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Delegates Address Strife, Perceptions of Islam at OIC Summit

Leaders at the Organization of the Islamic Conference which took place in Dakar, Senegal this week said they were intent on improving Islam's image throughout the world. Intellectuals and analysts say it is crucial that governments of Islamic countries find ways to end extremist violence. Uma Ramiah has more from Dakar.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who hosted this year's summit, told journalists he opposes violence carried out in the name of Islam and he appealed to Muslims and Christians to begin a productive dialogue.

Speeches by leaders at the opening ceremony of the OIC called on member states to combat extremism and encourage communication with non-Muslim countries.

Ousmane Sene of the West African Research Center agrees with President Wade and other Muslim leaders that Islam is a religion of peace, not violence, though it is widely misinterpreted.

"I am always horrified to see apparently great scholars committing their pens to paper to show that Islam is indeed pregnant with violence," he said. "It is a very gross misunderstanding of Islam. You cannot use violence to bring anybody in the Islamic fold. There are many other passages in the holy Koran, which absolutely prohibit violence. The prophet himself was an excellent diplomat who would promote peaceful solutions before resorting to violence."

Alioune Tine is Director of RADDHO, an African human rights coalition based in Dakar. He lobbied the OIC this week to take action on ending the violence in Darfur. He says Islam at its core is a religion of thought, not brutality.

"Islam banishes violence," he said. "Islam banishes what we call Fitna, or conflict. The first precept of Islam is learn. Go and seek knowledge until China, at that time China was the end of the world. I think that with this precept, we can adapt Islam to a new world and to globalization."

Tine's group supports the OIC's attempts to combat radicalism.

The OIC adopted a Convention on Combatting International Terrorism in 1999, saying terrorism cannot be justified in any way.

However, New York-based Human Rights Watch sent a letter this week to the OIC's Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urging the organization to revise the 1999 convention.

Joe Stork, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says the group's definition of terrorism is too vague.

"It is an extremely broad definition of terrorism, so the crime of terrorism does not include only attacks against civilians, it includes slandering leaders and other things that probably should not be crimes at all and certainly should not be considered terrorist crimes," he explained. "The other issue we take up with them is that they very clearly ground their condemnation of terrorism in Islamic Sharia and Islamic tradition which is fine, and they say there can be no exceptions to it, but then they go and make an exception."

Stork says the OIC's convention makes an exception for groups combating foreign occupation and for what it calls national liberation. This worries Human Rights Watch, because it appears to exempt violence carried out in the name of causes its member countries may support.

Roy Brown is representative to the United Nations for the International and Humanist Ethical Union, a group that has clashed with the Islamic Conference over the definition of human rights and other issues. Though Brown disagrees with many of the OIC's tenets, he sees the general call for an end to extremism as a positive step.

"I think it is a step forward in that they recognize they cannot continue going the way they have been, which is denying that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with Islam. These people genuinely believe they are doing violence in the name of Islam, so calling for an end to that I think is a step forward," he said.

Participants and analysts say the Islamic conference seems to be taking on more liberal themes this year, as it is being hosted in the relatively stable, and peaceful West African country Senegal, where Islam is widely practiced.