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A Major Islamic Conference In Cairo

(photo from Reuters)

(photo from Reuters)

The class photo: Front row, from left: 5th, King Abdullah of Jordan; 11th, Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed of Kuwait; 12th, President Morsi, 14th, the King of Saudi Arabia; From right: 4th, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran; 6th, President Hamad Karzai of Afghanistan.  Second row: from left: Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. 

On Wednesday, in Cairo, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation opened its conference with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Emirs, Kings, and Foreign Ministers in attendance. All the Islamic governments were represented. It is an opportunity for Egypt’s beleaguered President Mohamed Mursi to step onto the world stage as a leader in the Muslim world.

It is also a conference being held amidst raging conflicts in the Muslim world, and those are of paramount interest to the conferees.

Of immediate concern is the civil war in Syria. The regime has lost control of much of the country, but has held on to the city of Damascus. Now, the rebels are advancing slowly on the center of the city and the military strikes against them are causing massive damage to the city’s infrastructure. The conference, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not attend, is calling for a negotiated end to the civil war. The opposition insists that the civil war will end only when al-Assad leaves the country or dies at their hands. Al-Assad insists he is protecting Syria from a foreign invasion, and the longer this civil war has gone on, the more foreign fighters have infiltrated the country.

Protests are spreading across Tunisia following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a secularist, who was pushing his party and other moderates and secularists to boycott the assembly which is writing the new Tunisian constitution. The ruling Ennahda party’s headquarters was firebombed in the protests. Though moderates, the Ennahda has been working with the Islamist parties on the constitution. A general strike has been called for Thursday, when Belaid will be buried. Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began two years ago, spreading to Egypt, Libya and Syria, where it has stalled, and forcing reforms in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Bahrain. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has announced that he will dissolve the current coalition government and appoint a new one made up of non-partisan technocrats. The term “technocrats” when used for governments has come to mean men (usually) who are experts in their fields instead of politicians, i.e. someone with degrees in agriculture to head the agriculture department, or a civil engineer for infrastructure.

In Mali, the French have succeeded in driving out the Islamists from the northern cities and now the residents are coming forward with tales of the beatings and murders of those who did not conform to the strict rules of extreme Sharia that the Islamists, who say they are affiliated with al Qaida, were imposing. Mali is a blended culture, part sub-Saharan African, part very moderate and liberal Islam. The dominant Muslim sect is Sufi, that branch of Islam farthest from the strict fundamentalism of al-Qaida extremists. But the situation was more complex than simply an attempt by the Islamists to take over the country. In the Sahara there are still nomadic tribes, Bedouin and Tuareg. The Tuareg range across the desert regions of Mali, Algeria, and Libya, and they want autonomy within these countries or a country of their own.

The Tuareg are not the only ethnic group in the Muslim world that wants autonomy, or the restoration of their status as a separate territory. The Kurds of Iraq, Iran and Turkey have been fighting for separation from those three countries for decades.

An all-girl rock band in the Indian region of Kashmir has disbanded because of Islamist protests and threats. There have been clashes in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Taliban is still attacking and threatening schoolgirls in Pakistan. Women trying to drive in Saudi Arabia have been attacked. And that’s just the internal stuff.

Israel conducted an airstrike against Syria, claiming the Syrians were trying to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran is still rattling its rockets and enhancing uranium.

Ah, just like 16th century Europe…..and 17th and 18th and 19th….and last month in Northern Ireland…

Like all large-group “summit” conferences, this one will be nothing more than a chance for each leader to meet and greet other leaders, hold a few non-specific talks, do a lot of glad-handing, make some public statements. This is not the place for forging real policies. There never seems to be a time or place for forging real policies across the Muslim world. That which unites them also divides them – their religion.

Islam exists in almost every nation on earth. It is practiced by 21.01% of the world’s 6.97 billion people, 1.46 billion people. They are the majority in 49 of the world’s 206 sovereign and disputed nations. It has been divided between Sunni and Shi’ah for over 1,300 years, with Sufism more or less split off for the past 700. Within Sunni, there are four schools of law and two sub-sects. Shi’ah is divided into three main branches, with six sub-divisions each for two of those. The Khawarij stands alone, and there are ten orders of Sufi. These groups run the gamut from extreme fundamentalism to near-secular modernism. They are jockeying for dominance and control of the governments of 49 countries, and that doesn’t take into account the dozens of tribes and ethnicities and the desire for a few additional countries.

This conference started on Tuesday with the arrival of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo who was warmly greeted by President Morsi in a show of new relationships, and promptly hit a wall when Ahmadinejad, whose government answers to the Shi’ah Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with the Sunni head of Al-Azhar University, Grand Imam Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb. Sunni-Shi’ah imbalances lie at the heart of the conflicts in Syria, Bahrain and Iraq. The range of interpretations of how Islam should be practiced and how it should be involved in government is the cause of the conflicts in Libya, Tunisia and Mali, even when sectarian differences are not involved. This is Catholic versus Protestant, Lutheran versus Calvinist versus Presbyterian versus Quaker, etc., etc., and so on all over again. Same conflict, new players.

But, this isn’t the 16th century, or even the 20th. The world cannot afford to just stand aside and wait for five hundred years until they stop killing each other over their degrees of faith or the way their faiths reflect political movements, but the non-Muslim world cannot intervene either.




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