I've been following the reaction to the anti-Semitic remarks made by outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. It has been disturbing to me to see people I usually agree with say this is proof that Malaysia, the country, is some kind of lost cause and/or that there is no chance Malaysia could become an example for other Muslim countries of how to move toward democracy without embracing fundamentalism. And it is true that Mahathir's remarks made it seem like Malaysia, instead of serving as an example of modernity to the rest of the Muslim world, has a government that wants to act more like the repressive regimes of the Middle East.
To me, it is as big of a mistake to believe that Mahathir's views are the views of Malaysians in general as it would be to believe that George W. Bush's views are the views of Americans in general. I've actually spent some time in Malaysia, and, although that doesn't make me an expert, it did open my eyes to the great diversity of the Malaysian population. It has a large non-Muslim community that may not be exactly loved, but seemed to enjoy relative freedom and prosperity and mutual respect with the Muslim majority. It has the beginnings of a competitive democracy, which is a lot more than you can say about a lot of other Muslim countries. It seemed to me like it was pulling off what a lot of people claim is impossible -- becoming a modern country while maintaining Muslim religion. And it has enjoyed relative prosperity through developing a manufacturing industry, not selling oil -- a much better way to build a real middle class and avoid rule by an oligarchy. With Mahathir leaving office, an opportunity exists to improve Malaysia's relations with the West.
It would be too bad if, in our zeal to rightfully condemn Mahathir, we ended up tossing over the side an entire country that we really should be looking to as a friend.