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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 17:46 GMT
All smiles as Muslims unite for peace
A woman stands by a bill board of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade welcoming delegates to the OIC summit

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent, Dakar

Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and the imminent release of a Dutch documentary critical of Islam are just part of the evidence that Islamophobia is on the rise, according to the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at its summit this week in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

The OIC says a campaign of defamation and denigration is one of the greatest challenges facing the Muslim world today.

US envoy Sada Cumber
First thing this morning I was wearing my Texan boots
US envoy Sada Cumber
"Ignorance about Islam and also calculated animosity with deep historic roots on the part of a minority in the West as well as our inability to disseminate the true values of Islam are the reasons for this increasing wave of Islamophobia," Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Muslim grouping, told the delegates before calling for robust political engagement with the West to tackle it.

There were more than 20 heads of state attending, but obviously no invitation letter was sent to George Bush.

The US president is viewed by many here with scorn, largely because US foreign policies are judged in much of the Muslim world as being anti-Islamic.

President Bush says the US is misunderstood and so he has appointed the Pakistan-born Sada Cumber, a Muslim businessman from Texas, as the first US special envoy to the Islamic organisation.

His mission?

"My role is to share the common core values of America. The pure ethics of America does not allow any of us to have anything but deep respect for all religions, including Islam.

"So the perception [that the US government is anti-Islam] is probably a misconception," the Pakistan-born envoy told the BBC, adding that he had been widely welcomed at the summit.

Stars and stripes

Building bridges will be a tough job for Mr Cumber who will represent US interests on controversial subjects like Iraq.

Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (l) shakes hands with his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby
There are fears Sudan and Chad's smiles were just for the cameras

But the man, who believes he was chosen because in the business world he has a track record of quick success, says he brings a positive message from Mr Bush.

"He's personally told me that he is prepared to engage with every one of the Muslim leaders to make sure we have freedom, stability and prosperity in all regions and he's committed."

When I point out that he has perhaps deliberately chosen not to pin a stars-and-stripes badge to his lapel or to wear stars-and-stripes socks to the world's largest summit of Muslim leaders, Mr Cumba has a surprising response.

"First thing this morning I was wearing my Texan boots on which is a huge logo: 'Texas Wide Open For Business'".

"I see you are not wearing them now," I point out.

Oh Mozambique - is that an island?
Saudi delegate
"I was on my feet so much I had to take them off and put on some more comfortable shoes."

But does he not think Texan boots in an Islamic Conference could cause a bit of a stir?

"Absolutely not. People get a kick out of it. People look at them and say, 'Wow these boots are good.'

"Americans are always welcome, you know that."

Hamid Sirajjudin from Sudan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Mr Cumber's presence is welcome.

"If it can open avenues for dialogue and for consultation then it is a positive move," he suggests, noting that it is up to the OIC to decide who should be invited.

The Iranian ambassador to the OIC, Mostafa Bonjuredi, is not so welcoming.

He says the US is neither a permanent member nor an observer and so should stay away from the summit altogether.

Bridges apart

Inside the conference centre it was no surprise that Israel was lambasted with calls from the Muslim body for the perpetrators of what it called "Israel's heinous crimes in the Middle East" to be put on trial before an international court.

Summit staff
Some 10,000 jobs in Senegal were created by the summit

The 57 member countries may be united by their faith but they at times seem a world apart with few bridges linking them.

Take this seven-second interaction between a delegate from Saudi Arabia and a Mozambican journalist: "Mozambique - is that an island? Oh, it's not. Anyway it was very nice to meet you."

Economically the differences are stark.

Divide up the annual income of oil-rich Kuwait and you get $24,000 per person.

But you would have to perform miracles and stay alive for more than 100 years to accumulate that kind of money in Sierra Leone, where the national annual income is just $220 per head.

The Islamic conference says it wants to change that and a fund has been set up with a target of raising $10bn to fight poverty, notably in Africa.

So far $2.6bn has been pledged with a billion coming from Saudi Arabia alone.

Senegal has used generous grants from the Islamic fund to give the capital, Dakar, a facelift including major road-building projects. But there have been concerns over accountability for the grants.

Spending binge

The budget for the projects is around $250m and in charge has been the president's son, Karim Wade, who was also a chief organiser of this conference.

Karim Wade waving
President Wade's son organised the OIC summit

The man, who some believe is being manoeuvred into succeeding his father, dismisses the suggestion that the Senegalese people living in abject poverty are not seeing any reward from the spending binge.

"We have created more than 10,000 jobs to build and operate the infrastructure and investment flow will definitely create job opportunities for the people and will help us to achieve a higher growth rate for our economy," he told me.

Peace building is also a stated OIC goal and host Abdoulaye Wade eventually dragged the leaders of Sudan and Chad together to sign a peace deal which, if implemented, could help alleviate the suffering in Sudan's Darfur region.

They may share the same religion but when President Omar al-Bashir and his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby have put pen to paper in the past, the conflicts across the common border have only escalated.

They even prayed together at Mecca during a previous deal and so few analysts expect this pact to be any different.

For a man keen to push himself forward as a continental heavyweight, President Wade got what he wanted: a grand summit and a peace deal.

But analysts suggests the octogenarian leader does not wield the kind of influence he thinks he has and we wait to see if the Dakar deal has any impact or if it will just go down as another worthless signing ceremony.

There was enough red carpet here in Dakar to cover a small island.

As it is rolled up, a huge 1,200-cabin cruise ship, hired to house the delegates, will head from Dakar's port to the Mediterranean.

Stowing away could be a temptation for the vast number of West Africans trying to reach Europe.

Country profile: Senegal
29 Feb 08 |  Country profiles
OIC denounces cartoons violence
21 Feb 06 |  South Asia

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