ONCE upon a time, the King of Saudi Arabia asked the Prime Minister of Malaysia to organise Muslim unity. The Prime Minister replied that he was probably not the right person for it, because he was “fond of life and all that went with it”. The King countered that he was not asking him to be an imam, but to bring countries closer together working for the common good in the name of Islam. This was June 1970, and as Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (now Cooperation, OIC) Tunku Abdul Rahman played a key role in setting up institutions that have helped millions of Muslims over the decades.
How times have changed.
In the wake of the Kuala Lumpur Summit attended by leaders of four Muslim countries and delegates from dozens more, diplomats are debating its impact and chances of success. If there is one point of agreement it is on Tun Mahathir’s central role, amidst a wider observation that foreign policy is still determined by the Prime Minister, with sometimes problematic repercussions. “His worldview of international relations is obsolete,” one says. Puzzlement hangs over the contributions of Wisma Putra, let alone bodies like Isis, IDFR, and faculties of public universities that once shaped our foreign policy. Though PM-led diplomacy has applied for some time, many hope that for a more consultative approach, including Parliament (involving the International Relations and Trade Select Committee), civil society and, in our federal context, some ability for states to negotiate bilateral trade and investment without the federal government.
It was, however, wonderful to see the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Sultan of Perak opening and closing the proceedings respectively. Their well-received royal addresses acknowledged the diversity of the ummah, stressed the importance of dialogue, highlighted urgent needs of Muslim refugees, and provided reminders of what can be achieved in all fields of humanity with the right policies inspired by Islam. By contrast, the government failed to include royal involvement in Malaysia’s signing of the Amman Message (in 2005 to 2006), which was dominated by politicians (including then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Anwar Ibrahim). It might have been more meaningful if (like most other countries) our head of state (and other Rulers who are Heads of Islam in their states), had signed this landmark document that asserted that adherents of schools of Islamic jurisprudence across Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and Zahiri traditions were Muslim and that it was “impossible and impermissible” to declare them to be apostates.
Any observer of Malaysian politics will note that this notion has been ignored by some parts of the religious establishment, with Shias being especially targeted. That makes the Prime Minister’s warmth towards Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rather courageous, though still not as striking as the Shah of Iran praying with our Yang di-Pertuan Agong at Masjid Negara in 1968.
In the commentariat, opinions on the summit have ranged from complete endorsement to utter condemnation. The former welcome the end of a monopoly of discourse in the Islamic world and an embrace of progressive ideas of a globally connected generation of Muslims. The latter argue that the absence of so many countries’ leaders is a failure and none of the goals are likely to come to fruition. Sceptics view both arguments as power plays in the context of a domestic power struggle.
I think more dialogue is always good, whether or not another organisation already lays claim to it, and, as Ali Salman (CEO of the Islam & Liberty Network Foundation) has noted, it is significant that the summit referenced governance, democracy, poverty, and trade alongside more predictable narratives, because of the countries involved.
The impact of the KL Summit (to be called the Perdana Dialogue in future editions) will only truly be seen generations from now, alongside the journey of other developments in the Muslim world. Chief among these are the geopolitics of the Middle East, where within and across countries, stated grand reform initiatives can be in tension with human rights concerns and economic incentives.
As such, it is easy to ignore small but potentially significant breakthroughs. Take, for example, the proposed Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi in which a mosque, church, and synagogue will be built with a common garden, the result of the Document on Human Fraternity agreed between the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar in February.
Just as we can hope that the mind of a conservative Malaysian Muslim might be nudged into enlightenment by such a gesture, so we can hope (once again) that a new platform for Muslim unity led by a Malaysian Prime Minister might achieve some good for the ummah and humankind.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.