Experts say that democratic forces in the so-called Developing Eight (D-8) Muslim nations are under threat and that economic progress could be impeded by the rise of Islamism in their societies.
The biennial economic summit of the Developing Eight (D-8) Muslim nations ended in Islamabad on Thursday with countries pledging to increase economic cooperation.
The D-8 bloc consists of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey. The combined population of these developing Muslim nations is close to one billion.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also took part in the summit, whereas Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi canceled his trip at the last moment. According to Egyptian state television, Morsi could not attend due to his involvement in the Gaza truce between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group.
The conflict in Gaza also featured high on the summit agenda. Many D-8 leaders condemned the Israeli offensive in Gaza to stop rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.
The summit took place amid a string of attacks on Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims in different parts of the country, which killed at least 25 people. One of the attacks took place on an Imambargah – a Shiite place of worship - in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, close to the summit venue, killing at least 23 people and wounded 62 on Wednesday.
The joint declaration issued at the end of the D-8 summit not only pledged to pursue development goals but also emphasized the need for strengthening democracy in the D-8 countries.
"We underline the importance of collaboration in the fields of sharing best practices, lessons learned, and knowledge on democracy and good governance in order to build a solid foundation for peace and development," the declaration said.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari - who took the helm of the D-8 chairmanship from the Nigeria for the next two years - called the D-8 only a group of developing nations, but also a bloc of democratic countries.
"It is a moment of pride [...] Today, D-8 is not just developing countries, but eight strong democratic countries, with a common bond, [...] with a journey for a better future," President Zardari told the gathering.
But experts say that many of the D-8 nations are witnessing a surge of Islamism, which is not only a threat for the democratic forces in these countries but may also hamper their economic progress.
Mohsin Sayeed, a Karachi-based journalist, told DW that he feared that most of the D-8 nations were "moving towards theocracy."
"Egypt and Iran have religious parties in power. Malaysia has strict Islamic laws. Islamism is on the rise in Indonesia," Sayeed said, adding that this did not bode well for democratic values in these countries.
But Emrys Schoemaker, a communications analyst and researcher at the London School of Economics, said that many people in the Muslim countries believed that the "western way" had not delivered on its promises of development, hence the people of these countries were experiencing “a cultural and political turn away to values that offer an alternative."
"Democracy means the will of the people. If the will of the people is for conservatism and an alternative to neo-liberal economics, then they will vote accordingly. The challenge for those who believe in liberalism, social tolerance and individual freedom is to uphold these as values, because it is ideas, not elections, that shape societal values," Schoemaker told DW.
Sayeed, however, believed that D-8 was a good platform, particularly for a "struggling democracy" like Pakistan, to come out of its isolation and learn from the economic and democratic practices of other countries that are faring better than Pakistan in these spheres.
"Pakistan is facing various problems at the moment. But isolation will not solve any problem. Pakistan has to engage with the international community and various other regional blocs to lift it out of the mess it is in," Sayeed commented.
The D-8 leaders also stressed the importance of collaborative efforts and joint projects to harness sources of energy for economic growth and development.
Islamabad is pressing ahead with a multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline project to import fuel from Iran, which is expected to be completed in 2014. The agreement was signed in 2010, despite strong opposition from the United States.
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday that the gas pipeline project would be completed by 2014. He said Pakistan and Iran enjoyed good relations and that there was no reason why the pipeline would not go ahead.
Experts say that it would not be a simple task for Islamabad to proceed with the pipeline project, as it cannot afford to offend the US, which provides a huge amount of military and economic aid to Pakistan.
Washington opposes Islamabad's economic and political cooperation with Tehran. Both the US and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Tehran, rejecting its claims that its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes. Western countries believe the hardline Iranian regime is secretly building a nuclear bomb.
Michael Kugelman, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center in Washington, earlier told DW that the US did not like strengthening Iran; however, he acknowledged that Pakistan's energy needs were immense.
"I can imagine that the US is not pleased, but it is important to be realistic. Pakistan is an energy insecure country. It is going to need to do what is in its best interest, and if it involves working with countries like Iran, then so be it," said Kugelman.
Schoemaker, on the other hand, believes that Pakistan can manage to maintain good relations with both its international and regional partners.
"I think Pakistan is making strong efforts to establish itself both regionally and internationally. Over the last year, Pakistan has reopened trade relations with India and has succeeded in obtaining a seat at the United Nations Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council. It has also made strenuous efforts to re-establish a partnership with the USA," Schoemaker said, adding that the D-8 summit should be seen as part of Islamabad's efforts to improve both its regional and international standing.