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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
Malaysia's discussions on Islam's future

Jonathan Kent
BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia hosts the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in mid-October.

It will bring together the heads of government of more than 50 Muslim countries and it will be Dr Mahathir Mohamad's swansong.

We continuously see our brothers and sisters being killed by Western troops - these are the scenes that are formulating the minds of young Muslims
Ahmed Mohamed Rostom, Future Youth Club, Egypt
After 22 years as Malaysia's Prime Minister, he's due to step down on 31 October just days after the conference ends.

If that summit allows us a glimpse into the present and the past of the Muslim world, another gathering held in Kuala Lumpur in mid-September perhaps allows us a glimpse of the future.

Muslim youth

The International Conference of Young Muslim Leaders was staged as a precursor to the OIC meeting and brought together young people from almost every continent.

There were Russians, whose magnificent headgear evoked the domes of St Basil's cathedral in Moscow, Togoans in dazzling robes, Syrians in suits and even a brace of Americans.

Looking at the conference programme a cynic might have suggested that Malaysia had gathered together bright young Muslims from around the world to have a succession of elderly Malaysians lecture them on what a wonderful place Malaysia is.

Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad
The October summit on Islam is Dr Mahathir Mohamad's swansong
But the themes those senior Malaysians explored - education, development and religious tolerance - were all issues that the delegates were keen to discuss.

Ishaq Kunle Sanni, the leader of Nigeria's Muslim Youth Movement put it best. "The devil makes work for idle hands, so finding jobs for the youth of tomorrow is a very crucial matter," he told me.

Social injustice

Among the factors that link those areas that have provided violent Islamic militants with their most fertile recruiting ground are poverty and unemployment. Underpinning much of the anger in the Islamic world is a sense of social injustice.

Religion, politics and economics are much more closely bound together in Islam, a faith that advocates brotherhood and equality among believers.

Compounding that sense of social injustice is what many see as political injustice.

"We continuously see our brothers, sisters and young people being killed by Western troops in Iraq, Palestine and other places - these are the scenes that are formulating the minds of young Muslims," says Ahmed Mohamed Rostom from the Future Youth Club in Egypt.

The majority of us are dealing with feeding our children, getting an education and finding success in our own lives, while maintaining our religion and what we feel are our ways of worship,
Edina Lekovic, Editor, American Muslim magazine Minaret
Images from the Palestinian Intifada, Afghanistan and Iraq are all adding to the radicalisation of Muslim youth.

That's further sharpened by the response of the authorities in the United States following the September 11 attacks. They have singled out people of Arab extraction or those with Muslim names for additional security checks when they travel to America.

Edina Lekovic, an American who edits Minaret, a magazine for American Muslims, says that they are left feeling that they have been labelled as potential terrorists by virtue of their faith.

"There are 1.2 billion of us and I think the majority of us are dealing with feeding our children, getting an education and finding success in our own lives, while maintaining our religion and what we feel are our ways of worship," she says.

Future leaders

Others raise the issue of education. It's not simply that many parts of the Muslim world lack decent schools and universities.

It's that there has also been a growth in the number of madrasas or religious colleges turning their backs on the wider world and preaching a very insular conservative message.

We need modern weapons. We need tanks, battleships, fighter planes, knowledge of rockets
Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad
A significant minority have been linked to the rise in violent militant groups. Many of the delegates wanted to see such schools reformed.

These were not radicals gathered in Kuala Lumpur. No representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Taleban here.

No, these were potential leaders of the Islamic world in Malaysia's own image, mainstream, inclusive of other faiths and engaged in the modern world.

Parting shot

In a sense the conference was preaching to the converted. All the more curious that the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad should close the event with a bellicose call to arms.

For Dr Mahathir Muslims should master science so the world of Islam can stand up to the West.

"We need modern weapons. We need tanks, battleships, fighter planes, knowledge of rockets," he told the delegates. "These are the weapons that can strike fear into the hearts of our enemies and defend us."

It was a discordant note in a gathering that had focused on constructive solutions to the problems Muslim communities face.

What do you think of the author's comments? Send your reaction and questions in response to this piece using the form below. Jonathan Kent will answer your emailed questions.

The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:

I'm an English ex-pat here in Malaysia, and I am becoming increasingly concerned with Dr M's state of mind these days as he heads towards retirement. I feel that he is becoming increasingly bitter and aggressive towards the West, and that he is frequently missing the wider point in dishing out one-sided solutions. It seemed to me that some of the 'International Conference of Young Muslim Leaders' delegates were very knowledgeable about the problems faced in the Islamic world, and about how they really do need to be addressed at the grass roots level in their own societies and education. I hope the next PM in Malaysia will be a little more considerate with his comments.
John, Malaysia

As Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minster of Malaysia said: "We need modern weapons and tanks, battleships and fighter planes." I agree with the prime minister. We also need new leaderships in the Muslim world so we can fight back.
Abdi Ali Wadad, Canada

I am a Malaysian, and have been in the UK for just over a year and a half now, and I believe that there should be a succession of elderly Malaysians lecturing these youths. People should remember that Malaysians worked hard for their own success, the country has come to be where it is through the sweat and toil of the Malaysians of old. These young Muslims have to learn that there are other ways for them to improve their lot, and to overcome their problems. It's just a matter of hard work and determination. Guns and bombs will not help.
Thiam Jin Chu, UK

Many Muslims claim that Islam is a peace loving race. Then why do they need these weapons of mass destruction such as "tanks, battleships, fighter planes, knowledge of rockets?"
Vinoo, UK

This is another political gimmick of Dr Mahathir. Look what he is preaching the world now, provoking the Muslim world to take a paradigm shift from disorganised terrorism to a well organised one by building rockets and missiles. Stop him please!
Chandrasekhar, Malaysia

Jonathan Kent wrote a very accurate report. However his last comment concerning Dr M reveals some contradiction. I do believe that Dr M was not only right but also logical. How can Muslim civilisation and even non-Western civilisations survive if they don't keep up with scientific knowledge and heighten their military strength. In fact the Muslim world has to choose between being weak like Palestinians or strong like Israelis!
Guy, Canada

Could Mahathir be trying to appeal to the majority in Malaysia? It is strange that Malaysia should be sighted as being an ideal - considering its record of human rights abuse, dubious press and quasi-dictatorship.
Alan, UK

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