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World: At Economic Forum's Last Day, Gulf Leaders Say States Can Modernize Under Islam

  • Robert McMahon

The World Economic Forum concluded as it began -- with panels of prominent people searching for answers to the troubles of the post-11 September world. In one of the final discussions, a group of leaders from Gulf Arab states spoke out against the damage fundamentalist extremists have caused Islam, but said they remain confident in the piety of the majority.

New York, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The final day of the World Economic Forum featured another denunciation of the September terrorists by Islamic leaders sensitive to how their faith has been portrayed in the wake of the attacks.

Those speaking yesterday in New York included a Saudi prince, the foreign minister of Qatar, and the crown prince of Bahrain. All three took part in a panel discussion on the role of Islam in development, and all spoke of the need to denounce the linking of Islam with terrorism and expressed concern that extremists have damaged their faith.

The crown prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, said Muslims have a duty to protect their religion from those who have tried to hijack it in support of terrorism.

Qatar's foreign minister, Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, said the views of extremist Muslims like Osama bin Laden must be countered by Muslims who support interaction with the non-Islamic world.

"One of the dangerous things [about] these terrorist people is that they would like to divide the world. And we should not allow them to divide the world in two or three pieces," he said. "They would like to see [a division between] Muslims and non-Muslims, and if we allow them to do this, they have already achieved their goals. We have to try our best to educate our children that what [the terrorists] did [on September 11th] was wrong."

The chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, said there has been a disturbing trend in Islam of individuals interpreting the Koran to justify terrorism.

Prince Turki said there appears to be an abuse of the process in which Muslims apply Islamic rules to society -- "ijtihad", or individual reasoning. He said issues of a controversial nature should be left to Muslim scholars, not individuals.

But he also said the lack of an Islamic hierarchy is one of the strengths of the religion, allowing Muslims to choose their own path based on their relationship with God. He expressed hope that what he called the "ferment" in the Muslim world today will result in more dynamic Muslim states that are marked by innovation and accomplishment.

"It is incumbent upon us Muslims with that framework to try to galvanize this ferment that is taking place in the Muslim world today so that Muslims can be contributors to the world society instead of just consumers of the products of the world society -- that they can be innovators in this world society rather than imitators in this world society," Prince Turki said.

The comments came during a panel discussion aimed at exploring what aspects of Islam can make it a force for social and economic development in a Muslim world seen as backward and repressive in the West. The discussion followed sessions during the previous four days in which Muslim leaders from Jordan to Malaysia spoke out on similar themes.

Organizers of the World Economic Forum said they invited an especially high number of Muslim leaders this year to help deepen the debate on the challenges facing the international community after the attacks of September.

Asked about concerns over the proselytizing aspects of Muslim religious schools -- madrassahs -- Bahrain's Crown Prince Al-Khalifa said they should not be seen as a threat. He said it is important to note that all missionaries, no matter what faith, are judged by the good work they do. He mentioned the American Mission Hospital in Bahrain, run by a U.S. Christian foundation, which he called one of the finest and most respected hospitals in his country.

"The action of missionaries going out and trying to convert through dialogue is 10 times better -- it's infinitely better -- than those who try to change by force, which is fundamentally even against the religion," he said.

Saudi Arabia's Al Saud rejected the notion that his country was responsible for producing terrorists, based on the high number of 11 September terrorists who were of Saudi origin. The prince said the distinguishing characteristic of these hijackers was they went against the teaching of the Saudi schools and represented a small minority.

Al Saud also defended the Saudi state's rights record in regard to women. He said the much-noted ban on driving for Saudi women was much less important than other issues they face: "There are many more important things that women have to face in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have to face problems when they go to court and see their rights abrogated because they are women. They have many problems in their relationships with their husbands, with their fathers, with their children, et cetera."

But the ban on driving remains a powerful symbol for Westerners about the rights of Saudi women, said another member of the panel, Francois Burgat, director of the French Center of Archeology and Social Sciences in Yemen.

"If it is not an issue, then for the sake of promoting the level of communication between the two universes, legal reform should intervene very soon," Burgat said.

Burgat acknowledged advances cited by Al Saud such as the growing number of Saudi women -- about 200,000 -- attending universities. Al Saud also said about 19,000 women received degrees from Saudi universities in 2001 and that about 22,000 businesses are owned by Saudi women.