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Africans Angered As Arab Aristocracy Shuns Discussion Of Democracy

December 12, 1991

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) _ The absence of many Arab leaders from the first Islamic summit ever held in black Africa has aroused resentment and deepened rifts between the two Muslim groups.

Political, cultural and economic issues that divide Arabs and black Africans - including a long history of slave trade - also contributed to strains at this week’s summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, held in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

The organization represents more than 1 billion Muslims.

When African delegates tried to discuss their continent’s growing pro- democracy movement and human rights, delegates from Arab countries ruled by royal families shunned the topic.

″I think after this conference the rift will widen between black Africans and Arabs, and by and large the more fundamentalist countries,″ said Mohamed Mbodj, professor of history at the University of Dakar.

Senegalese said they were disturbed by the attitude of some Muslim fundamentalist delegates, who seemed critical of the hosts’ national dress and uncovered heads and objected to the availability of alcohol.

″We have always shown more respect for them than they accord to us,″ Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf was quoted as saying in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Morocco’s King Hassan II and Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had been expected to attend the conference. But they sent lower-level officials instead.

The absence of many Arab leaders ″is disappointing″ and a slight to black Africans, Diouf said.

Africans noted that none of the Arab leaders discussed democracy, a burning issue on the continent where in the past two years 21 former one-party states have agreed in principle to multiparty democracy.

Gambian President Sir Dawda Jawara, who addressed the meeting on behalf of the Africans, said human rights was a continuing challenge for members and said it ″must be promoted in a free and democratic society if we are to ensure political stability which is a sine qua non for economic development.″

He spoke soon after the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, whose royal family like those of other Persian Gulf states rules by right of birth.

The 251.3 million black Muslims in Africa outnumber all regional Muslim blocs except the Indian subcontinent, where an estimated 275 million Muslims live. The gulf peninsula, where Islam was born 14 centuries ago, accounts for 62.6 million Muslims, according to conference statistics.

Political differences at the meeting were also highlighted by the Association of African Jurists, based in Dakar, which this week denounced a conference resolution on human rights in the Islamic world.

The jurists said the resolution ″sanctions the death penalty and gives legal authority to physical bodily damage such as the amputation of limbs of convicted people″ according to Muslim Sharia law.

Africa’s poverty and the Persian Gulf’s wealth is another cause for division, Mbodj said in an interview.

″They give us money and treat us like children that you give the fare to go to the cinema so they will shut up and get out of your hair. The Arabs give African states money and expect us to obey their wishes without question.″

The dissension has inflamed embers of resentment dating back to the seventh century, when Arab warriors invaded Africa, forcing their Islamic religion on the continent’s animists and taking slaves back home.

″Being black is considered in some aspect of the Arabic culture as being linked to slavery and also to a people who are not really civilized,″ Mbodj said.

A Saudi journalist, Abdul Tash agreed. ″I cannot defend the Arabs,″ said Abdul Tash, chief editor of the Saudi weekly Al-Muslimoon. ″There are some people thinking in that way. But I think this is changing, though this kind of change will take some time, a long time.″

Senegal, the westernmost point of the globe at which Islam was halted, has been in a racist conflict with Mauritania that began with a border dispute in 1989 and degenerated into racist violence between the so-called white Moors, or Arabs, and black Africans.

Hundreds of people were lynched and killed.

Blacks still are enslaved in Mauritania, although slavery was officially banned there in 1980. Africa Watch, the U.S.-based international human rights group, in a report last year quoted a slave describing a slave market that took place between the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990.

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