I am sitting in the KL Summit 2019, which is largely seen now as an alternative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) platform. This was one of the questions which the Al Jazeera team asked me yesterday in an interview.
Just today, the OIC secretariat, in a veiled criticism of this summit, suggested that this was an effort to divide Islam and the Muslim world. Is it really an alternative to the OIC platform? And what are the messages which should come out from the KL Summit?
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is the host of the KL Summit, has denied that it is an attempt to replace the OIC. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was more explicit when he called for a revisit of the terms of reference of the OIC during his opening speech.
Even if the KL Summit is not intended as an alternative to the OIC, it is high time to think of it as an alternative discourse.
Here is the reason. The OIC, headquartered in Riyadh, was formed in the wake of a fire incident in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, which was blamed on “Zionism” at the first meeting.
Although the OIC has evolved over the last 50 years — with some efforts towards scientific, humanitarian and development cooperation — the main points of reference for the OIC remain conflicts involving Muslim populations.
Today, 80% of the refugee population in the world comes from, or is based in, OIC-member countries. The majority of conflicts, wars and foreign occupations involve Muslim populations one way or another.
To some extent, OIC statements also represent the dominant Muslim mindset which sees itself as the victim — oppressed and excluded.
The conflicts in Muslim-majority countries are real and attribution to external powers cannot be ruled out. However, in this conflict-dominated discourse, we usually forget that a vast number of Muslim populations now live under relative conditions of peace.
In fact, 75% of Muslims, not including the Muslims living in the West, are now living under a democracy. Large Muslim and Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran, are democratic countries.
Theologically speaking, Islam and democracy are compatible. Similarly, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan have demonstrated a reasonable level of economic development, with Turkey and Malaysia leading the way. Islam embraces free trade and private property.
It is difficult to resist the temptation of comparing the OIC narrative and the KL Summit narrative, if the leading countries are taken as examples. Without ignoring the complexities, for example, the domestic politics of Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia, I can say that the KL Summit should border more closely with democracy, pluralism and globalisation.
The overall message is that of freedom and development, which should help in achieving sovereignty. As the OIC turned 50 this year, it presents an opportunity for the leaders at the KL Summit to revisit the discourse.
In reality, as I just finished listening to the opening speeches of the leaders, I conclude as follows: First, the posturing of this initiative is a fresh start, with non-Arab and democratic countries taking more of a leadership role.
Second, the messages that came out during the opening plenary session had a lot of common themes with the traditional OIC narratives, for example, Islamophobia. Frankly speaking, Islamophobia is a Western phenomenon and should not be taken at its face value in Muslim-majority countries where issues are very different.
Third, in terms of messages, what was different in the KL Summit was the recurring reference to governance, democracy, poverty, trade and development in Muslim-majority countries.
There is one major problematic narrative, which I also saw resonated at the KL Summit. It is the tendency to insist on the monolith identity of ummah, rather than developing the ability to appreciate diversity across the 1.8 billion Muslims. This insistence has an inward-looking feature rather than outward.
This was demonstrated, for example, in the repeated calls for more trade within the OIC member countries, which has a very weak economic rationale. Instead, the Muslim leadership should broadly talk about fundamental rights, issues of governance, and economic development, without necessarily looking at Muslims only.
In fact, as Islam has reached us through the Prophet Muhammad, who is ‘rahmatul-aalimeen’ (blessings for the world), Muslim leaders should also broaden their narrative and adopt a more universal position, rather than being seen only as champions of Muslim causes.
Muslim leaders should speak against coercion, oppression and illegitimate occupation at any place, regardless of religion. They should also speak more clearly in favour of democracy, just like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did today.
The writer is CEO of Islam & Liberty Network Foundation.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.