An Islamic summit convened by Malaysia to discuss issues affecting Muslims worldwide has caused divisions, with Saudi Arabia staying out of the gathering and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation warning that it could weaken Islam.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan cancelled his attendance at the last minute amid accusations from Saudi Arabia that the three-day summit, which officially starts Thursday, could dampen the role of the Jeddah-based OIC.
Indonesian vice president Ma’ruf Amin, who was scheduled to stand in for President Joko Widodo, leader of the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said he also could not attend the meeting, citing health concerns.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he clarified to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a phone conversation late Tuesday that the Kuala Lumpur summit had no intention of creating a new Muslim bloc that would rival the OIC as alleged.
“I explained to him that we are too small to do that,” Mahathir told reporters, saying the Saudi king had called him to explain why he couldn’t attend the gathering. “He’s afraid that something not good will happen to Muslims. He has a different opinion from us.”
The summit’s organizers said the conference would provide a platform “to improve the lives of Muslims the world over.” Leaders of Turkey, Iran and Qatar – viewed as Saudi’s rivals – as well as hundreds of delegates from nearly 60 countries would attend the summit.
“We feel that we need to overcome Islamophobia,” Mahathir said in a speech during a welcome dinner. “We need to find a way to address our shortcomings, our dependency on non-Muslims to protect ourselves against the enemies of Islam.” He did not elaborate.
The Kuala Lumpur Summit welcomed the delegates on Wednesday as its organizers scrambled to produce a final list of attendees and a formal agenda.
“We have endeavored to hold this summit because we feel that we have to do something to improve the lives of Muslims the world over,” Mahathir said in his speech amid cheers from more than 400 delegates from 56 countries. “We feel that we need to overcome Islamophobia.”
But OIC Secretary General Yousef al-Othaimeen said such gatherings would divide Muslims.
“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,” Othaimeen was quoted by the news service AFP as saying.
Pakistan news outlets, quoting diplomatic sources, said Khan had telephoned Mahathir to inform the Malaysian leader that he would skip the meeting.
Khan, who met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in Riyadh on Saturday, during which bilateral relations were discussed, cancelled his trip to appease Saudi Arabia, reports said.
The Pakistani leader jointly decided with Mahathir and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to hold the summit in Malaysia, while they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York three months ago.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was expected to represent Islamabad, but he had also decided to cancel his attendance, reports said, as organizers marked his scheduled appearance at the summit on Friday in red, indicating it needed confirmation.
Malaysia’s state-run news agency, Bernama, quoted Mahathir on Tuesday as saying that Khan may have other reasons for not attending the summit.
“That is his choice. We cannot force. In Islam, there is no compulsion,” Mahathir told reporters as he checked on preparations for the summit at the capital’s convention center. “He cannot make it, perhaps he has some other problems.”
The Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office had earlier confirmed that invitations had been sent to 56 members of the OIC, but organizers said about 20 have so far confirmed they were sending delegations.
Erdogan, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamid Al-Thani and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are among the leaders participating in the summit.
Summit organizers had released an agenda indicating that the participants would discuss education, food security and “preservation of national security,” but reports said issues such as the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and those of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region could be addressed as well.
But, according to Mahathir, the Saudi king told him during their phone conversation that “such matters should not be discussed only among two or three nations” and the OIC should be the forum for important issues affecting 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.
“(He says) there should be an OIC meeting. I agreed with him,” Mahathir said.
During the phone call, King Salman, who also holds the title The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, emphasized the importance of achieving a joint Islamic action through the OIC, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
Muslim nations have largely been silent about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims.
China is believed to have locked up an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps since April 2017. Beijing denies any allegations of mistreatment of Uyghurs and says the camps provide vocational training. It has refused to allow international observers into the camps.
Analysts: Possible OIC alternative
Meanwhile, Malaysian analysts hailed the Kuala Lumpur Summit as a potential alternative for the OIC.
“Other countries should view this issue positively and not think that Malaysia is trying to take over the role of OIC,” Ahmad Marthada Mohamed, a professor at the University Utara Malaysia, told BenarNews. “Countries in OIC should see themselves in the mirror to see what they have done for the Muslims. For example, the issue of Rohingya and Uyghur in China.”
An army-led crackdown in 2017 in Myanmar’s Rakhine state left thousands of Rohingya Muslims dead and forced more than 740,000 others to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
“KL Summit is used to discuss the Muslim problems and to create a resolution that should be put forth,” Mohamed said.
Azam Azali, deputy CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, agreed with Ahmad as he described the OIC as a “toothless organization.”
“The summit’s goal is not to takeover OIC, but it is as a platform to discuss things that could not be resolved by OIC, he said. “More countries should join the summit.”