DAKAR (Agencies) - Leaders of the world's biggest Muslim body opened talks on Thursday to tackle difficult issues from poverty to hostility toward Islam, but those goals were quickly overshadowed by a confrontation between Chad and Sudan.
Heads of state of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) - the second largest inter-governmental bloc after the United Nations - convened in the Senegalese capital Dakar for a two-day meeting to discuss the charter.
His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam is attending the summit.
Malaysia urged the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to mount a defence against extremism and Islamophobia and strive to grow through self-reliance as it handed over the chairmanship of the grouping to Senegal, Thursday after four-and-a-half years at the helm.
Senate President Tan Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh represented Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in handing over the OIC chairmanship baton to Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade at the start of the 11th OIC Summit at the Meridien President hotel.
Senegal's president said he would make solving the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian crisis a priority for the organisation. A separate attempt to broker peace between two feuding African neighbours gained fresh urgency as Chad accused Sudan of aiding a new rebel advance.
"The just and legitimate cause of Palestine remains at the heart of our concerns," Abdoulaye Wade told the leaders.
Wade called Israel "an occupying power" and urged its government to "immediately stop its disproportionate use of force".
He added: "I should like to tell our brothers and sisters of Palestine that your unity is the first priority of success .... Please unite."
In his speech read out by Dr Abdul Hamid, Abdullah stressed the need for the OIC, the 57-member Jeddah-based organisation led by Malaysia following the 10th OIC Summit in Putrajaya, to serve as the voice of Muslims in international fora.
"The OIC is not only a platform for cooperation among the ummah (Muslim community) but also the stage for them to launch its defence against extremism and Islamophobia at the international level," he said, referring to the menace that has become a major cause of concern for the Muslim world.
In addition, he said, the OIC must play the role of catalyst and provider for the economic and social development of Muslim countries, especially the least developed members of the OIC.
"We can't afford to be left behind. As a priority, we must exert joint efforts to remove the shackles of poverty still afflicting millions of our fellow Muslims in many parts of the world.
"It is for us to shape our own destiny and therefore we must aim to grow through self-reliance," Abdullah told the OIC leaders gathered in Dakar for the summit, the second to be hosted by this west African country of about 12 million people facing the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal hosted the 1991 OIC summit.
At the start of his final speech as OIC chairman, Abdullah apologised for being unable to be in Dakar, saying that he had some fundamental tasks to perform following Malaysia's recent general election.
The Malaysian leader also said that the OIC must be relentless in its struggle for justice and equity in the existing geopolitical global environment, and reminded the organisation of the need to find solutions to end more than half a century of sufferings of the Palestinian people and establish an independent state of Palestine.
The OIC, he said, must play its part to address the common enemies of mankind like poverty, hunger and disease.
With so much on its plate, Abdullah said, it must continue to energise itself and pursue programmes and activities in a focused and result-oriented manner.
He expressed confidence that the organisation had the capacity and could make a difference for the well-being of the more than one billion Muslims in the world.
"But we need to work together. We must resolve to maintain unity among us. We must summon the political will to do so. We need to do all these because that is the best insurance for attaining peace, progress and prosperity for our peoples," he added.
Abdullah also highlighted some of Malaysia's contributions to the OIC, such as being active in promoting dialogue between the West and the Muslim world in efforts to bridge the gap of misunderstandings and mistrust.
In this connection, he said, Malaysia would host the Third International Conference on this subject on June 9-10.
"As a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, Malaysia has sought to lead by example," he said, adding that the government had introduced "Islam Hadhari" as the approach to good governance and guide for economic and social advancement of society.
The charter discussions at the summit include calls for more aid from the OIC's richest members, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to its poorest states, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa where radical groups like al-Qaeda are attempting to gain a foothold.
A US$10 billion fund for Islamic development set up by the organisation has so far received pledges for only $2.6 billion.
Another key change would allow the group to take decisions by a two-thirds majority, instead of requiring unanimity - difficult to achieve in a large body with such cultural and political divisions, spanning Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Some members are pushing to make OIC membership conditional on a state having a "majority" Muslim population, but this has been resisted by mixed-religion nations like Uganda.
Pakistan was also insisting the new charter should make potential members resolve their conflicts with existing members before being allowed to adhere - reflecting its long-running dispute with neighbour India over the Kashmir region.
With several prominent leaders not present - from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf - some delegates had called for a decision on the charter to be postponed until a Cairo summit in three years.
The meeting, however, was due to throw its weight behind the democratic government in Iraq, denouncing terrorist threats.
"The decision has been taken, a good decision for Iraq, the OIC will open an office in Baghdad," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters.
- Borneo Bulletin
(14th Mar 2008)