*The author is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.
The Muslim World today continues to be in a state of sixes and sevens. Hardly any part of the Muslim World is free from violence or the threat of violence. The Ummah, the unity of which was once the coveted goal of all Muslims, is in a sorry state of internecine strife: Muslim pitted against Muslim. In this sorry pass, the one hope for redemption was the OIC. And yet this Organization has never lived up to its promise.
This paper attempts to take a dispassionate look over the shoulder in an attempt to find out what went wrong and why.
PART – I
Would a common resident in an Islamic country today even sense that an organization like the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) may still be in existence? It is apparent that even casual mention of this Islamic forum has disappeared from the front pages of the world press. Meanwhile, a host of – mainly depressing – developments have taken place, most of them in the Muslim world. The OIC appears to have gone into a stupor of sorts, as if it does not exist or – worse still – it does not care. Take the case of unwarranted aggression against Muslim lands leading to wanton killings therein. Or, then, the large scale violation of human rights in Muslim lands under unlawful occupation. Or, to be a bit mundane, what about the poverty and economic deprivation of large segments of the Ummah, given that a small minority is wallowing in petro-dollars! Does one hear a squeak out of an Organization that prides itself as being the champion of the aspirations of Muslims around the world?
Arguably the worst thing that can happen to an International Organization is the prospect of losing its relevance. A look back over the past few years – tumultuous years for the Muslim World – points to the signal failure of the OIC on three counts: 1) Furthering of the ‘Islamic Causes’; 2) Countering the Western campaign against Islam and Muslims; and 3) Coming to the defense of Muslim states facing danger to their independence and sovereignty. In this state of affairs, one should wish to leave the following question for the perspicacious reader to ponder over: does the OIC have any relevance and/or credibility left in the Muslim World?
In order to better understand the OIC and what it stands for, it will be necessary to look over the shoulder and spare a thought over its origins. The Organization had its nascent beginning in 1969, in an epoch when the Muslim World was already in a state of sixes and sevens. The First Islamic Summit Conference was convened in Rabat in the month of September of that year in the aftermath of an abortive arson attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Al-Quds al Sharif in occupied Palestine. It is a moot question whether this summit could have met at all had the arson attack not roused strong feelings all over the Muslim world, but that is another story.
As it happened, it was an exceptionally successful Summit Conference in that it was personally attended by Heads of State/ Government of almost all the invited states. The only rub was that the points of view of most important participants about the raison d’detre of the congregation could hardly have been more diverse.
- The Palestinian leadership looked at it as a welcome opportunity to rally the Muslim world behind the cause of Palestine; they were virtually oblivious to the happenings in the rest of the Muslim world.
- The Saudi Arabians and some Gulf States wished to assert the clout conferred on them due to the vast deposits of black gold in their territories.
- The North African Arab states – particularly Egypt under Nasser and Algeria under Boumediene – had dreams of furthering their socialist agendas.
- Sub-Saharan African states wished to seize the opportunity for recognition of their plight and obtain some economic cushion.
- Iran under the Shah had ambitions all of its own.
- States of Asia Pacific – notably Indonesia and Malaysia – craved a place in the sun.
- States like Turkey, with secular pretensions and diplomatic ties with Israel, had reservations all of their own.
- In so far as Pakistan was concerned, we appear to have entered the Summit armed with no more than half-baked ideas about Islamic unity and support for Islamic causes and ideals. It soon became apparent that we had regrettably neglected to do our homework before embarking on our journey to Rabat.
Given the great diversity of opinion and objectives, the birth of what was to emerge as the OIC can best be classed as cesarean rather than normal.
What took place after the Conference was convened left its mark on the assembly. The host –King Hassan of Morocco – backed, among others, by King Feisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan proposed that India be invited to join the Summit. Inexplicably, there was no reservation from Pakistan’s side and the proposal was approved by acclamation. India’s plaque appeared and the Indian Ambassador to Morocco – incidentally a Sikh – joined the proceedings. He attended till the meeting rose for the day late at night. Quite out of the blue, the next morning, the Pakistan delegation conveyed its decision to boycott the proceedings unless the Indian delegate was removed. The day was lost in wrangling and recriminations. Ultimately, the proceedings resumed only after India was persuaded to withdraw. One would hope that some research scholar would delve deeply into this episode to dig up the hidden secret behind this episode.
The aforementioned are the bare facts. What went on behind the scenes is not public knowledge. The late Mr. Agha Shahi – who was a member of the Pakistan delegation at Rabat – could have shed some light on this mystery. It is a pity that he chose not to do so. This incident is mentioned merely to elucidate that the initiating Conference did not have a smooth sailing.
PART – II
To move on, the convening of the second Summit meeting had to wait five years until the 1974 Lahore Summit. Meanwhile, a Secretariat had been set up in 1971 and the nascent body given the rather unlikely name of Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Tengku Abdul Rahman, the retiring Prime Minister of Malaysia, was appointed as the first Secretary General. He was a strong and well respected Secretary General and endeavored to give the Body a sense of direction. His legacy – the Charter – has proved something of a millstone round the neck of the Secretariat since it vests all powers in the single hand of the Secretary General, leaving other elected officials high and dry. This aspect has not received the attention it deserved over the years, though it may well be the underlying cause of the failure of the OIC to live up to its ideals.
The Charter of the OIC that governed the conduct of the Organization and also the Rules of Business had several incongruities that have impeded smooth sailing over the years. Some of these are:
- The Charter concentrates all powers – financial, political and administrative – in the hands of the Secretary General alone. Experience has shown that successive Secretaries General – most of them, barring the first, were light-weights – did not trust their colleagues and exhibited utmost reluctance to delegate any authority or responsibility to them. Apart from the Secretary General, there are three elected Assistant Secretaries General – one from each Group. Logically the FOUR should be forming the core of the General Secretariat, but in practice this has never been so. Everything revolves around the person of the Secretary General.
- The Charter specified that the permanent seat of the General Secretariat would be Al-Quds al-Sharif. Pending its liberation, Jeddah had been designated as the interim Headquarter. In the absence of a “Headquarters Agreement”, the officials of the Secretariat have been denied due status by the Saudi Arabian administration. In addition, Saudi law disbars ladies from working in offices, thereby automatically shutting off half the population of member states from making any contribution to the work of the Secretariat.
- There are three designated “Groups” among the member states: (a) African Group, (b) Asian Group, and (c) Arab Group. The first two are based on geographical criteria, while the third happens to be on ETHNIC lines. Why was it considered necessary to recognize just one ethnicity, while the remaining member states were bunched together in geographical groupings? This is not clear and would bear investigation.
- The Islamic Development Bank that came into being as a “subsidiary” of the OIC has since broken loose from its moorings. The OIC has hardly any control over the Bank or its policies. By the way, the Bank now enjoys wider recognition and, indeed, greater esteem than the OIC itself. It is also housed in an imposing structure, quite unlike the OIC General Secretariat.
The Secretary General and the elected Assistant Secretaries General of the OIC enjoy no special protocol status that should be due to the top echelon of an International Organization. As compared to this, Secretaries General of the Arab League and OAU receive appropriate protocol.
The RULES OF BUSINESS are even worse offenders. Year after year, more or less the same Resolutions are tabled and adopted by consensus ad nauseam. There is no mechanism at all to oversee their implementation. Lengthy, often colourful, speeches are delivered at each session. Most statements contain mere platitudes and have little in nature of concrete proposals. The rule of consensus (and nothing but) is the bane of decision-making process in conferences. Member states opt not to break the consensus on decisions, but subsequently show little enthusiasm when it comes to implement them. Some even go to the extent of undermining the decisions.
Most decisions – that are arrived at by consensus – are subsequently ‘lost in implementation’, so to say. A fundamental error committed by most member states is to believe that the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM) is a sort of mini- UN General Assembly. The governments, consequently, abandon the ICFM to the mercy of their so-called ‘UN Experts’, who love nothing more than listening to their own voices, while being oblivious to where they are leading to, if anywhere.
What the policy makers of member Islamic states fail to appreciate is that the UN General Assembly is intended to be no more than a ‘talk shop’- a fact that is taken advantage of by the ‘mafia’ of diplomatists of the multilateral genre to add luster to their individual reputations.
Year after year, this debilitating exercise is repeated without a thought as to what results would, or should, accrue from these efforts.
The resolutions adopted, thereby, are meant essentially to adorn the front pages of local newspapers of the countries of the origin of the multi-lateral diplomats who designed to table them. Such resolutions and the eloquent speeches that accompany them represent no more than mere window-dressing, meant essentially for the benefit of the domestic media. Regrettably, the same scenario is evident in every Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers as well as in each Islamic Summit Conference.
PART – III
The OIC has not distinguished itself in either fighting for Islamic causes or, in deed, in living up to its ideals. The first thing that strikes an impartial observer is the bizarre facelessness of the OIC. In other words, there is a total absence of a recognizable visage of the Organization
- one that was intended to put Islamic Identity on the world map. An international organization is recognized through its successes. OIC has none to boast of. Ask any citizen of a Muslim state about the OIC and chances are that you will draw a blank. In the city of Jeddah that houses the Headquarters of the General Secretariat, barely a handful of persons, if that, even know of its existence. If a visitor were to land in Jeddah and engage a Taxi to go to the OIC Headquarters, chances are that he may at best be driven to the building of the Islamic Development Bank.
What makes matters worse is that these are not normal times, particularly in so far as the Muslim World is concerned. The Muslim World (Ummah?) is living through a daunting period of tribulation and crises over the past decade and more. Islam and Muslims across the world have been singularly targeted and maligned. What a pity then that, far from realizing the gravity of the state of affairs, the OIC – a body with a membership of some 57 countries – as well as its member states appear to be content with playing ducks and drakes with local and regional issues that have long lost their relevance.
The issues of life and death that face the Muslim World today are being conveniently brushed under the proverbial rug. It is about time that the member states of the OIC woke up to the realization that mere adoption of innocuous resolutions does not absolve them of their responsibilities. Actions speak louder than words, be they cover endless sheets of parchment.
