Syria, Mali expose Muslim world divisions

Feb 07, 2013, 11:12 AM EST
An Egyptian presidential guard soldier stands in front of flags of participating countries at the 12th summit of the Organizatio
(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — The leaders of Muslim countries offered conflicting approaches to the crises in Mali and Syria on Wednesday, exposing some of the deep divisions that run through the Islamic world.

More than 25 prime ministers and presidents are taking part in a two-day summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, which brings together leaders from across the Muslim world.


In his opening address to the gathering, Senegalese President Macky Sall commended France for its military intervention in Mali, and said the Muslim world cannot allow "a minority of terrorists to commit crimes, distort our faith and deepen hatred for Islam."

He was alluding to the Islamist militants who seized control of northern Mali before a French-led force, which includes troops from Senegal, began to roll them back with airstrikes and a ground offensive.

The French operation has received broad international support, including from the Malian government itself, although Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has repeatedly denounced the intervention, saying it threatens to perpetuate instability across the region.

Addressing the summit Wednesday, Morsi stopped short of condemning Paris for its actions in Mali, but made clear that Cairo did not support it.

"We call for a comprehensive approach to deal with the situation there and any similar case" he said. "An approach that deals with all the different aspects of the crisis and its political, developmental and intellectual roots while safeguarding human rights."

Turning to Syria, Morsi sharply criticized President Bashar Assad's embattle regime, saying it "must read history and grasp its immortal message: It is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go."

The conflict in Syria has been deeply divisive in the Middle East, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against a regime dominated by Assad's Alawite minority — a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sunni states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the rebels, while Shiite heavyweight Iran is Damascus' closest regional ally.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led government has been ambivalent about the Syrian conflict, offered a more cautious approach to Syria. In power for nearly seven years, al-Maliki is said to be worried that his grip on power could weaken if the Sunni majority in neighboring Syria succeeds in overthrowing Assad and a new Sunni leadership takes power in Damascus.

"Syria suffers from violence, killings and sabotage," he said, and called on the summit to "find an exit and peaceful solution for its conflict."

At least 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and many of them have found refuge in neighboring nations Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

But the longest-running and deepest division in the Islamic world, the Sunni-Shiite fault line, has also surfaced this week. It was on full display during a meeting on the eve of the summit by its highest-profile participant — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Sunni-Shiite tensions dominated talks between Ahmadinejad and Egypt's most prominent cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, who upbraided the Iranian leader on a string of issues and warned against Iranian interference in Gulf nations, particularly Bahrain, where the ruling Sunni minority has faced protests by the Shiite majority.

El-Tayeb said attempts to spread Shiite Islam in mainly Sunni Arab nations were unacceptable and called for a halt to bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran's ally President Bashar Assad has been battling mainly Sunni rebels, according to a statement by Al-Azhar about the meeting.

The two-day Islamic summit is organized by the Saudi-based, 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference created in 1969. Syria's membership has been suspended for its government's violent crackdown on the uprising there.