Malaysia's government-linked media claimed Monday that foreign Jewish groups might try to use an opposition-backed push to reform electoral laws to interfere in this Muslim-majority country.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's office, however, later issued a rare statement distancing itself from the allegation.
Political activists who recently organized Malaysia's biggest street demonstration in years insisted the accusation by the ruling party's widely read newspaper was an irresponsible attempt to discredit them through appeals to religious prejudice.
The Malay-language Utusan Malaysia daily said in an editorial that Malaysians "cannot allow anyone, especially the Jews, to interfere secretly in this country's business." It offered no evidence of a possible Jewish plot and named no specific group.
"When the drums are pounded hard in the name of human rights, the pro-Jewish people will have their best opportunity to interfere in any Islamic country," the newspaper said. "We might not realize that the enthusiasm to support actions such as demonstrations will cause us to help foreign groups succeed in their mission of controlling this country."
The editorial was the latest effort by the newspaper to defend a government crackdown on at least 20,000 people who marched in Kuala Lumpur on July 9 demanding more transparency in electoral laws ahead of national polls widely expected by mid-2012.
Najib's office issued a statement late Monday saying Utusan's claim did "not reflect the views of the government."
"Regardless of their political views, it is unacceptable for anyone to stir up hatred and suspicion against any religious group in the way we have seen today," the statement said.
Malaysia has almost no Jewish population, and the newspaper's reference to foreign Jewish groups is seen as meaning both Israel itself and those who oppose Muslim states. Malaysia has no diplomatic ties to Israel and its government officials strongly criticize Israeli policies, while staunchly supporting the Palestinians.
Police unleashed tear gas and chemical-laced water on the demonstrators and detained nearly 1,700 of them. All were freed within hours, but dozens of other activists arrested earlier this month have been prosecuted for promoting what authorities considered an illegal gathering.
Authorities have also detained six opposition activists without trial and accused them of trying to use the rally to spread communist ideologies. Police said they found the activists with T-shirts and other material linked to communist figures.
Maria Chin Abdullah, one of the protest organizers, said Monday that Utusan Malaysia's warning of a Jewish conspiracy was "nonsense that is being spread in very bad taste."
"To rely on this claim of Jewish support is to insult the people's good intentions of seeking important reforms," she said. The protest was meant to pressure Najib's administration to clean up voter registration lists and introduce tougher laws to prevent electoral fraud.
The Utusan Malaysia newspaper, owned by Najib's United Malays National Organization ruling party, is influential among Muslims in many rural areas who rely on government-linked newspapers and TV stations for information.