Dr. Mahathir's shameless betrayal
of the Palestinian cause

The Special Session of Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers on Terrorism held in K.L. (April 1-3), recently ended in a total failure with no agreement on the definition of terror.

The failure of the Conference to achieve its primary goal of defining terrorism was a major foreign policy debacle for the B.N. government which had initiated the Session.

Paradoxically, while it was a foreign policy failure, it proved a success for Dr. Mahathir in his aim of using the Conference as a launching pad for his goal to secure a full reapproachment with the U.S. In fact, the Conference failed precisely because it was subordinated to Dr. Mahathir's ulterior aim.

Dr. Mahathir's motives in this regard became clear when he set out his definition of terrorism in his keynote address. "I would like to suggest here", he intoned, "that armed attacks or other forms of attack against civilians must be regarded as acts of terror."

Elaborating on this, he went on to declare that:

"According to this definition of terrorism, the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, the human bomb attacks by Palestinians and the Tamil Tigers, the attacks against civilians by Israeli forces, the killings of Bosnian Muslims and others must be considered as acts of terror and the perpetrators must be condemned as terrorists."

Such a definition of terror which equates the resistance of the Palestinians with Israeli state terror and places both on the same more plane is clearly flawed. While violence against civilians is both deplorable and repugnant, the fact remains that such terror has been used by the oppressed peoples when their countries have been occupied by colonial powers. The Irish used such violence against the British colonialists as did the Algerian against the French colons. In this sense, terror has always been the poor man's weapon when faced with imperial might and technological superiority. In the case of the Palestinians, the oppression and the ruthless occupation of their homeland by Israel with its overwhelming military superiority has pushed them to take this course.

Likewise, the equation of the Palestinian suicide bombers with those who carried out the September 11 attack is a travesty of the struggle of the Palestinians. It was left to the Iranian Foreign Ministers to point out that, unlike the September 11 terrorists, the Palestinians were merely resisting, albeit by terror, the occupation of their homeland by Israeli forces.

It is a measure of Dr. Mahathir's complete detachment from the real world that he obviously believed that he could persuade the Conference to adopt this definition of terror. However, with the atmosphere so highly charged as a result of blatant Israeli aggression and with the Arab and Muslim world seething with anger, no nation at the Conference (with the possible exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina) was prepared to endorse this definition. Even the so-called "moderate" Gulf states dared not associate themselves with this attempt to brand Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists at a time when the latter were perceived by the Arab masses as the only answer to Israeli State terror.

Many of the interventions that followed Dr. Mahathir's speech were clearly an oblique criticism of his definition. During the closed door sessions, the criticism of his definition was "heated and angry" - a fact that even Munir Majid, a strong apologist for Dr. Mahathir was forced to admit. The rejection of the definition was total. As one Arab delegate put it "There have been some attempts to single out resistance groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad for committing suicide bombers against civilians as acts of terror. But those attempts were quickly rejected.”

In fact, the final declaration issued at the end of the Conference contains a paragraph to this effect which is a clear rebuke to the attempts of Dr. Mahathir to characterize the Palestinian suicide bombers as "terrorists". The paragraph categorically states that "We reject any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of the Palestinian people to the exercise of their inalienable right to establish their independent state with Al-Quds Shrif (Jerusalem) as its capital." For Dr. Mahathir, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Finding himself completely isolated, Dr. Mahathir and his colleagues attempted to put a new spin of his keynote speech. Embarrassed by foreign press reports that he had condemned Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists, Mahathir claimed during a meeting with Palestinian officials that his remarks had been taken out of context. His loyal foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar echoed this claim pointing out in his speech the Prime Minister had made a distinction between freedom fighters and terrorists.

It is of course, true that in his keynote speech, Dr. Mahathir cited examples of freedom fighters like Jomo Kenyata, Robert Mugabe, Nelson Mandela and Sam Nujumo who had previously been accused of being terrorists to make his point for the need for such a distinction. However, in the same speech, he explicitly stated that Palestinian suicide bombers were terrorists, the clear implication being that they were not therefore freedom fighters. The record speaks for itself and no amount of spindoctoring can change the facts.

With the collapse of the Conference as a result of the failure to arrive at a common definition, Wisma Putra tried to put a further spin on the Conference outcome. It was claimed that there was never any intention to come to an agreed definition at the Conference itself. Dr. Mahathir's proposed definition was according to the new spin, only meant to be a basis for discussion! Such attempts to cover up a failure  are so pathetic that they hardly warrant a response.

Although he was completely isolated at the Islamic Conference, Dr. Mahathir was lavishly praised by the Western media for his condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombers as "terrorists." Thomas Friedman, a staunch Zionist and Right Wing columnist in the New York Times praised Dr. Mahathir for "courageously" denouncing Palestinian suicide bombers.

More importantly, the real significance of the speech was not lost in the corridors of power in the West to which it was in fact directed. As one Western diplomat told Reuters News Agency: "I do think he is trying to position himself with the West as a moderate voice."

On April 3, when news emerged in the press that President Bush had invited Dr. Mahathir for a visit to Washington from May 12-14, it became clear why Dr. Mahathir was trying so hard to "position himself with the West as a moderate voice." It was now evident that the whole orientation of the Conference and the tenor of his speech was shaped by his desire to project himself as a “moderate” Muslim in anticipation of his Washington visit.

In a word, Dr. Mahathir had subordinated the outcome of the Islamic Foreign Ministers Conference to his overriding goal of image building in preparation for his Washington visit.

By positioning himself as a “moderate Muslim” prepared to stand by the West in its fight against terrorism and radical Islam, Dr. Mahathir obviously hopes to effect a full reproachment with the US. By so doing, he intends to eliminate any traces of concern in the U.S. over his human rights record and his repression of the Opposition. Above all, he is intent on eliminating any lingering concern there may be in Washington over the case of Anwar Ibrahim.

Given the fact that the extreme Right is in the ascendancy in Washington and that it has managed to whip up the issue of terrorism to paranoid proportion, Dr. Mahathir should have little difficulty in realizing his goal. But his shameless betrayal of the Palestinian people in their most desperate hour to achieve these aims will live in infamy.

Dr Syed Husin Ali
April 12, 2002

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