The Organization of the Islamic Conference

The Organization of the Islamic Conference

The Obama administration sees the Organization of the Islamic Conference as a venue through which to court Muslims globally, but the group’s controversial positions on some issues could pose problems.

June 29, 2010 9:03 am (EST)

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Comprised of fifty-seven nations spread over four continents, the forty-year-old Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second largest international body after the UN, and is aimed at protecting Muslim interests worldwide. Some experts say the organization has been ineffectual, but they also note its tremendous potential for addressing the issues facing Muslims. Advocates of reaching out to Muslims see the OIC as an important venue for the United States, but critics question whether engagement with the group is appropriate considering some of the positions it has taken on issues such as Islamic radical movements, Israel/Palestine, and the human rights records of its members. These questions have taken on particular prominence in the controversy over U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent appointee to the conference, Rashad Hussain.

The Purpose of the OIC

According to the OIC web site, the council was created in 1969 following a summit in Morocco in the wake of the "criminal arson of Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem." Though the act was perpetrated by an Australian Christian fanatic, the incident became emblematic of the struggle for control of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The organization was originally formed around the idea of Muslim solidarity, particularly protecting the Islamic holy sites, assisting the Palestinian cause, eradicating racial discrimination, and improving economic cooperation.

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Some experts contend the group should not be seen as a religious body but as an intergovernmental organization. Still, with fifty-seven member countries and a total population of nearly 1.5 billion that is diverse ethnically, geographically, economically, and politically, Islam remains the only major commonality. Former U.S. ambassador to the OIC Sada Cumber says though the OIC acts more like the UN on issues, Islam pervades all aspects of Muslim life and it is difficult to separate out faith.

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Overall, says Hady Amr, a director of the Brookings Doha Center, along with other experts, the OIC hasn’t made much of an impact on the daily lives of Muslims or on issues such as Palestinian self-determination and statehood and control over Muslim holy sites within Israel. Efforts to isolate Israel have largely fallen flat. For instance, Egypt was excluded from the OIC in 1979 for establishing a peace agreement with Israel (Egypt was reinstated in 1984), and several other countries continue to maintain diplomatic and economic ties despite a 1981 OIC resolution for an economic boycott. There also can be significant enmity between some OIC states, such as Iran and Iraq.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attack, the OIC began to rethink its core mission to address new challenges faced by the global Muslim community. In 2005, the conference adopted a ten-year plan to address issues such as terrorism, Islamophobia, poor governance, and economic disparities. It approved a broadened charter to reflect these issues three years later. "Poverty, illiteracy, epidemics, corruption, and the lack of equal opportunity and equal distribution of wealth force people to look for answers in different places," said OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu in a 2005 speech. "When these issues are not addressed properly by legitimate means, they are used as an excuse to push for extremist agendas."

Despite this new direction, there remain differences of opinion on the nature of the organization’s role in international affairs, said former OIC intern Haroon Moghul, currently executive director of the Maydan Institute, an Islamic communications organization in New York. Some countries, such as Turkey and Malaysia, envision the conference as a forum for a cultural agenda pushing moderation, while others, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, want a more political agenda including the spread of theocratic influence.

Organization and Influence within the OIC

Decisions are primarily made by the council of foreign ministers, which meets every year to review new policies, and a summit of heads of state that meets every three years to consider major initiatives. The General Secretariat, headed by the secretary general, carries out the day-to-day functions and policies. The OIC is "run on a shoestring budget" with an operating budget of $17.6 million in 2006 (PDF), according to a report from the Montreal International Forum. Though the budget comes primarily from mandatory dues from member nations, and the charter also allows for additional funds to be supplied voluntarily, OIC pledges for member aid are often only partly met. Experts say this gives countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran significant influence. For example, Saudi Arabia alone donated $1 billion to IDB’s Poverty Alleviation Fund in 2006. "If you have a model like this, you can’t push a progressive agenda because you don’t have the funds," says Sada Cumber.

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Through checkbook dominance and other means, several OIC countries hold considerable power. Chief among them are Iran and Saudi Arabia--a founding member, the largest financial contributor to the conference, and the custodian of two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Pakistan also has been active within the conference and is using the OIC as a platform to push its resolution on religious blasphemy (PDF) in the UN. Pakistan also was influential in preventing India, which has the world’s third largest Muslim population, from joining the conference.

Turkey, which joined the OIC in 1995, has grown in influence and has taken an active role in attempting to make the conference more relevant and moderate. Turkey’s İhsanoğlu has served as the secretary general of OIC since 2004, which "has increased the respect for Turkey among Arab countries" and shown potential for increasing stability in the region, writes Ozan Örmeci in Caspian Weekly. "Under the leadership of Turkey, OIC can function as a bridge between West and East, and negate the ’clash of civilizations’ discourse which claims to explain the recent developments in global politics especially after 9/11." Malaysia, which held the secretary general post before Turkey, is another influential member that experts say has worked to make the OIC more effective and more moderate.

