Mahathir fires parting shots
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Retiring Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken parting swipes at favorite targets the U.S., Israel and the Jewish people during his last full day in office.
A new political era begins in Malaysia on Friday when the 77-year-old Mahathir steps down after 22 years in power and his handpicked successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is sworn in.
At first it looked like Mahathir -- known for his controversial remarks -- would bow out holding his tongue after he used his final speech in parliament on Thursday to focus on Malaysia's progress.
But in a later press conference Mahathir -- who caused an international storm earlier this month after saying "Jews rule the world by proxy" -- was asked if he had a parting message for the Jewish people.
"They must never claim they are the chosen people, who cannot be criticized at all," Mahathir replied.
"We sympathize with them, we were very sad to see how the Jews were so ill treated by the Europeans."
"The Muslims have never ill-treated the Jews, but now they are behaving exactly in the way the Europeans behaved toward them against the Muslims," he said.
Mahathir says he is not anti-Semitic and that he has Jewish friends. He has also urged Muslims to reject violence and on Thursday described the Middle East conflict as a land rather than a religious dispute.
"They have taken land belonging to the Muslims," he said. "Suppose a part of Britain or a part of America was taken away and given to the Jews as Israel. Do you think the Americans are going to sit quietly and say 'Welcome,' and all that? They won't."
"It is not religion at all, it is territorial."
Mahathir also criticized the U.S. over slavery and forced Christianity.
"Some people say that we here have no freedom of religion," Mahathir referring to the U.S. "In reality, the people in that country are the ones who were forced to embrace a religion."
People "who were abducted from Africa were brought to that country and made slaves, tortured and forced to change their religion, including Muslim slaves, (they) were forced to convert," Mahathir said.
Mahathir has been Muslim-majority Malaysia's leader since 1981. He departs the political scene on a high note -- adored in Malaysia, reasonably respected abroad, his economic policies entrenched, and a legacy well intact. (Mahathir's legacy)
For many of Malaysia's 23 million people, it is a period of sadness as they farewell a prime minister viewed as a strong defender of national pride. A generation has known no other leader, and others old enough to remember his predecessor have had their lives dramatically changed by Mahathir's rule.
They see Mahathir as a national hero for pulling a third-world, rubber and tin-producing Malaysia out of the mist of British colonial rule and charting a course to become one of Southeast Asia's most modern and wealthy countries. (Mahathir timeline)
But for some, Malaysia's infrastructural change and new prominence on the international map has come at a heavy price to democracy and human rights.
Mahathir has taken a tough stance against those who opposed or were against him, jailing opposition figures, shutting down media organizations and altering legislature to suit his visions.
His autocratic style is perhaps best encapsulated by the sacking and later judicial sentencing in 1998 of his then-likely successor and deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on sexual immorality and corruption charges. That prompted street protests and calls for "reformasi" (reformation) of Malaysia's political landscape.
Outside of Malaysia, the reaction to his departure is more mixed. While there is respect for Mahathir, for some Western nations he will be remembered as an often defiant and controversial figure. (Jibes with the West)
On international platforms, Mahathir -- at times a contentious and lone Muslim voice -- frequently hit out at the West.
In his no holds barred style, Mahathir has attacked what he says is one-sided globalization, U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East, and blamed Western nations and figures for instigating the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
In recent years, he has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attacked anti-Muslim sentiment. But he has also been a key anti-terror ally for the U.S. in Asia. (Mahathir quote book)
Mahathir -- who abandoned his own medical practice in pursuit of a political career -- has also been an outspoken critic of his own religion, Islam.
Muslims make up 60 percent of Malaysia's population and Mahathir has constantly hit out at religious extremism and pushed for the development and modernization of Islam.
Badawi, 63, is a quieter figure with has large shoes to fill in following the dynamic and controversial Mahathir. (Badawi profile)