On July 9, 20,000 Malaysians gathered in Kuala Lumpur to demand more transparency in electoral laws in connection with next year's national elections.
Police unleashed tear gas and chemical-laced water on the demonstrators and temporarily detained nearly 1,700 of them. According to reports, authorities also detained six opposition activists without trial and accused them of trying to use the rally to spread communism. Police said they found T-shirts and other materials linked to communist figures.
Apparently, these measures didn't suffice for some of Malaysia's nervous ruling elite. The editors of Utusan Malaysia, owned by Prime Minister Najib Razak's United Malays National Organization ruling party (UMNO), defaulted to a time-tested maneuver: When in doubt, blame the Jews!
The Jews? Most citizens of the overwhelmingly Asian economic giant have never and will likely never meet a Jew in their lifetime. And yet the folks at Utusan Malaysia, which is influential among Muslims in rural areas who rely on government-linked media to shape their worldview, are apparently confident warnings about a "Jewish plot" would resonate in a land without Jews.
To understand why, you need only look at the track record of the man who dominated his nation for a quarter of a century, Malaysia's fourth prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir was credited with engineering Malaysia's rapid modernization and spectacular economic growth. He was a dominant political figure, winning five consecutive general elections. He also used his political clout and controversial laws to detain activists and political opponents.
And Mahathir is an anti-Semite.
Back in 1970, in his treatise on Malay identity, "The Malay Dilemma," he wrote: "The Jews are not only hooked-nosed ... but understand money instinctively. ... Jewish stinginess and financial wizardry gained them the economic control of Europe and provoked antisemitism which waxed and waned throughout Europe through the ages."
In August 1984, a visit by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was canceled when his Information Minister demanded that music by composer Ernst Bloch be deleted from the program. His crime? He was a Jew and the selection chosen was based on Hebrew melodies.
In 1986, Mahathir charged "Zionists" and Jews with attempting to destabilize the country through allegedly Jewish-controlled media. He subsequently banned The Asia Wall Street Journal for three months describing the publication as "Jewish owned." In the 1990s, Mahathir used the Malaysian news agency, Bernama, to accuse Australian Jewry of conspiring to topple him.
Mahathir, who made Islam a central component of Malaysian identity, made this chilling charge in 1997: "We are Moslems, and the Jews are not happy to see Moslems progress."
Perhaps that would help explain the resounding ovation which greeted his screed at a Islamic Leadership Conference in 2003: "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."
And just last year the elder statesman of anti-Semites said this at a conference: "Jews had always been a problem in European countries. They had been confined in ghettos and periodically massacred. But they still remained and still thrived and held whole governments to ransom. ... Even after their massacre by the Nazis in Germany, they survived to be a source of even greater problems to the world."
All this may help explain why Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are on prominent display at the Malaysian capital's International Airport.
But there are some signs that in 2011 not everyone is drinking Mahathir's toxic Kool-Aid. Maria Chin Abdullah, one of the organizers of the mass rally that sought to prevent electoral fraud, charged that Utusan Malaysia's warning of an alleged Jewish conspiracy was "nonsense that is being spread in very bad taste," adding, "To rely on this claim of Jewish support is to insult the people's good intentions of seeking important reforms."
Perhaps Kuala Lumpur hasn't paid much attention to the Arab Spring. Maybe its time they did, especially since it was inspired by Muslims demanding more freedom and democracy. It isn't world Jewry that is driving members of minorities to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, but the failure of a democratic government to provide equal rights and opportunities to all their citizens. It's time for Malaysian leaders to grow up. Relying on big-lie Jewish conspiracies is no substitute for honest and transparent governance.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more