Islamic road map

The divide between Islam and the west is one of the gravest issues facing the world today in view of global terrorist attacks, often carried out by Muslim extremists. That is why it is crucial that an attempt to rejuvenate Islamic civilisation, and eradicate endemic poverty in much of the Muslim world, should be given a chance to succeed.

In December 2005, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), meeting in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, adopted what was known as the Mecca Declaration. Its leaders reaffirmed their 'unwavering rejection of terrorism' and appealed for 'moderation, justice, righteousness and tolerance as noble human values that counteract bigotry, isolationism, tyranny and exclusion'.

On a practical level, they also called for the elimination of poverty and illiteracy, and asserted: 'All the governments and peoples of the ummah [the Muslim community] are unanimous in their conviction that reform and development are the priority to which all efforts should be channelled.' The words are reminiscent of those of China's late patriarch, Deng Xiaoping , who in December 1978 convinced the Communist Party to focus on economic development and abandon class struggle.

The task facing the Muslim world is even more formidable, even though the two populations are roughly equivalent, with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims outnumbering the 1.3 billion mainland Chinese. But China is just one country while Muslims are scattered over the world; many live in some of the least developed nations.

In the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, in the Mecca Declaration the OIC 'undertook to embark upon a journey that would transform the Muslim world from one of the less developed communities to among the most advanced', with the first step being the implementation of a 10-year programme of action. The programme includes such goals as supporting development and poverty alleviation in Africa, combating diseases and epidemics, increasing the authorised capital of the Islamic Development Bank and increasing intra-OIC trade. The bank's target is to raise US$10 billion in three years but, so far, only US$2.6 billion has been raised: 28 member countries have not made any pledges.

Mr Badawi was the keynote speaker at an international forum in Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia is current chair of the OIC - held to discuss the implementation of the Mecca Declaration. He called for a close partnership between the west and the Muslim world which, he said, 'will go a long way towards restoring confidence in each other and closing the dangerous divide that has developed between them'. However, several speakers, including the prime minister, confessed that not much progress had been made in the past 20 months.

The problem is that many Muslim countries are poor. While some are rich in oil, only Turkey is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Moreover, while the whole of China rallied to Deng's call to modernise, in the Islamic world there is no one leader who has the charisma - without religious zealotry - to unite the people of dozens of countries behind him.

One important problem is that, over the centuries, there has been too much emphasis on religious education and ritual and not enough on more practical issues, such as making a living and developing the economy. Mr Badawi noted that some Muslims in Malaysia would sell their plot of land in order to make a pilgrimage - leaving them with no means of making a livelihood. Muslims, he said, should go on a pilgrimage only if they could afford to do so.

There is no short cut. Muslim countries must keep plodding along, helping their people out of poverty while inculcating good governance and such values as justice, the rule of law and respect for others. Hopefully, in a few decades, Muslims will also see a dramatic rise in the standard of living of their people, matched by a rise in respect and understanding from the rest of the world.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator