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Qatar: Future Muslim leaders seek fresh path

'No better time' for change, say activists at this past weekend's youth conference in Doha, Qatar.

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Saudi-born attorney and Harvard University graduate Malik Dahlan led the conversation to a more theoretical level, stating: "It's freedom that is the absolute value in Islam.... It is freedom not to submit [to God's will] that gives value to submission itself."

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In smaller discussion groups, participants covered such topics as why Europe has more Islamist radicalism than the United States, Islam's position on homosexuality, and the meaning of secularism.

When discussing who has responsibility for fighting Muslim extremism, the panelists steered clear of the polarization this subject normally provokes. Instead, they argued that both extremist interpretations of Islam and foreign policies of Western countries contribute to the radicalization of Muslim youth.

In fact, the impact of US policies in the Middle East was evident at the conference, where many participants were deeply upset, at times in tears, over the civilian death toll from Israel's three-week military siege of Gaza.

"I get a sense of helplessness with this latest crisis," said conference attendee Shaukat Warraich, director of London-based Right Start Foundation International, a community development nonprofit.

ASMA's Khan said that after 9/11, Americans wanted to know why Muslims' denunciations of the terrorist attacks were so muted. Although hundreds of Islamic religious leaders did condemn the attacks, they were not heard clearly because Islam has no central leadership, like Roman Catholicism's Vatican.

Khan, then an architectural designer, gave up her career to promote a new generation of Muslim leadership, holding the first conference in New York in 2004 with 125 participants from North America. The second conference, held in Copenhagen in 2006, included Europeans. Doha, the third one, was global.

Participants had to be between 20 and 45 years old, committed to pluralism, and involved in some type of community advancement work, Khan said.

At its conclusion, the conference issued "An Open Letter to the World Leaders of Today From the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow." Noting that "with Barack Obama as the new US president, there is no better time for ... positive change," the letter demanded that leaders start implementing policies that promote development and human rights rather than war.

For now, the Muslim leaders who will receive copies of the Open Letter do not know much about Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT), as the project is known. The conference drew little international or regional media attention. But organizers said they are committed to building a global network of progressive activists in the Muslim world, an effort they say will take time.