Wed, Oct 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Islamic organization struggles to avoid being marginalized


The Islamic world's leaders are in Malaysia this week for the first time since 2000, and loud denunciations of Israel and equally vociferous support for the Palestinians are a sure bet.

But in a world dramatically changed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and US-led wars in Muslim Afghanistan and Iraq since the leaders of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) last held a summit, many Muslims want more.

A growing sense of frustration that international debates on Iraq, the Middle East crisis and the war on terrorism are going against Muslims, along with a battle to shake perceptions that the world's second-largest religion is inherently violent are fueling a push for reform within the OIC.

"It is Malaysia's desire to see the revival of the OIC as a respected organization that has dignity and is not marginalized," said Syed Hamid Albar, foreign minister of Malaysia, the OIC's incoming chair.

Without a united front, "people don't even consult us on things that affect the Muslims," he said. "We have to look at ourselves and search for what we can do. If we project ourselves as being divided, of course people will not respect us."

Senior officials began talks Saturday laying the groundwork for the leaders' summit in Malaysia's gleaming new administrative capital, Putrajaya.

Terrorism, the Middle East and Iraq will be key issues, but -- except for the Palestinian issue -- consensus is a rarity among members ranging from alleged terror sponsors Iran and Syria to moderate, mostly secular nations such as Malaysia, and US military allies such as Bahrain and Qatar.

Some divisions are already apparent.

Staunch opponents of the Iraq war have not forgiven Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait for allowing their territory to be used by the invasion forces.

And Turkey last week offered to send peacekeepers to Iraq to bolster the US forces, an idea anathema to many Muslim countries, which see the American-led coalition as an illegitimate occupying force.

On the positive side for the US, Malaysia has reversed its initial opposition and will grant Iraq's US-appointed governing council full-member status at the summit -- a big step toward international legitimacy for what many Muslims see as a puppet administration.

Leaders are also expected to sign a strong statement condemning Israel's recent airstrike on an alleged militant training camp inside Syria, which -- along with US President George W. Bush's tacit approval -- has prompted fears Israel could launch further cross-border attacks and trigger a broader conflict in the Middle East.

Organizers say at least 30 heads of government are confirmed to attend, including Arab heavy-hitters Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Pakistan and Afghanistan's leaders are due to take part, as is President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Other leaders and senior officials will be coming from Iran, Syria, Algeria, Bangladesh, Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon and Qatar, which will hand the reins to Malaysia.

Watching as observers will be Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said recently he wants his country to become an OIC member. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is listed in the official schedule as giving a speech, although his attendance has not been confirmed.

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