On a recent visit to Turkey, Malaysia's prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad made a call to rebuild and restore the strength of Islamic civilisation and for Muslim countries to be united and work closely together.
He was characteristically blunt about what he sees as the current state of affairs and why action needs to be taken. “Today, we cannot claim to be a great civilisation,” he said. “We are all oppressed and many of us are very backwards to the point of even not being able to set up the government of our own countries.” Muslim countries, he said, should address their dependence on other countries.
His words were not much reported outside Malaysia, but they are consistent with a strain of Dr Mahathir’s thought going back to his first time in office from 1981-2003, and form part of a critique that is worthy of more consideration today.
We spend so much time analysing the rivalries and trajectories of China, the US and Russia in particular that we ignore the weight that could be yielded by Muslim countries if they came together in a way that proved more effective than the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. The OIC is a laudable institution, and the very act of bringing together its 57 member states has value in itself. But even one of its former secretary generals admitted to me that it struggles to achieve concrete results. The assertion that it was a "talking shop" was met with a shrug of familiarity.
If not the OIC, then what? One of Dr Mahathir’s closest strategists and thinkers, Rais Husin, has proposed an Alliance of Muslim Nations, which he believes would have the potential to reshape the world order.
After all, as he wrote: “There is no reason why the Islamic world has to be constantly at the whims and fancies of other external powers, as the Alliance of Muslim Nations [would] control all the major maritime choke points in the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Oman, the Straits of Hormuz and the Bosphorus Sea.”
Whether it be the alliance Dr Rais suggests or not, however, it is the principle of greater unity and co-operation that needs to be stressed; the framework is secondary. The bedrock already exists, as there is no doubting that there is a very strong sense of Muslim solidarity around the world. The Middle East may seem quite far away from South-East Asia, for instance, but no Malaysian prime minister ever omits to mention concern for the Palestinian cause when speaking at the UN or at any gathering that touches upon religion.
Likewise, both Dr Mahathir and his predecessor, Najib Tun Razak, have been very outspoken about the tragedy of the Rohingya – and this has not been without cost, as their biting criticism is regarded as being against the principle of non-interference that binds the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to which both Malaysia and Myanmar belong.
In this age of hyper-connectivity, that solidarity has only grown stronger. Researchers in the southern Philippines, for example, found that once poor, remote areas were linked to satellite television (and now of course the internet), local Muslims had a far greater sense of being part of the same community as their fellow believers further to the west.
Turning this into something more tangible, however, has proved troublesome. When still in office in 2017, Mr Najib addressed an extraordinary session of the OIC on the Rohingya, saying: “We must be equal to this challenge. We must show that this organisation is truly the friend and guarantor of Muslims everywhere. We must show that while we may have our differences, the Ummah will come together in defence of our brothers and sisters in their time of need.” It would be hard to claim that the OIC was able to respond to the stirring words with equally vigorous action.
So Dr Mahathir’s urge for unity and development certainly centres on both a great missed potential and, in some cases, a dire and pressing need.
History shows us that times of Muslim unity and civilisation have not just been of benefit to Muslims – they have been a boon to the rest of the world and people of other religions too.
It was the Abbasid Caliphate that saved the treasures of Ancient Greek philosophy and supported research that produced huge advances in science, from medicine and mathematics to astronomy and algebra. The religious tolerance that existed in Muslim Spain was so remarkable for the medieval period that the name “Cordoba” – one of the main Iberian emirates – has become synonymous with interfaith dialogue today.
These precedents have certainly been borne in mind by Arabian Gulf states that have invested so strongly in education, and are echoed in the UAE’s decision to declare 2019 the “Year of Tolerance”. But in much of the Muslim world human development indicators are too low, with adult literacy rates, for instance, around 10 per cent lower even than other developing countries.
The challenge is there, just as it was in 2003 when Dr Mahathir addressed an OIC meeting shortly before stepping down as prime minister for the first time. The Prophet Mohammed preached the brotherhood of Islam to the jahiliah (the ignorant), he said, “and they were able to overcome their hatred for each other, become united and helped towards the establishment of the great Muslim civilisation.”
His question then rings true today. “Can we say that what they could do we, the modern Muslims, cannot do?”
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum