Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad launched into a shocking late-night Twitter tirade on Thursday when he said Muslims had the right "to kill millions of French people" as the publications of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad has led to deadly violence in France and protests across the Islamic world.
His words came the same day that a knife-wielding attacker killed three people at a church in the seaside French city of Nice, beheading one of the victims. The killings followed the murder of a school teacher on Oct. 16 in a northern Paris suburb, who was beheaded after showing cartoons published in the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine to students in his class in a lecture on freedom of expression. Protests erupted and boycotts against French goods were announced in several Muslim countries.
In a Twitter thread titled "RESPECT OTHERS", the outspoken, 95-year-old statesman poured fuel on the fiery debate. "While I believe in the freedom of expression, I do not think it includes insulting other people," Mahathir said. "In Malaysia, where there are people of many different races and religions, we have avoided serious conflicts between races because we are conscious of the need to be sensitive to the sensitivities of others."
Mahathir then went on to criticize French President Emmanuel Macron's handling of the controversy. "Macron is not showing that he is civilised. He is very primitive in blaming the religion of Islam and Muslims for the killing of the insulting school teacher. It is not in keeping with the teachings of Islam," Mahathir said, before launching into the most outrageous remark of all: "Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past. The French in the course of their history have killed millions of people. Many were Muslims."
But while he did not approve of the killings, he said that the Muslims "had the right to punish the French".
"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 said.
Twitter initially declined to remove the offending tweets but did so hours later following a furious reaction from the French government, who called for Mahathir's account to be suspended. Twitter later told the AFP news agency that it was because the comments "violated official policy regarding glorification of violence."
Responding to the outcry, he claimed his words were taken out of context and that he was "disgusted with attempts to misrepresent" them.
Mahathir served as prime minister of Muslim-majority Malaysia twice, from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020. He has a long history of making inflammatory, bigoted and anti-Semitic remarks. In a book published in 1970 titled "The Malay Dilemma," he addressed the problem of racial harmony in Malaysia, arguing in favor of Malay Muslims and saying that they were the rightful owners of Malaya and their population had been marginalized.
In a 2018 televised interview with BBC HARDtalk, Mahathir described Jews as "hook-nosed" and blamed them for creating troubles in the Middle East. He also challenged historical accounts that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, saying the figure was "only 4 million."
Mahathir was quickly denounced by foreign diplomats and politicians. "As Australians, we know very well that this is a man who likes to provoke. He is a bigot without principles," former Australian ambassador to France Brendan Berne told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also slammed Mahathir's remarks, calling them absurd and abhorrent. "The only thing that should be said today is to completely condemn those attacks and the only response is to be utterly, utterly devastated," he said.
Southeast Asia political analyst Bridget Welsh told VICE News that Mahathir's "emotional rant" did the reputation of Malaysia no favors.
"It is legitimate to bring attention to injustices and call into questions framing and our understandings of incidents involving inter-religious violence, but to call for violence against others across faiths, target citizens in a particular country, stoke hate and to endanger Malaysia and Malaysians by provoking extremists is wrong," Welsh said, pointing out that many in the country were outraged by the escalation of violence and horror of the killings
"Mahathir's views have provoked international outrage and further mars his record as a national leader. His views should be seen for what they are: the irresponsible late night rants of an overly emotional person."