By Reporter
NBC News
updated 12/9/2005 4:02:27 AM ET 2005-12-09T09:02:27

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A billion Muslims turn toward Mecca five times every day in prayer. On Wednesday, they were looking toward the city that houses Islam’s holiest site for another reason as it hosted the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The leaders from 56 Islamic states gathered for a 2-day conference aimed at finding solutions to some of the most pressing problems that face the populations today, from curbing religious militancy to promoting economic growth.

Although traditionally the countries that constitute membership of the OIC meet every three years, this conference is unique in that it was convened only a year after the last event.

"The Muslim nation faces major challenges and enormous dangers which target its cultural foundations and religious beliefs," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said.    

His alarm was echoed in the draft copy of the OIC's "10 Year Program of Action" presented to ministers, which called for decisive cooperation to deal with "grave political, socio-economic, cultural and scientific challenges" which could hurt the peace and security of member states.

The draft plan included calls for better education, faster economic development, more trade, promoting religious moderation, and strengthening the rights of Muslim women.    

It said the OIC should have greater funding and authority to "meet the aspirations of the Muslim nation in the 21st century.”

Guarded optimism
The mood surrounding these recent initiatives has been one of guarded optimism.

“It is the most important Islamic conference ever to take place. All the Muslim countries have been under suspicion after the events of 9/11. They needed to come together and say to the world that Muslims stand united against terrorism,” said a senior Saudi government advisor who requested anonymity when asked his opinion of the event and whether it really possessed the clout needed to put an end to the disunity in the Islamic world

“Islam stands firmly for tolerance and respect toward others. Most importantly Muslims want the world to respect them wherever they are. This is the ultimate goal of this conference,” the advisor said.

The Afghan foreign minister was equally supportive of the OIC’s goals.

"It's a very ambitious, well-intentioned plan of action," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told Reuters. "It's a recognition of the need to get our acts together in a better way and move forward.”

OIC needs to prove itself
In the past, the efforts of the OIC have largely been ridiculed by the very people it has attempted to serve.

It has been perceived as a moribund organization, unable to unite its diverse and often-sparring member states. It also has been criticized for being too passive in its approach to larger global issues such as the rise of terrorism and, correspondingly, Islamophobia.

However, the new approach -- aimed at eliminating extremism, preventing conflict, promoting inter-faith dialogue and finding peaceful solutions -- may set a new course.

In the words of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, “a society that turns a blind eye ultimately suffers.”

Lubna Hussain is an NBC News Producer based in Riyadh. Reuters contributed to this report.

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