Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently announced that Kuala Lumpur would host a summit this month focused on figuring out the roots of the malaise suffered by much of the Muslim world, and had invited the heads of state of Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar and Turkey to attend.
What is unique about this KL Summit is that it is rare for the topic of Muslim revivalism to be front and center at a high-profile political event, as opposed to an academic conference. Also significant is the fact that such an event is taking place outside a typical platform of Muslim discussion, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has long since lost its status as a driver of affairs among the Muslim global polity.
The KL Summit hasn’t come out of the blue, though, but is a continuation of the diplomatic overtures by Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey since the elections of Prime Ministers Mahathir and Imran Khan last year. Mahathir, Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met recently on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss problems afflicting the broader Muslim civilization. The product of that meeting was an agreement to establish a new international television station dedicated to combating Islamophobia and expressing a more positive view of Islam than found in the mainstream.
To appreciate the significance of the emergence of this potential new bloc, one needs to understand how the last decade has seen a rapid decline in Arab influence in the wider Muslim world. Despite the initial hope imbued in the Arab Spring, much of the Middle East has now descended back into civil war or authoritarianism.
Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia had assumed a premier position among the predominantly Sunni nations due to the rapid cash influx of the oil boom, which allowed the country to spread austere versions of the religion across the region. Yet the past decade has seen the kingdom embroiled in conflicts with nearby states Iran, Yemen and Qatar. The inexperienced Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has also faced waves of criticism, both internally for his heavy-handed modernization program, and externally for a series of high-profile foreign-policy blunders. Even with the status of Saudi Arabia as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” its stature has dipped considerably.
The destabilization of the Middle East, emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) and subsequent decline in the fervor of political Islam have left in their wake confusion and disenchantment that echoes across many of the non-Arab Muslim countries as well. The Malaysia-Pakistan-Turkey initiative can be interpreted then as a response to this leadership vacuum and a larger perceived civilizational crisis gripping the 1 billion faithful. As Mahathir himself said, “Many Muslim countries are facing trouble and have to attend to their problems, but these three countries … I think, can have the time to spare to attend to this very important matter.”
It should be noted that all three leaders of these countries carry wide populist appeal outside their borders. Mahathir by the end of his first tenure had already assumed a statesman-like status for many Muslims across the world. Erdogan is currently the most popular world leader among Arabs, especially youth, while Khan’s graph as an international figure has risen dramatically since his high-profile speech at the UN General Assembly in September.
Still, all three figures face their own internal pressures that may undermine the long-term impact of current efforts. Mahathir has faced heavy disapproval for backtracking on election-campaign promises as he works to pave the way for his successor. Erdogan received tremendous international backlash for Turkey’s recent incursion in Syria. Khan is attempting to maintain a tight balancing act as a weak economy and intense political opposition threaten the stability of his government.
While on the surface this Malaysia-Pakistan-Turkey alliance can be seen as a joint effort to repair the battered image of Islam, it represents a shift in the geopolitical winds in the Muslim world, much akin to the rise of the so-called Shia Crescent in the 2000s.