Just to take a few stray examples, by way of illustration:
- Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its aftermath found the OIC wanting at every step. OIC allowed the USA to highjack the drama without it being taken into confidence.
- Developments in the aftermath of nine/eleven; US-led invasions first of Afghanistan and subsequently of Iraq (both member states of the OIC) highlighted the lackadaisical attitude of the OIC in the face of challenges faced by the Muslim World.
- The absence of a common, coordinated response has allowed the powers-that-be freedom to pick on Muslim countries one by one with impunity.
- Issues of life and death that face the Muslim world today are conveniently swept under the proverbial rug.
- Where did the OIC stand vis-à-vis the US- Iran stand-off on the nuclear issue and subsequent détente in their ties?
- What was OIC’s reaction to the ‘Arab Spring’ or to wanton killings in Muslim lands?
- What about the wide spread violation of human rights in Muslim lands under occupation?
- To be more mundane, should the OIC not take cognizance of poverty and economic deprivation of large segments of the Ummah?
In order to better appreciate the OIC style of effort in emergency situation, it may be in order to have a close look at its reaction (or the absence thereof) to a crucial development impacting on a member state and, as it turned out, the Muslim World as a whole. For a case study, one has selected the impact of the United States’ attack on Iraq, circa March 2003.
The intention of US President George W. Bush, with the blessings of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to carry out (what turned out to be a disastrous) attack on Iraq in mid-March 2003 was no secret in the region. In Jeddah (where the author was then stationed as Assistant Secretary General of OIC), the subject was open talk of the town.
The local press was awash with comments. In an editorial titled ‘Ides of March’, Saudi Gazette on 04 February, 2003, inter alia, said, “The impending Iraq war will probably go down as the most talked about and pre-analyzed conflict in the history of war.”
Another editorial in the same paper, dated 13 March 2003, talked of “the rush to apportion the spoils of the Iraq war to select US companies.”
Further editorials in the same Paper dated 27 March and 19 April 2003 further elaborate on the shape of things to come.
The above mentioned editorials in the Saudi Gazette are a must read for the researcher.
Now, to a bit of personal history! Having been deeply affected by the impending catastrophe, the author felt strongly that the OIC had a duty to at least put on record its anguish and protest at this plan to attack a member state on evidence that appeared to be flimsy at best. The author then drafted a Press Release proposed to be issued by the Secretary General expressing disquiet at the development and hoping that wiser counsels would prevail to avert a catastrophe. The only snag in the way was the fact that the Secretary General was nowhere to be found. Discreet inquiries revealed that the great man was on a tour of the Philippines to secure the release of a German national allegedly kidnapped by rebels there. He returned to Jeddah in his own good time. So much for the priorities of the OIC! Since the Charter had no provision for an acting Secretary General, there the matter rested.
Tailpiece – I
The brave talk of ‘revitalizing’ the OIC some years back caused a mild flutter and did generate a hope of sorts. A council of ‘eminent persons’ was conjured up to formulate a set of changes in an effort to bring the organization in line with the demands of the times. Despite the time, effort (and not inconsiderable investment) expended on this exercise, the end result was no different from other ministrations of the OIC.
Nothing tangible emerged out of the lengthy exercise, save for some essentially cosmetic changes. The effectiveness of the OIC remained stuck in the rut that was! What the OIC has been in need of is not superficial emollient but drastic surgery. The ‘eminent persons’ could deliver only if they had shown the courage to recommend surgery of drastic proportions, which they evidently failed to do.
Tailpiece – II
A word about the ‘role’ of the OIC vis-à-vis the Jammu and Kashmir issue may be in order. Despite the hullabaloo in our media, OIC’s role has been limited to an innocuous resolution, coupled with a wishy-washy ‘contact group’. Neither is of much consequence. Much has been made about the fact that the Secretary General had designated a ‘Special Representative on Jammu and Kashmir’. Each year it is announced that the ‘Special Representative’ has once again been denied a visa by the Indian government and there the matter rests. The standard resolution is duly adopted by consensus, rejected by India, and forgotten by all. No prizes for guessing why India has conveniently got away with its negative attitude for so long.
Tailpiece – III
The lot of the Palestinians has shown little sign of improvement despite the well-worded but innocuous resolutions of the Islamic Conferences of Foreign Ministers and the Islamic Summits. If anything, the Palestinian issue appears to have been lost in the verbiage of the colourful and emotional speeches delivered in these meetings. The Palestinians have reason to feel bitter because it was an attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque that provided the raison d’etre for the birth of the OIC. Subsequent developments connected to the OIC have hardly provided any hope to the aspirations of the Palestinians.
PART – IV
The question that presents itself; begging for an answer is: what sort of future can the OIC and the Muslim Ummah look forward to, given the omens?
The facts speak for themselves, though. The OIC hardly appears to have any future prospects – not for the Muslim World anyway. It will not be allowed to die out, however. The powers-that-be find its existence useful for their selfish ends. They will not allow the OIC to die: they find it expedient to let it live, albeit on a respirator.