THREE months ago, there was only a whisper of opposition in the Islamic world to the United Nations conference that has now taken over this exotic Arab capital. That whisper has turned into a roar as Islamic fundamentalists, closing ranks with the Vatican, have turned on the conference with an intensity that has caught conference organizers by surprise.
Their opposition is unlikely to slow the family- planning revolution, which has sent contraceptive use soaring and family sizes plummeting around the world since the 1960s. But the clash of values between conservative religionists and the huge army of demographers, social activists, and feminists gathered in Cairo has added a dissonant note to a gathering once primed for harmony.
``You can see in the draft [conference] document Western values; our values are not considered,'' says Egyptian journalist Fahmy Howedy. His articles attacking the document - a plan of action to stabilize global population growth - have helped to galvanize opposition around the Muslim world. (Pakistan's burgeoning population, Page 7.)
Vatican sources and Muslim scholars have targeted language in the draft, which they say sanctions everything from extramarital sex to abortion. Such concerns are surrogates for a larger fear that the conference is seeking to impose a secular world view that challenges traditional gender roles and opens the door to high crime and divorce rates, the breakdown of family, and declining standards of sexual morality.
``The real issue is not abortion per se, but the way in which secular materialistic culture undermines social values and the family in particular,'' says John Esposito, an expert on Islam at Georgetown University in Washington.
Backers of the conference, including most of the delegates and representatives of some 2,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOS), are equally insistent that slowing population growth by expanding family-planning programs and empowering women is a moral imperative, because it will reduce poverty, lower infant and maternal mortality rates, and preserve the environment.
Norway delivers plea
To thunderous applause during the opening session, Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland delivered a plea for legalizing abortion worldwide. ``Morality becomes hypocrisy if it means accepting mothers ... dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions, and unwanted children living in misery,'' she said. ``Decriminalizing abortion should therefore be a minimal response to this reality.''
The Cairo conference opened yesterday. By the time it is gaveled to a close on Sept. 13, the world will have 2-1/4 million more people.
Religious pressure has prompted four Muslim nations to boycott the conference and is likely to hamper the official proceedings. Instead of talking about ways to implement the near-consensus strategy contained in the 113-page draft, ``Program for Action,'' delegates will be forced to devote long hours to debates over language on ``reproductive rights'' and ``safe motherhood,'' phrases religious opponents say condone immoral behavior.
For fundamentalist Muslims in Egypt, the conference provides a new brush with which to tar President Hosni Mubarak, who is now at pains to insist that no decisions made by the UN gathering will compromise Islamic values.
For its part, the Vatican has seized on the conference as a new opportunity to inveigh against the dangers of secularism.
``This pope came into office with two devils: communism and the secular world,'' notes Frances Kissling, president of Catholics For a Free Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group represented in Cairo. ``He has participated significantly in the defeat of the first devil and has now turned his attention to the second.''
Behind this concern is another, say various conference sources -
that the moral and political power of the institutional church could be threatened by placing individuals - especially women - at the center of a moral decisionmaking process.
``All the talk about gays, abortion, and adolescents is a smokescreen designed to diffuse attention from what the Church opposes most: women making individual reproductive choices,'' another NGO representative says.
The main work of the Vatican's campaign against the Cairo conference has been carried on by the church's extensive diplomatic corps. Papal nuncios in the 60 countries that have formal relations with the Vatican have actively lobbied over the past months to secure agreement with Vatican positions and seats at the conference for delegates sharing the Vatican's view.
In Cairo, experienced Vatican lobbyists have been mobilized to buttonhole delegates. They are supported by at least 10 of the 150 nations represented at the conference, including Honduras, Malta, Argentina, and Cote d'Ivoire, plus two dozen nongovernmental, conservative Catholic, and anti-abortion groups. One of their chief goals will be to convince the delegates that not all women support the ``feminist'' agenda that will feature prominently in the discussions in Cairo.
Delay the inevitable
Even if the Vatican and its Islamic allies succeed in altering the language of the Cairo document, they will merely delay the inevitable, many population experts believe. For the vast majority of Catholics and Islamics, it is not religious doctrine but empirical circumstances - urbanization, poverty, and expanding women's rights and roles - that determine reproductive choices.
``The reality is that consensus on where to go in terms of family planning and population policy over the next 20 years is fixed and is going to happen no matter what this document says,'' Ms. Kissling says.