Malaysia kicks off Islamic summit with PM Mahathir denying talk of new Islamic bloc

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during the opening ceremony of the Kuala Lumpur Summit on Dec 19, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - A summit of Muslim leaders kicked off in the Malaysian capital on Thursday (Dec 19) with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in his opening address trying to defuse speculation that the meeting aims to build a new Islamic bloc.

The leaders of several countries in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia, are not attending the four-day meeting which Tun Dr Mahathir insisted 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".

Dr Mahathir said problems existing among Muslims would be discussed "at the highest levels of the state but involving only a few countries for a start".

"We are not discriminating or isolating anyone," he added.

Dr Ma'ruf Amin, Vice-President of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim majority country, on Wednesday announced he won't be going to the summit after all, citing health issues, and that it is sending its foreign minister instead. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was earlier scheduled to speak at the event, also gave the summit a miss.

The Kuala Lumpur meeting has been viewed in some Islamic circles as a gathering of Muslim countries not aligned with Saudi Arabia.

Summit organisers say 450 delegates from 56 countries are in attendance.

The Saudis play a high-profile role in the Muslim world due to their role as "custodian of the two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Madinah, and their oil wealth, but skipped the KL meeting.

Instead, leaders of the trio of countries with tense ties with Saudi Arabia flew into KL - the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

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The host of the summit, Dr Mahathir, 94, is known in the Muslim world for his strident defence in issues such as Palestine and Kashmir. His involvement with the trio of countries aligned against the Saudis raised chatter about a new Islamic bloc.

On the other hand, there has been concern in the Muslim world at the relative silence of key Muslim leaders and the OIC over issues such as the plight of Uighur Muslims in China, Kashmir in India and Palestine statehood in the age of Donald Trump.

(From left) Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during the Kuala Lumpur Summit on Dec 19, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

The OIC, a Muslim bloc consisting of 57 nations with Saudi Arabia playing a prominent role, has obliquely criticised the KL Summit.

OIC secretary-general Yousef al-Othaimeen, in a thinly veiled attack against the summit, told Sky News Arabia on Wednesday: "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."

Earlier this week, Dr Mahathir rebutted claims the summit could sideline the OIC, calling the event as "too small to do that".

Although Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, 83, was invited, he declined to attend.

Dr Mahathir on Tuesday answered a call from King Salman to discuss the summit's purpose.

Dr Mahathir told reporters about the call: "He feels that matters like these (Muslim issues) shouldn't just be discussed by two or three countries, and there should be an OIC meeting and I agreed with him."

He said it was not possible to expect solutions to all the problems of the Muslim world at once. "We are attempting to start small and if these ideas, proposals and solutions are acceptable and proved workable, then we hope to take it up to the larger platform for consideration," he said.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, in a veiled criticism of Saudi Arabia, told the audience that respect needs to be maintained among countries, adding that justice is "indivisible".

"Double standards also prevail in the case of armed militias that commit terrorist acts," he said in his speech, adding that dialogue is needed to resolve ongoing disputes.

"We reject the use of methods of force, blockade, starvation and dictation of opinions," the Emir said.

The ongoing Yemeni civil war, with Saudi Arabia siding with one party and Iran the other, has caused mass starvation.

Qatar, meanwhile, has faced a land, sea and air blockade by its neighbours since 2017, which was called for by Saudi Arabia over its closer ties with Iran, a regional rival of the Saudis.

Turkish President Erdogan and Iran's President Rouhani spoke against the world's major powers and the failings of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

"The UN Security Council is not representative of the Muslim population and I believe it is way past its expiry date… The world is bigger than five," Mr Erdogan said, referring to the UNSC permanent chairs - the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom - which hold veto power.

Turkey has tense ties with Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

Their tense relations with Saudi Arabia have drawn Qatar, Turkey and Iran closer together.

Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir said "fratricidal wars, civil wars, failed governments and many other catastrophes" have plagued Muslims.

"Muslim countries are accused of authoritarianism and lack of concern for human rights," the Premier added, without naming countries. Highlighting that no single Muslim nation has garnered the status of a developed country despite immense wealth, and countries' inability to protect the Islamic community, Dr Mahathir says this summit is hoped to "spark a sense of purpose" to pursue tangible solutions.

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