Not since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent had Istanbul played such a central role in Islam. Not since the 19th century has Islam made a more determined effort to forge a new sense of Islamic unity.
Islamic nations, of course, already share a central religious unity and at six other Islamic conferences they have weighed divisive issues. But this May, at the Seventh Islamic Conference, foreign ministers from 42 Muslim states made a special effort to unify the often divergent views of the nations on political, economic and cultural problems and other secular matters.
Only time can measure the ultimate results of that effort, but it was undeniably promising. Each day, for four days, they met to talk, argue and compromise on practical ways of making this aim a reality. And at the end they approved an 18-page document unifying their nations' stand on serious international issues and recommending numerous steps towards increased economic and cultural cooperation.
The conclave illustrated, as Turkish Foreign Minister Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil put it, "the spirit of solidarity prevailing among Islamic countries." It also underscored the resurgence of numerous Muslim states—stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific—after decades of Western domination.
Such domination was unthinkable back in the days when the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphs were carrying the message of Islam west to the Atlantic coast, and east to India and the frontiers of China. In those days the Islamic states were militarily, culturally and scientifically supreme in the world. With the collapse of the Damascus and Baghdad dynasties, however, and the slow erosion of secular power in the Islamic empires that succeeded them over the centuries, Islamic solidarity and power eventually splintered and was destroyed.
As it was in Istanbul that the last great Islamic Empire collapsed—that of the Ottomans, after World War I—it was particularly appropriate that Istanbul also provide a site for an international conference marking a resurgence. As it was also the first time that Turkey participated as a full member of the conference, and as the conference was the largest international gathering ever held there, Istanbul responded enthusiastically. It bathed its magnificent mosques in brilliant floodlights, sent a colorful Ottoman band to greet ministers with stirring marches, reopened the Ataturk Cultural Palace, entertained ministers in Ottoman palaces, offered cruises up the Bosporus and, at the famous Topkapi Palace, served a lavish banquet of Black Sea fish, doner kebab and baklava. Appropriately too, Istanbul scheduled the Friday noon prayers beneath the six minarets of the magnificent 17th-century Blue Mosque—and drew thousands of spectators who, unable to join the ministers inside the cool, blue-tiled interior, thronged the courtyard, gardens and streets outside.
By the end of the conference ministers and observers were generally agreed that it had been an outstanding success. For in addition to their statement of unity on thorny international issues, the delegates had also quietly decided to set up a center in Istanbul for research into Islamic history, culture and art; ordered the conference secretariat to take steps toward establishment of a statistical, economic and social research center; and asked member states to comment on recommendations that the conference set up an Islamic science foundation.
Nor was that all. The ministers also ordered a study pointing toward establishment of an international Islamic news agency, urged Muslim states to consider making Arabic a compulsory language in all schools and pledged educational assistance to the Federation of International Arab Islamic Schools to provide education to Muslim children whose parents—in the 1970's—work all over the world.
There were, certainly, problems and disagreements. But in the time available the achievements far outweighed the failures. As one Arab delegate put it, "For 42 quite different countries to work collectively in a world dominated by regional issues is far from easy. But this, I think, was a good start."
John Lawton, a veteran U.P.I. correspondent, now free-lances from Istanbul.