Moderate Islam's alternative plan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2007, 12:00am

Americans are accustomed to being at the centre of diplomacy concerning the Middle East. So they might not have paid a lot of attention to news out of Jakarta following a meeting last week between two presidents: Indonesia's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf. But they should. In the face of the multiple crises in the region, the world desperately needs all the honest brokers it can get.

The two presidents announced a new initiative on the seething conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The leaders said they hoped to call together a group of 'like-minded' Islamic countries - a clear reference to moderate Muslims - to develop new approaches to these parallel crises, which have reached directly into their two countries in the form of terrorism.

There are many reasons why this initiative should be welcomed, including by the United States. Indonesia and Pakistan have unimpeachable credentials in the Islamic world, and both suffer from domestic threats from small but active groups of violent Islamist extremists.

The two are, respectively, the first and second most populous Muslim-majority countries in the world. Pakistan is a frontline state in the struggle against residual Taleban forces and their supporters along both sides of the long Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Indonesia currently holds a seat on the UN Security Council and contributes troops to the UN's peacekeeping force in Lebanon. It was one of the few Islamic countries acceptable to Israel after its invasion of Lebanon last year.

As part of Indonesia's renewed international activism, Dr Susilo's government recently offered its services in a number of conflict situations, including the North Korean nuclear issue and the Hamas-Fatah conflict in Palestine. This latest initiative fits that pattern, but it is the first to be taken jointly with another major Islamic country.

Although both leaders are Muslims, neither comes directly out of Islamic political circles. They are both former generals who are clearly aligned with moderate Islamic forces in their countries. Moreover, both are known to have positive relationships with the US, although they have differences with Washington over policy, including in the Middle East. They speak independently on these subjects, so their voices carry weight in other Muslim capitals.

The voice of the moderate majority of Islamic countries has not been conspicuous in recent efforts to resolve the various Middle East conflicts. The US has urged friendly governments to play more active roles in peacemaking, but without conspicuous recent success. Perhaps that is because the US is now so widely viewed as part of the problem.

But there can be no question that Islamic countries have a major stake in the future of the Islamic world and its relations with other countries.

The initiative has no specific substance. The leaders offered no details at their news conference, and consultations will be required with other key governments, including Malaysia (currently chair of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the international grouping of Islamic nations) and Saudi Arabia. General Musharraf met Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi following his Jakarta visit, and the Pakistani leader specifically referred to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al- Saud as another Islamic leader who was being consulted on the proposal.

The fact that two prominent leaders of major Islamic nations have stepped forward to call for an independent (that is, not US-inspired) initiative to deal with the wide and still-spreading turbulence in the Middle East has to be considered a promising development. And it should be welcomed as such by the US and other interested western governments.

Richard Baker is the special assistant to the president of the East-West Centre in Honolulu. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS