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Mohamad Mahathir is the prime minister of Malaysia. He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in New York earlier this month.

NATHAN GARDELS: As an Asian Muslim leader who has modernized his country, when do you think Arab Islam is going to wake up from its scientific slumber and start thinking about cloning instead of talking about colonialism? In other words, what is holding Arab Islam back?

MOHAMAD MAHATHIR: They are still too hung up about having been dominated by other countries. In Malaysia, we go back to the roots of the flowering of Islamic civilization and ask why our future can't be like that again.

There is nothing in Islam that prevents modernization; it is the people who interpret Islam -- the ulamas -- that stand in the way. I don't mean the real learned scholars of Islam, but those who call themselves ''ulama" in order to promote their own political agenda -- which is that (ital) they (unital) want to be ruling the country instead of whoever is in power -- and impose their will on the rest of the Muslim population. A favorite view is that only ulamas may rule a country, democracy notwithstanding.

They have misinterpreted Islam to such an extent that, today, a lot of their followers are doing things that are actually against Islam. For example, Islam is a religion of peace that says we cannot go to war except to defend ourselves, that we should not kill innocent people for any reason, and there is no compulsion in matters of faith.

It is because of these politicized ulamas that Muslims have become backward. When Islam was on its ascendancy, it was a civilization of learning and knowledge, taking in all the philosophy, science and mathematics started by the Greeks. But later on, the Muslim ulamas began to say, ''You should learn only about religion and nothing else." These political ulamas reject knowledge that is not specifically religious for fear that people with such knowledge might challenge their authority. While the early Muslims were great scholars excelling in mathematics and the sciences, today's Muslim ulamas are generally backward in most fields of learning. They are not even knowledgeable in Islam.

As a result, the Islamic civilization has fallen behind. Bereft of nonreligious knowledge, the great Islamic civilization declined and faded away.

Even today, in the face of poverty, they are still saying, ''All this learning about science and technology is secular; you should only learn about religion. When the Koran says you should seek knowledge even unto the ends of the Earth, it only means knowledge about religion."

Every time an attempt is made to bring Muslim nations to the development levels of non-Muslim countries, Muslim groups emerge, demanding a ''return to Islam." These groups are usually violent and often declare ''holy wars" against Muslim governments that are trying to develop their countries.

This happened, for example, when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to stop development in Egypt by violence. And it happens in Muslim countries across the globe. The Taliban taught that all Muslim governments today are not Islamic at all and should be overthrown by violence.

Because Muslim countries are backward, instead of helping themselves as enjoined by the Koran, they tend to depend solely on divine help, led by the deviant ulamas.

The majority of Malays, who are Muslims, reject this view completely. We think we should acquire modern knowledge in order to develop our country. And, because of this, the majority goes against the extremist views of the Islamic opposition parties in Malaysia.

GARDELS: During the Asian economic crisis, you said that the West was trying to keep the developing world, including the Islamic world, down. Aren't the ulamas a greater drag on Islamic development than than the West?

MAHATHIR: Yes, for the Muslim world, this is definitely one of the greatest factors. Yet Malaysia is a reasonably developed modern nation not in spite of Islam but because of Islam, because it tries to adhere to Islam's fundamentals. Islam is not just a religion. It is a way of life. It should bring about peace, stability and success. It is a way of life that does not neglect spiritual values and can bring greatness to the followers of Islam, as it once did.

Malaysia is an Islamic country. The state religion is Islam. Non-Muslims are free to practice their religions, because this is permitted by Islam.

But deviant Muslims still insist that Malaysia is secular and the government must be overthrown. In the end, the problem of underdevelopment faced by Muslim countries is the result of deviation from Islamic fundamentals. People are fond of equating fundamentalists with fanatical orthodoxy, but the fundamentals of Islam are simple and good.

If Muslims return to the fundamentals, they could concentrate on the development of their nations. They would be at peace with each other and with non-Muslim nations. Muslim nations would then be well administered by trained and skillful people. They would be able to compete within the global community. As a result, they would have a vested interest in international stability and peace and would want to maintain it.

GARDELS: In the West these days, the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Muslims are castigated for spreading their intolerant brand of Islam around the world. Do you see that?

MAHATHIR: Well, the Wahhabis certainly have a different, strict interpretation of Islam that we do not share in mainstream Malaysia. But I see no evidence of them promoting their views in Asia. Some extremist Sunni Muslims in my own country, which have nothing to do with the Wahhabis, call me an infidel for allowing secular subject to be taught in the schools.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint/NPQ. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

For immediate release (Distributed 2/19/02)