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Mahathir attack on Jews condemned

Mahathir and Putin
Malaysia's Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is attending the summit.

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Organization of the Islamic Conference

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (CNN) -- Malaysia's prime minister has urged Muslims to unite against Jews who, he says, rule the world by "proxy" -- comments criticized by Jewish leaders as an invitation to violence.

Opening a 57-nation Islamic summit in Malaysia Thursday, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad also urged Muslim youths to abandon suicide attacks and took aim at Islam, blaming a shift towards theological interpretations of the Koran that shunned science and development.

But it was his blistering attack on Jews and Israel that drew headlines and a swift condemnation from Israel, with an official there saying the veteran leader's comments fuel "further hatred and misunderstanding."

A White House official also condemned the comments.

In his speech at Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative capital, the outgoing leader named Israel as "the enemy allied with most powerful nations."

Mahathir, who steps down at the end of the month, has become notorious for controversial speeches during his 22 years as leader and has been a key proponent of a unified political stance among Muslim nations.

In his attack at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Mahathir said Jews ruled the world and got others to fight and die for them, but added that they would not be able to defeat the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

"We are actually very strong, 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them," he said.

Jewish leaders said Mahathir's comments could spark fresh attacks on Jews.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled told CNN, "We deeply regret and reject the statement made by Prime Minister Mahathir," but added that Israel is still studying the statement.

"We find it especially discomfiting that, at a time like this, instead of calling for peace and reconciliation among peoples and nations, there are statement fueling further hatred and misunderstanding.

"It comes as no surprise that in a summit like this there is a search for the lowest common denominator among the members, which is Israeli bashing."

The comment came on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Asia.

"Prime Minister Mahathir's bluster and polarizing rhetoric are not new," a senior administration official said Thursday. "But his most recent hate-filled remarks further cement his legacy of outrageous and misguided public statements. We urge leaders of all faiths to publicly condemn these vile statements."

Bush has no plans to meet with the prime minister, although the two may "bump into each other" at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, the official said.

The Associated Press quoted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, as saying, "Mahathir's speech today is an absolute invitation for more hate crimes and terrorism against Jews. That's serious.''

Mahathir has often lashed out at Israel and the United States, which he blames for fueling violence and angst in the Arab and Muslim world.

Malaysia, a moderate, mostly Muslim nation, has long been a critic of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

Under Mahathir's leadership, it has also opposed U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the backing of the Jewish state and the recent war in Iraq.

During the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, he railed against what he said was a Western capitalist conspiracy to keep developing nations like Malaysia under control.

In his speech to the OIC -- the biggest gathering of Muslim leaders since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States -- Mahathir described the current situation as one of Islam's lowest points in history and highlighted the growing gap between the West and the Muslim world.

He called on Muslims to emulate the Jewish response to oppression, arguing the Jewish people had "survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking."

Mahathir said, "They 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.

"With these they have gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.

"We cannot fight them through brawn alone, we must use our brains, also."

Mahathir said for too long Muslims had mistakenly believed Islam rejected new technology and progress.

Such interpretations, combined with the accusation that Islam promoted terrorism, were the major reasons all Muslim people were suffering "oppression and humiliation," he added.

"Islam is not just for the seventh century AD. Times have changed. Whether we like it or not, we have to change," Mahathir said.

"Not our teaching. ... Islam is not wrong, but the interpretations by our scholars can be wrong."

Mahathir suggested new tactics for Muslims to vent their anger and frustration.

"Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people?" he asked.

"It cannot be that there is no other way. ... We must not antagonize everyone. We must win their hearts and minds."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard condemned the comments.

"It is offensive," Mr Howard said on Melbourne radio 3AW Friday.

"Let me make it clear -- any invocation of rivalry between Jews and Muslims is very unhelpful. The religions of both groups exhort each other to live together in peace, (and) are opposed to terrorism."

Howard said the world had a common interest in uniting the good forces of Islam, Judaism and Christianity to wage a war against terrorism, bigotry and extremism.

The OIC -- formed in 1969 to support the Palestinians -- must act on a unified front, Mahathir said, and use its political, economic and demographic clout to reverse 50 years of "bitter defeat."

"The Koran tells us that when the enemy sues for peace, we must react positively. True, the treaty offered to us is not favorable. But we can negotiate. The Prophet did," he added.

"And in the end he triumphed."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who pulled out of the summit due to Security Council negotiations over a U.S. resolution on Iraq, said he understood "feelings of humiliation, anger and fear" among Muslims but condemned suicide bombings as detrimental to the Islamic cause.

"These acts of terrorism, abhorred and rejected by all of you, defile and damage even the most legitimate cause," Annan said in his written speech, delivered at the summit by special representative of the secretary general to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi.

"They must be condemned, and must be stopped."

-- CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa contributed to this report

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