A French academic who has studied Malaysian politics, particularly the views of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, says the elderly leader’s recent comments on Twitter should be read in the context of the world views that have shaped him.
Sophie Lemiere, a political anthropologist who has studied contemporary Malaysian politics over the years, said the controversy generated by the former prime minister’s tweet, which was removed by Twitter, was what Mahathir had been after.
“Mahathir likes controversy. This is the ‘best’ he does,” she said.
Mahathir had tweeted that Muslims “have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”, a comment made in the wake of growing violence blamed on Muslims as well as Islamophobic comments by President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron had defended caricatures of Prophet Muhammad after a teacher was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet to his students.
The president also called for France to be cleansed from what he called Islamic separatism, triggering protests from the Muslim world as well as a series of violent incidents in France.
In a blog post, Mahathir described Macron as “very primitive” for blaming Islam in the killing of the teacher.
“But irrespective of the religion professed, angry people kill. The French in the course of their history have killed millions of people. Many were Muslims.
“Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past. But by and large the Muslims have not applied the ‘eye for an eye’ law. Muslims don’t. The French shouldn’t. Instead the French should teach their people to respect other people’s feelings,” Mahathir posted on his Twitter as well as on his popular blog chedet.cc.
His comments were made hours after yet another attack in France.
Responding to the backlash to Mahathir’s comments, Lemiere, who is working on a new political biography on Mahathir, “The Last Game: Malaysian Politics in the Eye of Mahathir”, also dismissed a statement by PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim on developments in France as “pseudo-intellectual”.
She said Mahathir was someone who “prides himself on ‘speaking the truth’ and bluntly, but with a local interest in mind.
“Mahathir created a new party in August (Pejuang) and is trying to attract new members from other conservative Malaysian-Muslim parties,” she said, adding that the former prime minister should be judged in the context of the era in which he was brought up.
“Mahathir is not a feminist and reflects within the paradigms of a 95-year-old man. For example, maternity leave is for him an economic heresy.”
Lemiere said Malaysian leaders were ignorant of French society, which she said was plagued with structural challenges.
Likewise, she said, the French political elite are ignorant of the “complexity of Islamism, Islam or the so-called Muslim world”.
Lemiere said Mahathir’s comments help in domestic political needs.
“He is an excellent manager of crises, especially those he initiates. The international crises provoked always aim to advance local ambitions.”