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Islamic body seeks new role to fight "Islamophobia"

DAKAR (Reuters) - Facing “Islamophobia” in the West, the world’s biggest Islamic body is seeking to rebrand itself this week as a forum for settling conflicts peacefully and for redistributing wealth to the world’s poorest states.

A British police officer escorts Muslim girls to their homes in Jackson Road in Birmingham, central England after a series of anti-terror arrests, January 31, 2007. REUTERS/Darren Staples

At a summit on Thursday and Friday in Senegal, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) will seek to agree on a modern charter that will give it a more active, influential role as the voice of Islam in a globalised world.

OIC leaders meet in Dakar at a time when suspicion in the West about the Muslim world remains high, still colored by the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda in the name of militant Islam.

Subsequent attacks by Islamic militants in Spain and Britain, coupled with the U.S.-led “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, have stoked fears of a global clash of civilizations.

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called for a concerted effort by the group to promote dialogue and mutual respect with the non-Muslim world to fight hatred and bigotry.

“Combating Islamophobia is and will continue to be one of the biggest challenges faced by the Muslim World,” he told OIC foreign ministers meeting in Dakar.

With its members spanning the Middle East, Africa and Asia, differences of race, language and history, and even religious observance, have often prevented the world Islamic community -- known as the Ummah -- from acting as a unified, cohesive force.

The OIC groups some of the planet’s richest countries, such as oil producers Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, with poor African nations like Guinea Bissau, Niger and Burkina Faso who languish at the bottom of U.N. development rankings.

Senegal, hosting its second OIC summit in 17 years, wants the Islamic Ummah to harness its geographical reach and immense resources so it can punch at its full weight in the world arena and assist its poorest members, mostly in Africa.

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“The OIC has existed for 30 years but is still trying to find itself,” host President Abdoulaye Wade told Reuters ahead of the March 13-14 summit in Dakar, whose roads and avenues have been given a face-lift for the Islamic gathering.

FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY

The octogenarian Senegalese leader thinks the group can do much more to foster aid, trade and investment.

“I would like to propose that this summit be the basis for a determined and effective fight against poverty,” Wade said.

Wade wants this week’s meeting to top up a special OIC fund -- the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development, initially projected at $10 billion -- to finance anti-poverty projects mostly in Africa, but also in other parts of the Islamic world.

“I think we can find much more money than that,” Wade said.

Only $2.6 billion has been committed to the fund so far, according to the Islamic Development Bank.

Wade is urging the Islamic group to play a more decisive, active role in solving conflicts affecting its members, whether in Sudan’s Darfur or the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We need to bring peace to the Ummah ... and it’s not just by making declarations that we’re going to do that,” he said.

Senegal’s Wade is using the OIC summit, only the second to be held in Sub-Saharan Africa in nearly 20 years, as a vehicle to raise his visibility as a diplomatic mediator in Africa and to promote his West African nation as an investment destination.

He is hoping to host the signing in Dakar on Wednesday of the latest peace pact between two feuding OIC members, Chad and Sudan, whose rivalry is entangled in the Darfur crisis. A string of previous peace deals between the two have collapsed.

With funds provided by OIC heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, Senegal’s picturesque but scruffy capital has built a network of new highways linking the city centre to the airport and other points on the Cap Vert peninsula.

But several OIC heads of state are staying away, among them Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

Additional reporting by Alistair Thomson, Lamine Ghanmi and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Matthew Tostevin

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