An Islamic Summit in Malaysia Points to a Widening Split in the Muslim World

The Kuala Lumpur Summit, December 18-21, has brought together the leaders of Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar with 450 Muslim intellectuals from around the world. It has also raised eyebrows. An initiative of Malaysia’s outspoken prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, the summit’s guest list indicates a clear preference for Muslim states of a certain type: supporters of political Islam who portray themselves as champions of global Muslim causes.

Yet, the attempt to consolidate such a group has faced stiff resistance from a deeply divided Muslim world. And its credibility as a champion of global Muslim causes ranging from Kashmir in India to Xinjiang in China, especially those that clash with members’ national interests, has been put to the test.

This year’s edition, conceived on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, emerged out of frustration with the underwhelming response to India’s clampdown in Kashmir. When India announced its revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and placed the region under lockdown, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation deplored the move and echoed Pakistan’s call for a UN-supervized plebiscite.

However, the OIC’s criticism was hollowed out by a lack of consensus among its members on how best to deal with the issue. So, while Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia locked horns with India over Kashmir at the UN, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi toured Bahrain and the UAE, where he was feted. Despite being a core member of the OIC’s contact group on Kashmir, Saudi Arabia took a subdued approach to the issue outside the organization, calling on India and Pakistan to resolve their disputes peacefully. To Pakistan’s dismay, so did the majority of Muslim states.

Beyond the issue of Kashmir, however, the summit also reflects the violent split between supporters and opponents of political Islam across the Muslim world. Muslim-majority states have backed rival sides in civil conflicts that have often pitted Islamists against secular nationalist forces in the Middle East.

In Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed the military’s move in 2013 to oust President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader whose government enjoyed Qatar and Turkey’s patronage. In Libya, both Egypt and the UAE have lent support to Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army in the onslaught against Qatari/Turkish-backed Islamist groups. Iran has long thrown its weight behind Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and more recently the Houthis in Yemen, while recruiting thousands of young men into Shia religious militias to wage war on its behalf in Syria and Iraq.

Amid such differences, then, Malaysia’s attempt at rallying the global patrons of political Islam has faced a host of challenges.

For starters, the gathering cannot claim to be representative of the wider Muslim world. The six states invited to the summit – including Pakistan, though Prime Minister Imran Khan cancelled a personal appearance at the last moment – make up a fraction of the 49 states represented at the OIC. They include not a single African or Arab state apart from Qatar. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, was initially put forward as one of the summit’s key sponsors. However, its name later disappeared from recent press statements.

In addition, key Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, which considers itself as a natural leader of the Muslim world, Egypt, and others will also have viewed the summit with suspicion. The divisive nature of the summit eventually tempered the enthusiasm of Pakistan, Indonesia and Qatar. All three are likely to have wanted to avoid antagonizing Saudi Arabia.

According to a former senior Pakistani official to whom I spoke, Pakistan felt obliged to honor Malaysia’s invitation following the latter’s vocal stand on Kashmir. Pakistan’s participation, he insisted, was not meant as a challenge to Riyadh, which Islamabad considers a strategic partner. In February, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Islamabad where he pledged $20 billion in investments.

Indonesia also is keen on attracting investments from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has announced plans to invest $6.7 billion, a figure that Jakarta would like to see increase. In a signal of closer ties, the two sides signed in 2014 their first ever defense cooperation agreement. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz led a delegation of 800 people on a visit in 2017, injecting further momentum into the relationship.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also made progress toward mending ties in recent weeks. Although diplomatic relations remain severed, Qatar’s foreign minister made an unannounced visit to Riyadh in November. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have also dispatched their teams to the Arabian Gulf Cup football tournament in Doha, although a complete resolution to the dispute still seems elusive.

Finally, the summit’s sponsors have faced a significant test of their credibility. In contrast to its stand on Kashmir, Malaysia has tiptoed around China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims out of fear of drawing Beijing’s ire. During a trip to Xinjiang in July, Malaysia’s Islamic affairs minister, Mujahid Yusuf Rawa, drew criticism for describing China’s controversial re-education facilities as “training centers.” In September, Mahathir admitted that Malaysia could not afford to antagonize China over the Uyghurs.

Likewise, Turkey has dialled down its criticism of China following a visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Beijing this year. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan went so far as to deny knowledge of the Xinjiang issue in an interview with the Financial Times in March. Iran has also taken a soft line on both India and China, on which it relies to weather US sanctions.

Geopolitical realities impose considerable costs on would-be champions of global Muslim causes. The Muslim world is split, often violently, on the question of political Islam. The exclusion of Muslim heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia will inevitably dampen the summit group’s leadership claims, while Muslim-majority states keen on standing up to India over Kashmir, or China over Uyghur Muslims, face the prospect of serious repercussions.

Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at the India Institute at King’s College London and an Associate Fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the Office of the First Deputy Prime Minister.