For us at Crescent, the month of April was dominated by two conferences, a massive one in Tehran from April 14-16 in support of the Palestinian struggle, attended by about 1,000 people from all over the world, and a much smaller one in London on April 23, convened by Crescent International to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, Director of the Muslim Institute, London, founder and leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, and the man responsible for transforming Crescent from a local community newspaper in Toronto to an international newsmagazine of the global Islamic movement. The first was a pleasure to attend in so many ways; being back in the Islamic state for one thing, the opportunity to meet so many fellow activists for another. The second was a pleasure of a very different kind, with the overseas guests put up in cheap hotels in west London and much of the donkey work done by the editor of Crescent himself, with the invaluable help of a small team of volunteers.
However, those were not the two conferences that I refer to in the title to this piece. Here, I would like to discuss two very different conferences that both took place in Tehran from April 14-16, in the same conference centre at the same time, hosted by the same people, but consisting of very different people with very different sets of concerns and interests. One was a conference of parliamentarians and other politicians from all over the world invited by the Speaker of the Iranian majlis to discuss the Palestinian issue with Iranian leaders and representatives of Hamas, newly elected as the largest party in the Palestinian national assembly. Of course, the identity of those invited was significant. There were no representatives from Europe or the US; instead the speakers of the parliaments of Cuba and Venezuela, both fellow dissidents opposed to the US’s global hegemony, were given prominent places, along with parliamentarians from other Muslim, African and Asian countries. Reflecting this element of the conference, the seating at the venue was arranged into national blocs, with flags on tables identifying the political delegations present. This was very much a conference hosted by the Islamic Republic of Iran as the Palestinians’ major state ally, to bolster Hamas’s position internationally and give Hamas leaders an opportunity to meet with senior politicians from other countries, who may be able to help the Hamas government in its struggle to survive against Israeli and US pressure.
At the same time, however, there was another conference taking place, lower profile perhaps, but no less important, I would suggest: a conference of Islamic movement activists from all over the world, brought together by the Islamic State of Iran in its role as the leading edge of the global Islamic movement, to provide them with an opportunity to meet each other, and with leaders and representatives from Hamas, an Islamic movement directly confronting the greatest enemies of Islam in the modern world, and currently under immense pressure. Some of these activists sat behind their national flags if there were no government representatives from their countries, somewhat uncomfortably it often appeared, but most simply took places in the free seating areas of the hall, sitting in different places and with different companions for each session, in a sort of practical expression of the unity of the Ummah.
For the most part, the delegates of these two conferences, or two elements of the same conference, stayed in the same hotels, ate at the same restaurants and attended the same meetings and functions; but there was in truth little interaction. Beyond superficial pleasantries, they no more mixed than oil and water. It was, however, an opportunity for activists like myself to understand the problems that the Islamic State faces while trying to play the roles of both the leading edge of the Islamic movement, as it undoubtedly is, and of a state in the modern international order, whose assumptions it may reject, but in which it is constrained to operate until such time as there are enough Islamic states to form an alternative block capable of challenging the West’s global hegemony.
If any Iranian official had asked my opinion on the idea of combining these two elements in one conference (and none did), I would have suggested two things: first that the different kinds of delegates be accommodated at different places, so that activists could mix more freely outside the conference sessions, to discuss their own perspectives without feeling constrained by not knowing who else might be there; and second, that the conference hall and programme be set up in such a way that Islamic movement activists need not feel or be seen as second best to politicians; just because they expect less formality does not mean that they should be given less respect.
Indeed, it would probably have been a good lesson for the foreign politicians, particularly those of Arab and Muslim states, to see the close links that Islamic Iran has with Islamic movement activists around the world. When Iran is under the sort of pressure that Hamas is now facing, these activists will be the only friends it has.