Search Sunday October 26, 2003

Muslims who want to modernize
The Islamic world
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, October 23, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR: At the 10th summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, held in Malaysia last week, the host nation made a valiant effort to drag the organization out its Arab/Middle East ghetto and make it more relevant to Muslims generally, and hence to non-Muslims.

The task may be impossible. The OIC is a gathering of 57 countries with Muslim majorities or large minorities. Thus it represents states rather than the broader ummah, or Islamic community. At the political level it is extremely difficult for them to find common ground on anything except the West's anti-Muslim prejudices and Palestine. Even on Palestine there was an underlying sense of frustration at the failure of Arab states to put support for Palestinians ahead of survival of their socially and technologically backward regimes.

But this gathering of Muslim heads of state and government - the biggest ever, and the first OIC summit meeting since Sept. 11, 2001 - helped concentrate minds on issues often forgotten by Muslims and Westerners alike.

It was a reminder that most Muslims live east of Iran in countries in which they are either a minority, such as India, or where there are large non-Muslim minorities, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Arabs account for only about 20 percent of all Muslims. The Arabic language and Mecca give Arabs a special position in the Muslim world, and in recent years oil money and the sheer number of Arab petty states have had added to their influence in Islamic institutions. This influence of socially and technologically backward states is not appreciated in Muslim states and communities that regard themselves as more progressive, focused on economic and social advancement not on rituals and dogmas.

Faced with the generalized anti-Muslim sentiment which had long existed in the West but has risen to often hysterical levels since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims from elsewhere are seeing the need to focus on self-improvement as well as grievances.

This expressed itself in a number of ways at the OIC meeting. First, the Malaysians repeatedly delivered reminders that the road to respect is, as during the glorious days of Islam, through the advancement of science and learning. Fixation with dress codes, rather than modern knowledge, has been the cause of backwardness.

Second, there was recognition that Islam is the only major religion to have been started by a trader, the Prophet Muhammad. Christians and Confucians may have been suspicious of the values of merchants, but Muhammad gave an honorable place to industry and commerce. Yet most Islamic nations west of Pakistan have economies that are as closed to trade with fellow Muslims as they are with everyone else.

Talk of an eventual Islamic common market or Islamic currency was the kind of impractical dream of which such gatherings are made. But it served as a useful reminder that the economic policies of several Middle East countries owe more to Marx or feudalism than to teachings of the trader Muhammad. Islam has no alternative to, or conflict with, modern economics. Even Islamic banking, which anyway only a minority of Muslims require, is easily compatible with interest-based systems.

The trade and learning needs of the ummah were underlined here by an OIC Business Forum. The first of its kind, it featured as speakers such recent converts to foreign investment as the president of Sudan. Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, spoke at length of the need for private-sector economic leadership and the merits of free trade and capital.

Pan-Islamic trade groups are not going to happen. Any trade pacts involving OIC members will be based on geography, not religion. But at the level of individuals and of firms, the ummah may have a role to play in breaking down the nation-state fortress mentality that is strong in the Middle East, but less so in the eastern Islamic world. Any talk of the importance of trade, technology and investment rather than politics and grievances is a step forward.

Malaysia cunningly sought to expand the OIC's relevance by inviting two heads of state with significant - and rebellious - Muslim inhabitants, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines. Given the growth of Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States, will Presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush be guests at the OIC's next meeting?

If nothing else, Malaysia's efforts as summit impresario may have given the OIC a chance to be relevant.