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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Scholars debate future of Islam
Jonathan Kent
BBC, Putrajaya

Globalisation is one of those buzzwords that has assumed a multitude of meanings.

All the more challenging then for the hundreds of Muslim religious scholars, or Ulamas, who have come from across the world to a conference in the city which is home to Malaysia's new seat of government, Putrajaya.

They are discussing Islam in the era of globalisation.

Conference delegates
Radicals and ultra-conservatives are notable by their absence

The first day was dominated by talk of what the war in Iraq means for the Islamic world.

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, called for Muslims to unite to prevent any repeat.

"Muslims will never be able to bring back the honour and the respect for Islam and the Muslims unless they become capable again of defending themselves," he told delegates.

Dr Mahathir argued that this required Muslims to master science and technology, and promote economic development in Islamic countries.

Delegate Abdul Rahman Amash from the Global University in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, said Malaysia provided a good example of this.

"We observe that Malaysia has progressed in technological knowledge, but we wish for this knowledge to be exported also to other Islamic countries, that co-operation happens," he said.

'Clash of civilisations'

Islam requires believers to study anything that is of benefit to their society, not just religious teaching, and that's a theme of this conference - the need for Muslims to engage with the modern world.

For American delegate Aslam Abdullah that means greater dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad addresses the conference
The conference agenda bears Mahathir's stamp

"I think if the dialogue does not take place and does not take place soon... we will move into an era where conflict will dominate our relationship with each other, and the civilisations will be out there to destroy each other rather than complement each other and then work together for the betterment of humanity," he said.

But even though American cheesecake featured on the conference menu, Dr Mahathir seems to have little patience with the West at the moment, and he gently deflected the suggestion by saying that Muslims needed to talk more with other Muslims.

Quite so, says Dr Zaki Badawi, who has come from London to present a paper about the role of political opposition groups in the Islamic world.

"Many Muslim states prohibit opposition, suppress any new idea that would challenge authority, and this is a very serious situation because you cannot develop unless you have ideas, new ideas and get on with the debate, internal debate, that will help you adjust to the new situation," he said.

Dr Mahathir may not like his political opposition very much, but Malaysia does have one, and the country has developed far faster than most of those Islamic countries where there is no opposition.

Women's rights

The Malaysian prime minister has also encouraged women to play an active role in Malaysia.

Islam has brought forth their status and uplifted them to a position equal to men
Zaleha Kamaruddin
Professor Zaleha Kamaruddin is one of them, and she is presenting a paper to the conference on the role of early Islam in promoting women's rights.

"Islam has brought forth their status and uplifted them to a position equal to men. They are able to inherit property, they are able to have their own identity, and that brings important changes in the lives of Muslim women," she said.

Other topics still to come include the challenge of Islamic extremism and even the importance of oil to the Islamic world - all subjects dear to Dr Mahathir.

His stamp is all over this gathering of mainstream and progressive scholars, very much in tune with the prime minister's vision of Islam.

But those they have to win over, the radicals and ultra-conservatives, are not here - and it is they who seem to have the whip hand in much of the Muslim world these days.

Malaysia's Mahathir attacks West
19 Jun 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysian PM condemns Iraq war
24 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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