OPN 191221 Kuala Lumpur-1576921069323
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers his keynote address during Kuala Lumpur Summit on December 19, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Last week, Malaysia hosted a gathering of Muslim leaders in Kuala Lumpur to address issues facing the Islamic world. The summit was being held outside the framework of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an international organisation consisting of 57 member states, with a collective population of over 1.8 billion. 53 of the countries in the OIC are Muslim-majority countries. The organisation’s mission as stated is to be “the collective voice of the Muslim world” and works to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.”

That being said, there was some tentativeness when the summit in Malaysia was first announced and leaders of many Islamic countries including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia, chose not to attend the four-day meeting. Dubbed ‘the micro Islamic summit’, Kuala Lumpur hosted the meeting bringing together Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, among others.

In his opening address, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attempted to diffuse speculation that this summit was the prelude to a replacement for the OIC and was aiming to build a new Islamic bloc.

It is not in the interest of an Islamic nation to hold summits and meetings outside the framework of the OIC, especially at this time when the world is witnessing multiple conflicts.

- Yousef Al Othaimeen. OIC Secretary-General

Mahathir insisted that the gathering was an attempt to understand why Islam, the Muslims and their countries were “in a state of crisis, helpless and unworthy of this great religion. We are not discriminating or isolating anyone, we are attempting to start small and if these ideas, proposals and solutions are acceptable and prove workable, we hope to take it up to the larger platform for consideration,” he added. He also stated that the summit would address the many problems existing among Muslims which would be discussed “at the highest levels of the state but involving only a few countries for a start”.

The summit was expected to discuss such issues as the plight of the Muslim Uighurs in China’s remote Xinjiang province, the state of Israeli aggression against Palestinians, the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, Kashmir and the latest disturbing trends in India aimed at Muslim minorities as well as other issues in the field of education, sciences and human rights.

Outside the OIC framework

The Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, in his opening statement added that “We will have the opportunity to talk freely about our issues, from Islamophobia to terrorism, divisions, internal fights ravaging our region, and sectarian and ethnic conflicts,” while the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed greater economic cooperation within the Islamic community to fight what he termed “the domination of the United States dollar and the American financial regime.”

The OIC whose headquarters are based in Jeddah was not very amused or supportive of such an agenda. Its Secretary-General Yousef Al Othaimeen cautioned against holding any Islamic meetings or summits outside the framework of the OIC. “It is not in the interest of an Islamic nation to hold summits and meetings outside the framework of the OIC, especially at this time when the world is witnessing multiple conflicts,” he said. He added that “any weakening of the OIC platform is a weakening of Islam and Muslims.”

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Pakistan, which was one of the architects behind the concept of this meeting came under fire from many of its supporters for backing down at the last minute and declining to send their Prime Minister Imran Khan to attend.

While Saudi Arabia stands behind the OIC and seeks to strengthen the cause of Muslims everywhere, it does not interfere in the decisions of the head of state of another country in their functions. The decision for Pakistan’s withdrawal from the summit as explained by their senior leaders was that they wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem.

While many Pakistanis may see Imran’s decision to skip Kuala Lumpur as a turnaround, the fact is that he was acting in the best interest of the state. Pakistanis should look at the bigger picture and understand that in today’s global village one does not dance alone.

While Mahathir is lauded for his efforts towards the cause of Muslims everywhere, one must not forget that there is an organisation called the OIC, and it is up to them to pursue the interests of Muslims everywhere.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena