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World: OIC Speakers Call For 'Decisively' Confronting Democratic Reform

A meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- the world's largest Muslim organization -- ends today in Istanbul. Some participants used the conference to address the issue of democratic reform in the Islamic world.

Prague, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A three-day meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) ends today in Istanbul. Officials of the 57-member organization have been debating critical issues, such as the handover of sovereignty in Iraq, as well as the crisis in the Middle East.

Today, the OIC chose Turkish historian Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as its new secretary-general. Ihsanoglu -- whose term begins on 1 January -- has promised to promote dialogue between Muslims and Western countries.

During the three-day OIC summit, speakers also addressed the question of increased democracy in the Islamic world, where autocratic rule is common.

The current secretary-general of the OIC, Abdelwahed Belkeziz, criticized the Islamic world for what he called its extensive backwardness. He drew delegates' attention to what he described as the poor record of Middle Eastern governments on a wide range of policies, including education and economic issues.

Belkeziz said it is "high time for the Islamic world to take a decisive position on democracy."

In his opening address to the conference, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said "it is of vital importance that the members of the OIC clearly lay out their will to accelerate political, social and economic reform to catch up with the times."

Earlier this year, policy-makers of the Arab League adopted a plan aimed at promoting political reform. It is reportedly the first joint pledge for reform made by the 22-member league.
"This whole idea of, 'We want democratic reforms, but we do it [at] our own pace' is very widespread in the Arab world and in the Muslim countries. That's not something new in itself." -- Sonja Hegasy, the Center of Oriental Studies in Berlin

But Islamic leaders have given a chilly reception to the Greater Middle East Initiative, a U.S.-led project to encourage economic and political reform in the region. Many governments resist efforts to promote change from the outside.

Sonja Hegasy from the Center of Oriental Studies in Berlin said these calls for reform are significant, but not new.

"You've had this discourse [for] 30 to 40 years," Hegasy said. "This whole idea of, 'We want democratic reforms, but we do it [at] our own pace' is very widespread in the Arab world and in the Muslim countries. That's not something new in itself."

Neil Partrick, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said these latest calls are nevertheless part of a trend among leaders of Islamic countries. He noted that internal, regional, and international pressures are encouraging governments to at least talk about reform.

"There has, of course, been U.S. pressure very much related to the events of 9/11 [2001], with the perception that closed societies where decisions are made nontransparently breed a fairly negative view of Westerners. Therefore, more opening up of the political process will be helpful in terms of dealing with the U.S. security problems," Partrick said. "That also relates to the security problems that many of these Islamic countries have themselves, partly related to the friendship they have, in some cases, with the U.S., but also related to frustration with a number of these regimes."

The key issue now is what Islamic countries will actually do in practice, as each must respond to domestic and regional pressures. Partrick stressed that commitments to reform often concern more transparency in decisionmaking rather than genuine multiparty democracy.

"There is some evidence they want to make decision-making more transparent, that they want to tighten up on corruption," Partrick said. "But this is not necessarily a model of multiparty democracy."

Partrick also said the democratic records of Islamic countries are extremely mixed, with for instance Malaysia and Indonesia having relatively pluralistic decision-making processes. In Kuwait, the elected parliament has blocked a lot of government legislation. In Morocco, the 2002 parliamentary elections were considered largely free, fair, and transparent.

Freedom House, a New York-based monitor of political and civil rights, has ranked many OIC member states -- Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- as having some of the most repressive regimes in the world.