DAKAR, Senegal — The leaders of dozens of Islamic countries gathered in Senegal’s capital Thursday for the opening of a two-day summit to study ways to improve Islam’s image in the West and spur economic development in some of the Muslim world’s poorest members.
The summit of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim grouping, brings together Arab countries that set the price of oil with small African nations who struggle to provide their citizens with paved roads.
The meeting is returning to Africa for the first time in 14 years. Some 40-odd heads of state are attending, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The signing of a peace deal between Chad and Sudan was delayed after Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who was in Dakar, failed to show for late night talks organized by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade on the eve of the summit.
Wade, who said last week he had brokered a deal between the feuding nations and only a formal signing remained, said the talks would go forward Thursday morning on the sidelines of the summit.
The leaders of Chad and Sudan have long traded acrimonious accusations of supporting each other’s rebel groups. The deal proposed by Senegal would have aimed to commit them to implementing earlier, faltered, accords in a step toward calming Darfur and other areas on their shared border.
Ahead of Thursday’s summit, OIC organizers said they hope to improve relations with the United States and Europe. The Dakar meeting marks the first time a U.S. envoy will attend and OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told The Associated Press said he was optimistic U.S. relations with the Islamic world could improve.
“There are plenty of problems and misunderstandings,” Ihsanoglu said. “But still there is plenty of potential for co-operation.”
But the crises likely to be addressed on the sidelines of the summit are some of the world’s most intractable and those that put the U.S. stance in stark contrast to the Muslim world’s.
The protracted war in Iraq continues to dominate international headlines, and organizers say it will be on the agenda along with the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. This week, delicate attempts by Egypt to negotiate peace there were threatened by a rocket attack by a Palestinian militant group near the Israeli city of Ashkelon. The West Bank-based Palestinian government has accused Israel of endangering the peace process with new plans for settlement expansion.
Meanwhile, arguments over the way Islam is portrayed in the West continue to cause controversy within the Muslim world. In recent weeks, the republication of controversial political cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad by Danish newspapers sparked protests in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Thailand, Iran and Sudan.
Delegations will consider a report compiled for the summit that is an attempt to comprehensively record anti-Islamic speech and action around the world. The report calls for Muslim nations to take legal action against such acts.
“Freedom of expression is used by some radical groups who have a misconception about Islam and portray Islam in a wrong way and an insulting way,” Ihsanoglu said.
The delegates also expect to approve a new charter for the organization.
The OIC was founded in 1969 in response to an arson attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The group, which aims to promote Islamic unity and serve as a voice for the Muslim world, traditionally holds summits every three years.