OIC Controversies

There are several controversial issues involving the OIC, including:

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  • Israel/Palestine: Despite the revamp of the charter, Israel remains a major issue for the OIC. The conference used its influence within United Nations to push for the controversial 2009 Goldstone report on the status of Gaza that accuses Israel of major human rights abuses. The OIC also continues to push for greater access to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. "[I]t is very difficult to say anyone has the power to do anything because the Israelis deny every international organization--and of course they deny the OIC--any access there" said İhsanoğlu on the status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (al-Jazeera). "The only way we can influence events is through the UN and Unesco."

    The May 2010 Turkish-sponsored flotilla incident, in which Israeli forces raided a ship attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza, has also been heavily criticized by OIC members. However, the flotilla incident also highlights the continuing divisions within the conference over how to handle Israel. Egypt had aided the blockade by also closing its border to Gaza with little public criticism from OIC countries. Following the flotilla incident, Egypt opened its border for the first time to allow shipments of non-medical aid and food, but it is unclear how long it will remain open (Haaretz). In June 2010, Malaysia’s foreign minister said he hoped to pressure Egypt to open its Gaza border permanently (Bernama). "We must speak with one voice in asking Egypt to open up the Rafah border crossing," said Datuk Seri Anifah Aman.

  • Human Rights: In 2010, Freedom House, a U.S.-based international human rights and democracy watchdog, listed nine OIC member countries among the worst human rights violators in the world, including a few that sit on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Yet, OIC members have substantial sway within the Human Rights Council, using it largely as a venue to attack Israel. At the same time, OIC members have thwarted criticism of their own human rights records within the UN.

    The OIC also is pushing a resolution on the defamation of religions within the HRC, which has an emphasis on protecting Islam from being insulted or stereotyped as a religion of terrorism. Advocates say such action is needed to combat growing Islamophobia. But human rights and free speech advocates say a non-binding resolution or potentially a binding treaty will curtail religious and political freedom, because religious blasphemy laws in Islamic countries are often used to target religious minorities and government critics.

    The defamation resolution is an offshoot of the disagreement over the definition of human rights by Islamic countries. The UN adopted a universal declaration on human rights in 1948, but the OIC adopted its own Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (PDF) in 1990. The UN universal human rights declaration, for example, recognizes the right to change religions, but the Cairo declaration does not. All rights in the Cairo declaration are to be read and understood through sharia law—which does not allow conversion from Islam. A 2008 report (PDF) by the New York-based Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit that focuses on freedom of expression, contends the Cairo declaration represents "an alternative human rights system, infused with religious language and layered with exceptions, omissions, and caveats," including a religious test for speech.

    In 2009, following the arrest warrant issued for Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, the OIC issued a strong statement (PressTV) noting "the selectivity and double standard applied in relation to issues of war crimes and crimes against humanity," pointing to the West’s silence on Israel’s actions in Gaza. In April 2010, İhsanoğlu announced that the OIC would form an independent human rights committee to monitor Muslim nations. He said he hoped such a body would increase the OIC’s credibility in the eyes of the outside world as well as help refute outside accusations (PDF).

  • Terrorism: The OIC adopted the Convention on Combating International Terrorism in 1999, but defining terrorism has been a struggle for the conference. Following a 2002 meeting, OIC ministers rejected the idea that Palestinian suicide bombers should be considered terrorists because of their struggle against Israeli occupation. In 2008, Human Rights Watch, noting that international law prohibits attacks against civilians no matter the circumstances, asked the OIC to amend its definition of terrorism "to clarify that its condemnation of terrorism makes no exemptions, even if in the name of causes that OIC member states endorse." A 2009 OIC declaration (PDF) said: "Terrorism, to be sure, is not a security issue but rather an ideological one with its political, security, and even cultural manifestations."

Islam and U.S. Policy

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, U.S. policymakers made a concerted effort to improve U.S.-Islamic relations. In 2008, President George W. Bush appointed a U.S. envoy to the conference for the first time in history, with little fanfare. President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 was intended to emphasize his commitment to continue and strengthen this outreach. But his appointment of Rashad Hussain as envoy to the OIC in February 2010 was met with an uproar from U.S.  conservatives because of Hussain’s comments criticizing the United States’ prosecution of Muslim activist Sami al-Arian. (LongWarJournal)

The controversy led to a larger question of whether the United States should engage the OIC diplomatically. "A public effort by a U.S. envoy to modify OIC policy is more likely to strengthen the voice of the more extreme members of the OIC, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, than it is to strengthen more moderate voices like Jordan or Indonesia," argues Brett Schaefer, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. "A far more fruitful strategy would be to approach OIC members bilaterally." (CNSNews)

Moghul agrees, noting a bilateral approach would be a better strategy (ReligiousDispatches). "Identifying the OIC as an expression of a collective Muslim will means attempting to forge, out of a messy mix of states, an international partner for America," he says. "But the OIC’s fifty-seven member-states are by no means united by their modes of government or foreign policies."

Yet, Moghul says, despite its flaws the OIC could provide the United States a "neutral venue" for cooperation. Brookings’ Amr contends there is symbolic potential for the United States "to work with the OIC to do productive things around the world such as on economic development."

And other countries are also courting the OIC including Britain and China, which received its first visit from the head of the conference in June 2010.


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