangkok that the Malaysian was "wrong and divisive" and the theme of his remarks "stands squarely against what I believe in."
But the European Union, largely because of opposition from France, failed to officially denounce the speech as anti-Semitic, according to Foxman, who blasted French President Jacques Chirac in an Oct. 17 letter.
"We are appalled and outraged at your efforts to block the inclusion of a condemnation," Foxman declared. "This speech was not about Israel, or about Muslim empowerment, but about the scapegoating of others for the ills afflicting the Muslim world."
The New York Times called the EU’s failure to condemn the speech "a worry that displays of anti-Semitism are being met with inexcusable nonchalance."
Mahathir has flatly refused to apologize, accusing Western countries of using a double standard for criticizing Jews and Muslims.
He charged that Westerners such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell get away with calling the prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" with little backlash.
"Are we not allowed at all to criticize the Jews if they do things which are wrong?" Mahathir asked. "If Muslims can be accused of being terrorists, then others can accuse the Jews of being terrorists also."
Attempting to minimize the damage, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told Agence France Presse that Western countries had overreacted.
"You cannot deny the fact that the Jewish economic power is tremendous, their lobby is tremendous, so what’s wrong with saying that? You are not saying kill all the Jews, you say take the example of the Jews," he said.
‘Outthink The Jews’
But few were buying it.
In his speech, Mahathir seemingly condemned suicide bombings as ineffectual and called on Muslim nations being oppressed by the West to embrace science and technology. He put aside denominational religious disputes that weaken Muslims as a unified world force.
But Mahathir framed this call in terms of winning a struggle against Jews.
"Today we … are treated with contempt and dishonor," he said. "Our religion is denigrated. Our holy places desecrated. Our countries are occupied. Our people starved and killed. It cannot be that there is no other way."
He said "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews."
Noting that "we control 57 out of the 180 countries in the world and "our votes can make or break international organizations," Mahathir offered a solution: "The answer is to outthink the enemy (the Jews) and build up militarily, economically, industrially and technologically while seeking treaties.
"For well over half a century we have fought over Palestine. What have we achieved? Nothing," he said. "We are worse off than before. If we had paused to think, then we could have devised a plan, a strategy that can win us final victory."
Citing Mohammed’s historic model of temporarily accepting "an unfair treaty" with his enemy at Hudaibiyah, Mahathir counseled patience.
"It is winning the struggle that is important, not angry retaliation, not revenge," he said.
"The enemy will probably welcome these proposals and we will conclude that the promoters are working for the enemy. But think. We are up against a people who think. They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back but by thinking. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher called the speech "a very, very wise assessment."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the speech was "very correct." Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri joined the standing ovation.
But even as Mahathir was defending his remarks, Boykin was apologizing for his: sort of.
"I am neither a zealot nor an extremist. Only a soldier who has an abiding faith," the general said in a written statement. "For those who have been offended, I offer a sincere apology."
Boykin claims he was misunderstood.
Regarding God and Bush, Boykin said he meant that God had done the same for "Bill Clinton and other presidents."
When he spoke of the Somali warlord, he said he was not denigrating Islam but the Somali’s "worship of money and power ó idolatry."
But he did believe that "radical extremists have sought to use Islam as a cause of attacks on America."
Nevertheless, Boykin agreed to stop making church speeches, even as some Muslim leaders were calling for him to be reassigned.
"The question is, do we want a person with extremist views … in this position in the war on terror," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
"If he continues to be there, it sends a very negative message to the Muslim world that is already skeptical about America’s motives and intentions."
Saudi spokesman Adel Jubeir told reporters that Boykin’s comments were "outrageous" and "certainly unbecoming of a senior government official."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised the general as "an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States armed forces."
A White House spokesman noted that Bush has said the U.S. is not at war with Islam.
Mohammad Ashab, writing in dar Al-Hayat, the Saudi newspaper, chided Bush for using religious terms like "crusade" with regards to the war on terror, "but Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad isn’t allowed to do the same."
Said Krugman of The New York Times, "The war on terror didn’t have to be perceived as a war on Islam, but we seem to be doing our best to make it look that way."
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