Muslim self-criticism largely ignored


SCMP October 20

It is perhaps indicative of the bias of so much western reporting, with international news agendas set by Christians and Jews in New York and London, that when the heads of 57 Muslim nations have a triennial meeting, they get minuscule coverage compared with that which attends such circuses as the annual Apec meetings.

Let us not pretend that these western media do not have their inbuilt cultural preferences and prejudices, based on their own histories and religious traditions. Despite the significant size of the Muslim minorities now found in Europe and North America, they have scant voice in the media, as any analysis of the ethnic and religious origins of correspondents and columnists would show.

That is not to say that the just-concluded summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Kuala Lumpur, was more than an outward show of Muslim solidarity that hides deep political divides. The idea of a pan-Islamic political grouping is almost a contradiction in terms. At one level, it makes no more sense than a Christian one embracing Armenia, Ireland and Peru. But to the extent that anti-Muslim prejudices of non-Muslims, especially in the west, are so widespread, the OIC may have some merit.

Anyway, it should be hard to ignore a meeting of so many political leaders of countries where Islam is either the faith of the majority or a large minority. Note too that this meeting was also attended by presidential guests from two countries with large (and currently rebellious) Muslim minorities, Russia and the Philippines. That was very much a Malaysian initiative - and a first. It raises the interesting possibility that the likes of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and France's leader Jacques Chirac may get invites next time. Even US President George W. Bush may be on the list, should he dare acknowledge that there are now probably more Muslims than Jews in the US.

Malaysia also did the OIC a service by reminding the Middle East Muslims, and in particular the Arabs who have traditionally dominated the OIC, of three things which many of them find unpalatable.

In the first place, they comprise only 20 per cent or so of the total ummah (Muslim community). They have tended to dominate, partly because of the role of Mecca and Arabic in Islam, partly because of the wealth of the Arab oil producers, and partly because the number of Arab states is large compared with their populations. In reality, most Muslims live east of Iran, in south and Southeast Asia, in countries with very different social traditions. In many cases, they are either a minority (in India), or there are large non-Muslim minorities (in Indonesia and Malaysia). Muslims in these regions feel the same hurt of prejudice and sympathy for the Palestinian victims of aggression. Yet they have scant interest in the mores and politics of the Middle East, and a degree of contempt for the way Arab regimes have put self-preservation before either helping the Palestinians or modernising their societies.

The Muslim obscurantists, who mostly reside west of the Indus, were reminded in Kuala Lumpur that the way to respect and influence, now as much as in the glory days of Islam, lies through learning and science, rather than dress codes and 7th century practices.

They were also reminded that Islam is, in theory, the most commerce-friendly of all the major religions. Its prophet was himself a trader and laid down rules for the proper conduct of business. (Christians and Confucians alike were long suspicious of the merchant class.) Thus, Muslims should be in favour of freer trade across political borders, bringing benefits to all. The reality, of course, is that the Muslim Middle East exhibits the highest levels of protectionism in the world. Countries cling not to the wisdom of the prophet, but to quasi-Marxist or statist notions, borrowed from Europe's fascist and socialist failures. These inhibit all trade, whether between Muslims or others.

For all his other faults, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in a good position to lecture his fellow Muslims on the merits of foreign investment, trade and technical education. Malaysia made a real effort to focus on these, adding a business forum and economic issues to the agenda.

Some ideas bandied around at the summit are pie in the sky - an Islamic common market or an Islamic currency, for example. If Muslim-majority nations are to increase trade and knowledge flows, it will have to be on a regional or international basis, not on a spurious notion that religious community can be the foundation for commerce. But the summit was a reminder that trade and intellectual exchanges are the key to the Muslim world improving its position and its negative perception of itself, and anger with others.



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