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Islam Vs. The World?

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October 14, 2003 -- WHAT is the place of Islam in a world order shaped by Western powers and based on Western values?

This is the question that the leaders of the 57 member-states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) will face when they gather in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, on Oct. 16-18.

This will be the OIC's 10th summit since its creation in 1969. It is of special importance because it will be the first Islamic summit since the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Last year, the OIC tried to come to terms with the consequences of 9/11 at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur attended by foreign ministers from the member states. That conference ended in disarray when the ministers failed to agree on an answer to the question that the kings, prime ministers and other rulers of the Muslim world will face this week.

On the eve of the summit, three answers are in circulation.

Embrace Reform: The first comes from those leaders who believe that the Muslim countries should undertake the economic, political and social reforms needed to make them part of the modern world order. They should honor the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant conventions. They should also accept the global market as a reality and join the World Trade Organization.

More important: They should accept and practice the rules of the democratic politics under which governments are chosen and dismissed through free popular elections.

Although not a single Muslim country could be described as fully democratic yet, several appear to have made the strategic choice of adopting the system. They will be urging the first answer at Kuala Lumpur. Among them are Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, the host country.

Reject "Western" Values: The second answer comes from countries that regard the modern world order as "corrupt, unjust and anti-Islamic." They believe that Islam should stand against that order and mobilize the poorer nations in a new rejection front within the old nonaligned framework. In this context, they single out the United States as the No. 1 enemy, and urge an alliance with its overt or covert opponents.

One idea coming from these countries is that the OIC should invite India, China, Russia and France, each of which has substantial Muslim minorities to join the organization as associate members, thus boosting the anti-American alliance.

Supporters of the second answer include the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, the Sudan and Libya.

Yes - But: The third answer could be described as "Yes - but." It asserts that the modern world order is an inescapable reality and that trying to fight, let alone reverse it, would be suicidal for the Muslims. The best course, therefore, is for Muslim countries to negotiate their place within the existing world order in a way that they can preserve their identity and protect their interests. A majority of Muslim countries, including almost all Arab states, find themselves in this third group.

IS it not possible to imagine a fourth answer? It is. The modern world order is based on the common heritage of mankind, including the teachings of ancient Greece and the three monotheistic religions of the Middle East. It is the expression of common values in the shaping of which Islam played a crucial role, at least in part of its history.

The principle that governments should not imprison and murder their critics is not exclusively Western or Judeo-Christian. Nor is it necessarily Islamic for rulers to plunder their countries and place the proceeds in Western investment accounts. Killing women on the flimsiest pretexts, denying them basic rights and treating them as chattel are not necessarily Islamic either.

The division of the world between Islamic and non-Islamic tells us nothing. The real division is between tyrannies and democracies. North Korea is not a Muslim nation, but its government is in the same league as that of Libya, a 100 percent Muslim land. Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim country, is certainly more democratic than the predominantly Catholic Cuba or Buddhist Vietnam.

The truth is that many of those who will be gathering in Kuala Lumpur next week are tyrants hiding their ugly faces behind an Islamic mask. Knowing that they cannot justify their often illegitimate hold on power in political terms, they try to do so with reference to religion.

When taken to task for killing and robbing their citizens, they present such criticism as an attack on Islam. When Iraq is freed from Saddam Hussein, they ignore the fact that he was a monster and a mass murderer; to them, he was a Muslim ruler toppled by an "anti-Muslim" coalition.

The answer to the question "What is the place of Islam in the modern world?" need not be complicated.

If Islam is used as a device to justify the unjustifiable, then it should have no place at all. If, on the other hand, Islam is perceived as the sincere faith of over 1.2 billion human beings who share mankind's natural thirst for freedom, the rule of law and individual choice, the modern world is the best place for Muslims to be in.

The summit would do well to face the crucial issues dodged by last year's ministerial conference.

* It should recognize politics as a space quite distinct from theology, and thus open it to all citizens on the basis of democratic principles.

* It should define and condemn terrorism in clear terms, and not hide behind the stupid cliché that "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter."

* It should acknowledge full legal equality for men and women, setting aside the obfuscations the mullahs use to prove that women are inferior beings.

* The summit should also abandon the arrogant aim of imposing Islam on the entire world as mankind's sole religion, and, instead, welcome plurality and the competition of beliefs in an atmosphere of freedom and understanding.

E-mail: [email protected]

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