BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. This week at a summit of Islamic nations in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed shocked his audience with a long screed condemning Muslims for self-defeating behavior and for being over-matched at every turn by the Jews whom, he said, run the world by proxy. The speech was an attention-getter, prompting yelps of outrage and not a little sympathy from the press around the world. Joining us once again is Martin Walker, senior correspondent for United Press International. Martin, let's start with the reaction by the Arab and Muslim press. Shock, affirmation? What?
MARTIN WALKER: Well, what I was really struck by was that most of the Arab and Islamic press seem to agree that Mahatir was speaking some blunt truths, but they also seem to think that he made a great mistake to say it; that he was misunderstood; that the rest of his message was not taken seriously, and so on. So for example, in Al Quds Al Arabi, which is one of the better London-based pan-Arab papers, Mohammed generalized and condemned Jews when he probably meant Israelis, and this is the kind of generalization we complain about, when "we" are Arabs described as terrorists, because only some of us refuse to refrain from killing thousands of civilians and hijacking planes. Al Ahram of Egypt ran an editorial saying that the problem with Mahatir's statements is that they were ambiguous. "The Malaysian prime minister didn't mean the Jews as people. What he wanted to show to Muslims was the way the Jews took to achieve these goals. They used the application of science and proper thinking rather than violence, terror and speech-making." And that's the kind of comment that one sees an awful lot in the, in the more thoughtful Arab press. They have picked up upon the bulk of Mahatir's speech which is saying what was wrong with the Islamic world rather than the part which appalled the West, quite rightly, when he said that the Jews ruled the world by proxy. Only in a few places, like for example, in the Star of Malaysia itself do you find the kind of statement saying that "Mahatir just spoke the plain truth and why was there no attempt by the Western media to prove him wrong by showing the Jews aren't proxy rulers? Instead the Western media just indulge in bashing, name-calling and tagged him as anti-Semitic."
BOB GARFIELD:The prove-the-negative response. Now, let's move to the Western media, and especially to Europe which has more than casual experience with the consequences of scapegoating Jews. What was the reaction in the German press and, and elsewhere?
MARTIN WALKER: The German press, the Italian press, the British press were all universally appalled. Die Welte of Germany said "this is the age-old libel, the age-old evil. We have seen its face before, and we know what it can achieve." What I thought was very interesting, however, was the bizarre reaction in France, because Chirac vetoed an attempt by the European Union summit to issue a declaration condemning Mahatir's statement. Chirac said that it simply wasn't the place of the European Union to do this. The context of this is that about three months ago, Jacques Chirac was in Malaysia, receiving from the hands of Mahatir Mohammed the Kuala Lumpur World Peace Award for his service in trying to stop the Iraq war. What Chirac did was to write a personal letter to Mahatir Mohammed in which he condemned the remarks and said that they were wrong and badly chosen, but he also said that he noticed with interest and appreciation that Mahatir had condemned the suicide killings against the Israelis. As a result, Mahatir comes back and thanks Chirac for having understood -- "Merci bien, M. le President, parce que vous m'avez compris." Thank you as for being the only person in the West who seems to understand what I was trying to do. As a result, the French press has been absolutely full of this particular controversy. Le Monde made the point that the relationship between our president and the outgoing, about-to-depart president of Malaysia is obviously a very special one, but that should not have allowed Jacques Chirac to stop Europe from expressing its own powerful antipathy to the anti-Semitic remarks made by Mahatir.
BOB GARFIELD:Well on the subject of setting one belief system against another, there was another speech to make one gasp by a U.S. general before a prayer group. Tell me what the reaction has been around the world to that story.
MARTIN WALKER: Well, I think it -- the reaction to General Boykin's remarks was simply redoubled, because it came hard on the heels of Mahatir's remarks. General Boykin became well known for the issuing of a video of him speaking to a church group in which he was talking about his time in Somalia and saying that the result was that the Christian Army of God is much more powerful than Islam. He went on "My God is bigger than your God," in relation to Islam, and it turns out that he is the senior official in the Counterterrorism Office of the Pentagon, which might be a bit of a problem. Anyway the Arab world has picked up on this, in part, I think, because it gives them a chance to come back on the Mahatir issue. So Dahr Al Hayat: "U.S. General Boykin's racial obscenity towards Islam and Muslims has instigated a wave of solidarity with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir. The solidarity has spread out amongst politicians, officials, writers and journalists throughout the Islamic world." The Gulf News in Dubai which is normally a very pro-Western newspaper: "General Boykin's remarks stand as glaring proof that the U.S.-led war against terrorism is in reality a war against Islam as a whole. The speech by General Boykin highlights the West's double standards. Today's state of the world demands the practice of peace, friendship, brotherhood and tolerance, especially between the West and the Islamic world. So inciting and confrontational comments such as those given by General Boykin is a guarantee that extremism will survive and indeed flourish."
BOB GARFIELD:Well the Bush administration was clearly rattled by that reaction, because having seen how incensed the Muslim world was by General Boykin's comments, they said "Well, he's doing a good job so we'll just let him stay." [LAUGHTER]
MARTIN WALKER: And indeed, as the Straits Times concluded, "Dr. Mahatir Mohammed is a Boykin in reverse."
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Martin, as always thank you so much.
MARTIN WALKER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Martin Walker is senior correspondent for United Press International.