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M. Mahathir: We Must Make a New Start

Address to the International Leadership Conference and Global Peace Festival
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 17-19, 2008

The world is facing a crisis in many areas. We know of wars being fought in various places, people being killed, and people blowing themselves up in desperation. Pressures are exerted on weak countries and poor countries. But lately we are seeing what appears to be a systematic collapse of the international financial system. Huge banks which looked as if they were as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar are collapsing—not one, not two, but dozens of them. The biggest bank in the world collapsed, and we see this effect spreading from America to Europe and very soon to the rest of the world. So the world is indeed in a state of crisis.

In such a state, we need to find something to anchor us back on earth, and if there is to be an anchor, it must be based on faith.

We know that the world is divided into people of different faiths, but basically the faith of all these religions is the same. Religions preach and promote peace and brotherhood. There is no religion which says that you should go forth and kill those who are not of your own faith. I’ve studied the Qur’an and I couldn’t find any verse which directs Muslims to kill non-Muslims. In fact, we are told to live at peace with peoples of other religions. Surah Al-Kahfirul refers to the different religions professed by different people, and says that you have to accept them—"to them their religion, to you your religion." It doesn’t say “to them their religion, and therefore you should fight them.”

Islam means peace. Unfortunately, we don’t see much peace in the Muslim world today. Peace may not be possible because of outside attacks, invasions, etc., but even within the Muslim community there are civil wars and people killing each other because their interpretations of Islam differ. We have read about the fights between the Sunnis and the Shi’as; there are other sects which disagree with the rest, and they, too, sometimes resort to violence.

But if we ask ourselves whether this is part of the teachings of Islam, the answer is absolutely no. It is not a part of the teachings of Islam for Muslims to fight each other. Muslims must regard other Muslims as their brothers and sisters. It is their duty to protect their brothers and sisters, not to fight against them. We find the same phenomenon in most religions.

Islam came to us 1,400 years ago. During these 1,400 years, there have been many learned people who interpreted Islam for their followers. Unfortunately, their interpretations differ from each other. These interpretations were so different that the followers of each regarded the followers of the other as not being Muslim and, because these groups of followers could regard each other as non-Muslim, they felt justified in fighting each other.

But that is not the religion that was brought by the Prophet. We know the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) brought only one religion. During his time there were no Shi’as, no Sunnis, no Alawites. Locally, we have Ayapin and all kinds of preachers who teach what they believe to be Islam. Their interpretations come from their own understanding, but they are not really the teachings of Islam. Such differences in interpretation lead to conflicts, not only among Muslims, but also between Muslims and non-Muslims. So we cannot blame religion itself for conflict.

I have studied the Qur’an and I found nothing morally wrong in the teachings of the Qur’an and all the verified Hadith (the traditions of the Prophet). Yet, things are done in the name of religion that are contrary to the teachings of Islam. Many conflicts arise from misinterpretations or just different interpretations.

In this regard, what happens in Islam also happens in the Christian religion. We know that the Christian religion, like Islam, is just one, but there are different sects based on various interpretations. Of course, today they are not fighting each other, but they used to fight each other; they used to burn people at the stake. In the 1500s, people who followed the teachings of someone like Martin Luther were persecuted. But I believe that it is not part of the teachings of Christianity to burn people at the stake just  because they have chosen to follow a different interpretation of the religion.

There are maybe a thousand different interpretations of Islam, and each regards his interpretation to be right and all the rest wrong. If people merely believed that all the rest are wrong, that might not do much harm, but when they think the others are so wrong that they are not Muslims and therefore it is their duty to fight and kill them, such interpretations become destructive and lead to conflicts and even wars.

This is what we are seeing in the Islamic world today. There is a Malay saying that when you lose your way, go back to the beginning and start all over again. I think we have lost our way.

A lot of people of different religious faiths have lost their way, and it is important that we go back to the beginning. What is the beginning for Muslims? The beginning is the Qur’an itself, the Word of God that was conveyed to Prophet Muhammad. People have been adding a lot of new things to the traditions of the Prophet to justify whatever they want do, according to the time and circumstances. But we can only identify a small number of these traditions as being true and valid. If we adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an and the traditions which are valid, I think there will be no division among Muslims.

