Over the past week, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad inaugurated a new forum for Islamic countries. This was done to participate in a translucent yet vocal challenge to the traditional Saudi Arabia-based and influenced Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which has been the forum of united Islamic voices under the auspice of Riyadh. Today, this new forum in Kuala Lumpur attempts to stand as an alternative to the OIC that has been in place since 1969.
While the marketed reasons behind this runaway forum were advertised as largely for economic cooperation, the attendance of the countries at the Muslim 5 Summit (M5S) offers an interesting glimpse into the possible reasons behind its formulation. Along with the hosts Malaysia, the other attendees include Iran, Qatar and Turkey. “The idea was to come together, assessing our strengths and weaknesses as well as our assets. Then, we will use the strength of one another to overcome the weakness we have,” Mahathir said. Iran, Qatar and Turkey together also see Saudi Arabia as a powerful hectoring presence, albeit for different reasons from each other.
However, the members of the M5S represent a few commonalities amongst themselves, which gives this new group a much more political than economic tint. Other than Iran, all the other four are members of the OIC which being led by Saudi Arabia has an existential stance against Tehran. However, more than just Iran, neither Turkey nor Qatar have been kind to Riyadh’s hegemony in the OIC, nor its agenda in the regional politics of West Asia. While Turkey sees itself as a Sunni alternative to Riyadh’s power in the region, Qatar still faces a big economic blockade orchestrated by the Saudis and the UAE in response to Doha not towing their line within the regional power games. This has pushed the Qataris more towards both Turkey and Iran for its economic and regional security requirements.
The M5S’s inception was widely expected to be much more vocal than the OIC when it comes to certain issues, to both make its own political space and reach out to Muslim populations globally. Mahathir had made strong statements against India on the Kashmir issue at the United Nations General Assembly in October, saying that India had invaded and occupied Kashmir, while the likes of Saudi Arabia and UAE maintained that the abrogation of Article 370 orchestrated by India in Jammu & Kashmir was the state’s internal matter. More recently, as India faced mass protests against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial citizenship act, which offers refuge to minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh except Muslims from those countries, it was an opportune time for the new M5S to be more vocal in expressing its views on the issue. This, while the OIC was expected to either not make a statement, or a timid one at best.
Mahathir, on cue to a newfound international pedestal, brought up the ongoing protests in India. “I am sorry to see that India, which claims to be a secular state, is taking actions against some Muslims to deprive them of citizenship. If we do that here (Malaysia) you know what will happen, there will be chaos,” he said on the sidelines of the summit. All members of this group, barring Qatar, have criticized the Indian government on Kashmir in the recent past. While not directly, Qatar’s state-owned TV channel Al Jazeera has as well reported often scathingly against the Indian establishment’s approach on Kashmir and the situation of Muslims there. Soon after, OIC also released a statement, expressing concerns on the protests around the citizenship act.
“The General Secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been closely following recent developments affecting Muslim minority in India. It expresses its concern over the recent developments pertaining to both the issue of citizenship rights and the Babri Masjid case. It reiterates its call to ensure the safety of the Muslim minority and the protection of Islamic holy places in India,” the statement read.
However, uncharacteristically, OIC had to play a secondary role to Mahathir’s new club.
Despite all this, much of the said criticism from both M5S and OIC can primarily be seen from the lenses of geo-politics within West Asia and the differences and wrangling within the Islamic world itself. Saudi Arabia had criticized the organizing of M5S by Mahathir, saying such divisions of institutions would weaken the cause of Islam. A telephone call between Mahathir and the Saudi king reportedly saw a divergence of interests, with Mahathir tacitly dismissing the concerns raised by Riyadh.
A more colored example to view these developments could be seen via Pakistan. The initial plan of Islamabad to attend the M5S displayed the tussle in full view. Saudi, which enjoys significant influence over Pakistan, was not amused when Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his intention to travel to Kuala Lumpur despite Riyadh’s public apprehensions against the summit. So much so, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Saudis had threatened Islamabad with economic sanctions if it attended. Khan later on cancelled his trip. One of the reasons for Pakistan’s willingness towards the M5S would not have just been its close relations with Ankara (which supports Pakistan on Kashmir) but also the fact that amidst its economic gloom this year, Doha gave Khan’s government a $3 billion bailout in June. This not only eased critical stress on the country’s economy but also hedged its bet against traditional loyalties to the House of Saud. On the other hand, Pakistan was now seen as a satellite state of Saudi Arabia leaving the kingdom’s regional orbit and floating around its closest adversaries in Tehran and Ankara had its attendance in Malaysia gone as planned.
India’s protests on the citizenship bill currently taking place across the country offered an ideal opportunity for Mahathir and the M5S to gain some traction by showing themselves as being able to speak on issues relating to Muslims of the world that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may not be vocal about. While this may be an attempt of power play within the Islamic world, the true independence of the M5S and its contrarian structure to Riyadh’s power center will perhaps only be on display if it truly attempts to collectively address actual major issues going beyond just the Indian democratic protests, such as China’s detention of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in internment and “re-education” camps in Xinjiang which the Islamic world has largely been unable to raise its voice against.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +