An edited version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on February 8 2019.
Call off the search. For its display of rare global moral leadership, Time Magazine‘s 2019 “Person of the Year” award should unquestionably go to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
This week, the IPC revoked Malaysia’s right to stage the 2019 World Para-Swimming Championships in July after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad breached Paralympic rules by insisting he would ban Israeli athletes from competing in the majority Muslim nation.
According to IPC President Andrew Parsons, “When a host country excludes athletes from a particular nation, for political reasons, then we have absolutely no alternative but to look for a new Championships host.”
But then playing politics, particularly race-based politics, has been Mahathir’s calling card since he published The Malay Dilemma in 1970 with its classic antisemitic language that “the Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively”.
Mahathir is that rare beast, a contemporary leader who doesn’t bother pretending to differentiate between Israel and Jews because his loathing of the former is inextricably linked to his conspiratorial view of the latter.
In an infamous speech to representatives of the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 2003, Mahathir said, “today the Jews rule this world by proxy.” He added that “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way.”
The spectacle of Mahathir deciding that humiliating Israel – a country Malaysia has refused to recognise since 1948 – outweighs hosting the prestigious swimming championships, brings to mind George Orwell’s adage that sport is war without the shooting.
Precisely because he sees himself as being in a perpetual war against Israel and Jews, Mahathir insisted he would enforce Malaysia’s decades-long ban on Israeli passport holders. This is despite the fact that in order to win the right to hold the swimming championships in the first place, the previous Malaysian government promised all athletes could enter the country.
Given the capitulation of other sporting bodies when confronted by countries politicising international competitions to humiliate or exclude Israeli athletes, Mahathir likely thought the IPC would shut its eyes or merely protest quietly.
Nonetheless, Mahathir insists the removal of the Championship from Malaysia doesn’t bother him.
His Youth and Sports Minister, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, said, “If hosting an international sporting event is more important than standing up for our Palestinian brothers and sisters who get murdered, maimed and tortured by the Netanyahu regime, that means Malaysia has truly lost its moral compass.”
The reality is that for nigh on 50 years, page upon page of Mahathir’s storied career overflow with vignettes of a man comfortable in his own Jewphobia and conspiracy theories.
In 1984, the New York Philharmonic cancelled its Kuala Lumpur concerts after Mahathir’s Government said it couldn’t include a piece by Jewish Swiss composer Ernst Bloch. Ten years later, Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film – Schindler’s List – was banned in Malaysia. The ban was later extended to cover all Spielberg movies.
Given an opportunity by the BBC last October to set the record straight, Mahathir’s needle was firmly stuck in the anti-Israel and Jew-hating groove.
Following a casual aside that only 4 million and not 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, he insisted that his 1970 comments about “hook-nosed Jews” were justified, adding that, “If you are going to be truthful, the problem in the Middle East began with the creation of Israel. That is the truth.”
If they could talk, the 500,000 men, women and children slaughtered by Muslim on Muslim violence in the killing fields of Syria since 2011 might have a different perspective.
This moral blindness was seen in November 2018 when Mahathir attacked PM Scott Morrison’s announcement that Australia would consider recognising west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which it has been since 1949, whilst affirming a future Palestinian state’s capital could be located in the city’s eastern half.
Mahathir claimed any recognition would add to the causes of terrorism.
In fact, there is a much better argument that his own vitriol against Israel and Jews across five decades has helped give Islamists rhetorical nourishment on their journey to violent extremism.
Mahathir can pose, as he did on the BBC, as a simple truth teller.
But opinions expressed without a shred of evidence is not speaking truth to power but simply grubby and hateful invective.
For too long the world has indulged and dismissed Mahathir’s rhetoric as the utterances of an eccentric uncle, instead of holding him to account for his hate speech and discriminatory acts.
The IPC is to be applauded for its actions and one hopes other bodies will emulate its principled and ethical approach.