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Malaysia: Prime Minister Urges Islamic Countries to Fight Extremism

Malaysia's prime minister has spoken of the "damaging perception" throughout the world that Muslim countries support terrorism and Islamic militancy. He is urging them to speak out against extremism and to try to close the divide that has been created between the Muslim world and the West. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, says it's the duty of Muslims "to demonstrate by word and action that a Muslim country can be modern, democratic, tolerant and economically competitive." Will his words have any effect?

Prague, 28 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday in Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told a gathering of academics and diplomats from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that, since the 11 September 2001 attacks, militants have succeeded in conveying a negative perception of Islam and Muslims to the rest of the world.

"Islam and Muslims have been portrayed by their detractors as violent and intolerant. This is most unfortunate. Despite vigorous efforts taken to correct this ignorant and extremely damaging perception, we Muslims are still unable to break free from this profiling," Badawi said.

Badawi said Muslims are also to blame for the widespread misinterpretation of the meaning of jihad, or holy struggle. "It is most unfortunate that some have narrowed down the concept of jihad to qital, which concerns physical fighting," he said. "It is even more unfortunate this is the only meaning commonly understood by the general public. This meaning is, in turn, conveyed to the wider world. If Muslims themselves can make this mistake, what more can we expect from others? Muslims, therefore, are much to blame for this distortion of the meaning of jihad."

At a news conference later, Abdullah also condemned the killing of innocent people by suicide bombers.

The Malaysian prime minister made his comments three days before general elections in Iraq, where Islamic militants have called for a "jihad" against U.S.-led coalition troops and have vowed to disrupt the vote.

Osama al-Ghazuli, a prominent Egyptian political analyst, believes Abdullah's comments will be well received in the Muslim world. "This is a nation with a success story -- Malaysia -- that is the top of admiration in the Arab world and in the Muslim world. People look up to them," al-Ghazuli said. "So when these words come from him, people may very well listen. So if he carries on this way of talking about politics, he will be listened to, and he will be followed, most probably."

Others question whether Abdullah's comments, by themselves, can effect any real change.

Bruce Gale is a country-risk analyst with Hill and Associates, a risk and security consultancy in Singapore. He said Abdullah is respected as a moderate Islamic leader, and that his words carry weight. But Gale believes the prime minister's comments are unlikely to have any immediate effects on the policies of Muslim countries.

"I think he's going to be listened to with respect in both his own country and in places like the Middle East. But whether that's actually going to change anything, I think, is another matter entirely because I think that's dependent perhaps on socio-economic forces which are beyond the control of a Malaysian leader in Malaysia. I think this is more a question of Abdullah Badawi being a well-known Islamic moderate stating his views, stating them clearly, and hoping that others will echo them," Gale said.

He said Abdullah's comments reveal Malaysia's concerns about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in neighboring Thailand. "In southern Thailand right now, there is an Islamic secessionist movement, and Malaysia -- because it borders that area -- is very concerned about the possibility of that violence spilling across the border," Gale said.

In his speech to the OIC, Abdullah also said Muslim countries should promote a dialogue with the rest of the world and engage the Western media more effectively to improve their image.

Al-Ghazuli agrees. He said Muslim nations need to distance themselves from acts of violence and the fundamentalist way of thinking. "What Muslims have to do, first of all, is to make it clear to the whole world that they distance themselves from criminal acts," al-Ghazuli said. "It has been said in the Koran that to kill one person is to kill all of the human race. Murder is unacceptable. Self-murder -- suicide -- is also unacceptable."

He believes official Arab media can play an important role in this regard. "The governments should not use Islamic movements for political purposes. The governments should know that religion is a power for development, for enlightenment. If the official media in the Arab world says so to the population, they will listen to them," al-Ghazuli said.

He said moderation and tolerance should be taught to children in Muslim schools.

Delegates at the OIC meeting are expected to discuss possible reforms to the OIC, the world's largest grouping of Muslim nations, and how Muslims should face the challenges of the 21st century. The OIC has been criticized for its ineffectiveness.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.