KUALA LUMPUR: Anwar Ibrahim has gathered a group of Muslim scholars seen as more "theologically aligned" with Saudi Arabia for an international conference in Kuala Lumpur this month, viewed as the PKR chief's response to the KL Summit shunned by Riyadh and its allies.
The main organiser of the conference, called International Unity in Diversity Conference 2020, is the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).
IIIT is a US-based Muslim institute whose members include university academics long associated with Anwar, who now chairs the institute.
In 2002, it was forced to shut down temporarily after a post-9/11 FBI investigation into allegations of links with terrorism.
The institute is believed to be funded by Saudi donors and has long been linked to scholars sympathetic to Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood), the pan-Arabian Islamist movement seen as the more "progressive offshoot" of Wahhabism, the strand of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
"But the Ikhwan is theologically more tolerated by the Saudi-Wahhabi elite. They may not be friends politically, but both are philosophically opposed to any recognition of Shi'ite Iran as a key component of the Muslim world," said a former leader of Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim), a once firebrand group led by Anwar before he was brought into Umno by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the early 1980s.
Abim is a co-organiser of the Jan 8 conference, alongside the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF), another Ikhwan-influenced network whose active members once included none other than former education minister Maszlee Malik.
The conference, like the KL Summit, also states "contemporary issues of the ummah" as its theme.
Four speakers are featured, including Anwar's eldest daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, who has kept a low-profile since she stepped down from PKR posts in late 2018.
But beyond Nurul Izzah's emergence from political hibernation is the fact that the three other speakers are "people whom Anwar is more comfortable with" compared to those who attended the KL Summit, says a source in the know.
- Omar Suleiman, a thirtysomething American Muslim who graduated from the International Islamic University Malaysia, and later founded an Islamic think tank based in Texas;
- Nuruddin Lemu, the son of Nigerian grand mufti Ahmed Lemu, who conducts paid Islamic training courses; and
- Yasir Qadhi, a Saudi-educated Pakistani American scholar who, like Omar, is part of a seminar-based Islamic education foundation, AlMaghrib Institute.
"These are celebrity Muslim trainers. But what's interesting is that all these three men have at one time or another been on the Saudi speaking circuit," the source said.
The conference comes even as the dust has barely settled from last month's Mahathir-backed KL Summit, which went ahead despite Saudi displeasure.
Riyadh was incensed that Mahathir had invited its three most vocal critics: Turkey, Qatar and Iran, all of whom sent their heads of state.
FMT had also reported that the conference appeared to have snubbed Anwar, who was not listed as a speaker despite his past Islamic credentials.
"Anwar would prefer to be in the company of so-called progressive salafists, especially in the wake of the fallout between the Saudis and Qatar," a former Abim official had told FMT.
Meanwhile, the source said the conference would not be the first time that Anwar has countered a gathering that featured Mahathir.
"Just two weeks after Mahathir graced the Malay Dignity Congress in October, Anwar had his own gathering but themed on diversity," he said, referring to an event titled "Seminar Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia" on Oct 26 last year.