A choice between Saudi and Turkey

Observations on the Muslim world

The soul of the Muslim world is at stake, not from the ramifications of the Madrid bombings (Osama Bin Laden represents no one), but from an election within the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the "Muslim UN".

The OIC is electing its next secretary general and on the outcome depend the policies that Muslim countries endorse jointly on such issues as terrorism, democracy and human rights, the relationship between Islamic states and the west, and the way Islam is represented on a global level. Or put simply: does Islamic politics follow the Saudis or the Turks?

The OIC, comprising 56 states, started in 1970 at the initiative of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. It holds regular summits of heads of state and foreign ministers and oversees Muslim institutions such as the Islamic Development Bank, the Red Crescent and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Its stated goal is to present a united Islamic front to the world and, during the cold war, with oil revenues keeping it afloat, it successfully played the superpowers off against each other.

But it has failed to adjust to a new world and has achieved nothing on terrorism, human rights, environmental protection, the security of small Muslim states, and the much-vaunted Islamic common market. Its finances are a total mess: the budget is a mere $12m and many members have not paid their dues for decades. Last month, it couldn't pay full salaries to its employees.

The position of secretary general, always the cause of political bickering, has this year generated a perfect storm. The incumbent, the widely despised Abdelouahed Belkeziz from Morocco, reaches the end of his four-year term in December. The successor's job had already been earmarked for Bangladesh, the third most populous Muslim country.

But when the Bangladeshi prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, nominated her adviser Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury, pandemonium ensued. Chowdhury is generally regarded, inside and outside Bangladesh, as corrupt and dangerous. Nothing unusual in that. Apart from the first secretary general, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister, OIC secretary generals have tended to be corrupt and failed politicians. Nearly all the previous ones - from Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Pakistan and Niger - have been involved in a scandal or two.

But the wealthy Chowdhury is in a different class. He is alleged to have been involved in organised crime for more than three decades and, during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971, is said to have collaborated with the Pakistani army and taken part in "atrocities". When his candidature for the OIC position was announced, there were mass protests in Dhaka, and local newspapers published stories accusing him of murder, kidnapping, and arms and drug-smuggling. Chowdhury was also accused of "an ugly and unenviable reputation for misogyny". The newspapers were quickly silenced by threats of arrests.

But there is a counterpoint to what Gulf News calls this "strange and disgusting" tale. Turkey is proposing an alternative candidate with impeccable credentials: Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a diplomat and professor at Istanbul University. For the past 25 years, he has directed the International Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, an OIC subsidiary that is regarded as one of the organisation's few success stories. His candidature is supported by Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and, probably, Malaysia, which has hinted that it will withdraw its own candidate, another failed politician.

If it weren't for Saudi Arabia, it would be an open-and-shut case. But the Saudis play the same role at the OIC as is played by the Americans at the United Nations (and donated the OIC headquarters in Jiddah). Using bribes and threats to get what they want, they prefer a weak, less-than-honest man at the helm whom they can manipulate. Moreover, the Saudis are suspicious of Turkey's model of democratic Islam and of its intention to open the OIC to closer economic and political ties with the EU.

If the Saudis "persuade" the African and Arab nations to support Chowdhury, we can say goodbye to the OIC's chances of improving the international image of Muslims.

But the Saudis may yet surprise us. They have a weakness for those who speak better Arabic than the Arabs. And Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu speaks the kind of classical Arabic that the Saudis can only dream about.