When we lose our way, we need to go back to where we started. We have become very confused and do not know our direction. We believe in teachings that are mere interpretations from ordinary human beings, not prophets.

There is only one prophet in Islam—Muhammad. Of course, we acknowledge the earlier prophets of the Christians and the Jews, but after Muhammad there are no more prophets. However, some imams and ulamas interpret Islam in accordance with their own understanding of the teachings, and some of these interpretations are not truly Islamic. Indeed, they cannot be Islamic when they differ so much from each other that they regard other Muslims as non-Muslims and are prepared to fight and kill them. This is what we are seeing in some of the Muslim countries, which is very unfortunate because this is not following the teachings of Islam.

I cannot speak about Christianity and other religions because I’m not well-versed in them, but I have found that there is a need for Muslims to look again at the religion that they are practicing and ask whether it is truly in accordance with the teachings of Islam as brought by the Prophet or whether is it the result of somebody’s understanding, someone’s particular interpretation.

We see a world in crisis. A lot of people are taking advantage of every kind of system that is devised. There is financial turmoil because of the collapse of the international financial system. The international financial system began with the Bretton Woods Agreement, and greedy people interpret things in their own way in order to benefit from loopholes found in any system.

We need new leaders and good governance. We realized that a long time ago, but we did nothing about it. Now it is time to look for a new paradigm of leadership and good governance in all areas of human endeavor. We need people who will practice their religion as it was taught originally, not as someone interpreted it. We need to review the systems used throughout the world—including the financial system, the so-called free trade system—because all of these have been misinterpreted and abused by greedy people.

Indeed, it has been said that greed is great, but that is like saying that killing is good. There must be something wrong with our moral values when we say that greed is great. It’s about time to reconsider all these systems—from the religions that we believe in to all the systems that govern the relations among people. We need leaders who are willing to critique and perhaps discard some of the accepted beliefs and systems. We may have to invent new systems. In the case of religion, we don’t have to invent a new religion but rather go back to the original religions as taught by the original prophets. However, the systems of finance and trade are man-made devices and are not holy; therefore, we can critique them, discard them, and devise new ways to overcome the challenges. Thus, we need leaders who are unafraid to come up with new ideas. If we study the global crisis properly, understand it, and fearlessly address the issues, we can correct current abuses and prevent future abuses of global systems.

If we go back to the original teachings of our religion, we will not be misled by people who have misinterpreted the real message of our religion and who seek to impel us to do things actually forbidden by our religion.

Long ago, slavery was accepted as normal. Everybody had slaves; if you owed money to someone and could not repay it, then you became a slave of that person. The fate of the black slaves who were taken to America was terrible. If they got sick on the ship, they were thrown into the sea where there were sharks. Human beings did such terrible things until the idea came of age that slavery was wrong. But a man called William Wilberforce believed that slavery was not acceptable because it was oppression of one human being by another. Wilberforce struggled for 20 years to abolish the slave trade, and he succeeded. Today, slavery is not acceptable, and we would be ashamed if we attempted to practice slavery.

Similarly, what about war? War is about killing people. In any society, if you kill a person, that is murder, and you will be arrested and perhaps sentenced to death. If you kill one man, you may be hung for it; yet we train people to kill others and we equip them with terrible weapons. Just one man can kill a 100,000 people. That is what happened in Hiroshima: one person pressed a button, and about a 100,000 men, women, and children were vaporized. But that was not considered a crime. The person who pressed the button went home and was glorified. There is something wrong with our value system if killing one person is a crime but killing a 100 people is not.

As long as we believe that war is an option in settling conflicts between nations, we will not be civilized. War must be abolished and replaced by negotiation, arbitration, or a court of law, and everyone must submit to this. It may not happen in our time, but the struggle against war, including the process of criminalizing war, must be started now. It may take longer than the 20 years it took Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade, but if we consider ourselves civilized people, we must make war a crime. I hope that Malaysians will become more and more conscious that war is not an option.