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The speeches and forums are over. The visitors have left. Malaysians, if they even bothered to follow the grandly named Kuala Lumpur Islamic Summit, will surely be left wondering what it was all about. It might well come to be remembered as yet another typical summit, long on speeches but short on sensible responses.

An abiding concern

The summit, the fifth in a series of international Islamic gatherings, very much reflects Prime Minister Dr Mahathir’s abiding concern about the sorry state of the Muslim world. He has, of course, every reason to view events in the Muslim world with deep angst. Despite fabulous oil and gas earnings, much of the Muslim world is mired in abject poverty, high levels of corruption, stunning illiteracy, political instability and war.

Mahathir being Mahathir, he has not shied away from criticising his fellow Muslim rulers. Indeed, his impatience with their failure to get their act together has grown over the years. Nevertheless, he has made no secret that in his view both the United States and Israel are to blame for much of the Islamic world’s problems.

To this end, Mahathir has tried for more than 30 years to forge a greater sense of purpose and unity within the Muslim world, advocating better governance standards, pleading for an end to intra-Muslim strife, encouraging greater self-reliance through closer economic and trade cooperation, joint weapons research programmes and even a common trading currency (the gold dinar). The ideas he put forward at the recent summit were all vintage Mahathir.

New realities

The problem with Mahathir’s approach, in domestic policy as much as in foreign affairs, however, is that it is both dated and out of touch with present-day realities.

The Muslim world today is far more divided than it ever was. The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran now runs so deep that it colours everything in the Muslim world. In their effort to thwart Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have embraced the United States as never before. The Saudis are so focused on the threat from Iran that they have even abandoned that most sacred of Islamic causes – Palestine – to forge close security ties with Israel.

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has also sought to unite the entire Sunni Muslim world in a coalition of sorts against Iran. Mahathir’s efforts to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide, therefore, did not go down well in Jeddah. Coming after the Mahathir administration withdrew Malaysia from the Saudi-led campaign against Yemen and cancelled the Najib-era King Salman Centre for International Peace, Mahathir’s overtures to Iran, Turkey and Qatar (all staunchly opposed to Saudi leadership) clearly alarmed the Saudis.

In no mood to brook any challenges from a small non-Arab Muslim state, the Saudis waged a relentless behind-the-scenes campaign to urge other Muslim nations including Indonesia and Pakistan to boycott the summit. The result was one of the most stunning diplomatic rebukes that Malaysia has ever experienced. Coming after public spats with India and China, a case may be made that Malaysia’s diplomacy has reached a low point.

Though he had the best of intentions and certainly was not aiming to set up an alternative to the Saudi-controlled Organization of Islamic Conference, Mahathir clearly misread the situation and will now have a lot of fence-mending to do.

Questions have also been raised as to the role Wisma Putra played in this whole diplomatic debacle. Did they properly advise the prime minister or was their advice ignored?

As well, it should be clear by now that the Muslim nations have little room to manoeuvre these days. They can work themselves into a frenzy on issues like Islamophobia but have to be far more circumspect when dealing with countries like China over issues like the persecution of the Uighurs.

Despite compelling evidence and growing international alarm over the ill-treatment of the Uighurs, Muslim nations have been largely silent to avoid offending China. Even Mahathir steered the summit away from the issue with the feeble excuse that the summit was “neither about politics nor religion.” It was, without doubt, a triumph of the coercive power of Chinese diplomacy.

Hopelessly disconnected from reality

The other shocking thing about the summit was how hopelessly disconnected the leaders were from economic reality. Urging rich Muslim countries to invest more in poorer Muslim states, for example, might sound a great idea but which nation will invest in countries – Muslim or non-Muslim – which are unstable, corrupt and offer little prospect of a decent return on investment? Just ask the fund managers at Khazanah or EPF.

Perhaps, if Muslim countries put in place the kind of infrastructure that is conducive to investment, they might have a better chance of attracting foreign investors from both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Investments, after all, have neither religion nor nationality.

The same could be said of the gold dinar and cryptocurrency proposals. The Iranians, of course, would love it as it could help them circumvent US sanctions but it makes no sense for a country like Malaysia which is hugely dependent on trade with non-Muslim nations. If ideas like these are the best Muslim leaders can come up with, there’s really little hope that things will get better any time soon.

At the end of the day, the summit (now downgraded to dialogue status) was yet another missed opportunity for Muslim nations to take ownership of and responsibility for their own failure. Until they are prepared to move away from authoritarian rule and implement the kind of sensible people-centred economic policies that predicate sustained development elsewhere in the world, they will always be vulnerable to foreign intervention, political instability and socio-economic turmoil.

Having achieved nothing of any significance through five summits, it is hard to see how another such summit (or whatever else it may be called) is justified. The sooner it goes the way of other ill-conceived initiatives like G20, the sooner we can focus our diplomacy on more worthwhile endeavours that genuinely advance our national interests.

[Dennis Ignatius | Free Malaysia Today | Kuala Lumpur | 23rd December 2019]