Heads of state from Islamic countries have started arriving in Dakar for the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Uma Ramiah reports from Dakar the 57-nation group aims to tackle issues such as reducing poverty and changing perceptions of Islam during its summit Thursday and Friday.
The West African metropolis of Dakar was buzzing as leaders made their way from the international airport to the Meridien President Hotel.
Among the early arrivals were Chadian President Idriss Deby and Niger's President Mamadou Tandja. This is the first time Mr. Tandja has left his country since the start of an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in northern Niger a year ago.
The secretary-general of the OIC is Turkey's Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
"This is the 11th summit of OIC, and I must say that I think this summit of Dakar will be remembered in the history of OIC as the turning point, because for the first time for almost 40 years, we only managed to change the charter today," he said.
The group's original 1972 charter calls for the organization to strengthen ties between member states, promote cooperation between Islamic and non-Muslim nations and protect Muslim holy places.
"The role of OIC as not only representative of these 57 countries, but as the spokesman of the Muslim world, the spokesman of the inspiration of the Islamic Ummah, has been increasing and expanding," said Ihsanoglu.
The OIC secretary-general has called for the organization to enter a more productive dialogue with the non-Muslim world. He says this year the conference will focus more on humanitarian aid.
Summit-host Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade says he wants the organization to contribute more to fighting poverty in Islamic nations, especially for African members.
His aides say he is also trying to push the OIC into a more diplomatic role, having organized an expected peace summit between the Chadian and Sudanese presidents this week.
Director Ousmane Sene, of the West African Research Center in Dakar, says the conference could also help transform the negative image of Islam.
"I think the conference is extremely important for the Islamic world to gather at this crucial time when perhaps Islam is not showing the best face to the world, or at least Islam is being misrepresented as a religion with the potential for violence, as a religion with the potential for intolerance, all of which are very gross misrepresentations," said Sene.
Sene says Africa is at a crossroads. He says the continent is trying to find economic and political alliances, and this gathering could strengthen relations with Islamic countries with the resources to develop African nations.
"It is not exclusively a meeting discussing religion," he said. "It is a highly political meeting. It is the Islamic leaders meeting who are meeting to discuss problems and issues confronting the Islamic world. So obviously political decisions will be made, economic decisions will be made, and I am hopeful that those decisions will certainly go a great length towards having an impact on the present situation in Africa from a political point of view and from and economic point of view."
Some participants, like Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, say the OIC lacks focus.
"We had many discussions about the reforms, about the charter, about the name. It needs to be modernized, to be honest with you. But I think there is good intentions, but it needs to have a more focused, more active machinery you see, to uphold its values and thoughts," he said.
Zebari says he feels the summit should be more active in tackling Islamophobia, and fighting extremism and poverty, rather than spending so much time reworking the language of the group's charter.