The bond of ummah has always been strong, though it has taken different shapes for different times. In our age, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) provides an effective model to translate the Muslim world’s desire to work more closely together, even as it grows to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities of an increasingly interconnected world.
Founded in 1969 after an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the OIC includes 57 member states across four continents. As the collective voice of the Muslim world, the OIC advances the interests of the Muslim world in a spirit of peaceful and respectful dialogue. This is accomplished through three primary organs: The Council of Foreign Ministers, the Islamic Summit and the General Secretariat, headed by the 10th OIC Secretary-General, Mr. Iyad Ameen Madani.
The Council of Foreign Ministers gathers Foreign Ministers on an annual basis to discuss issues of common concern; in 2015, the Council met in Kuwait to discuss the Rohingya refugee crisis and violent extremism, among other issues. The Islamic Summit, the organization’s supreme authority, is composed of the heads of state from member states, and convenes every three years. The OIC’s executive organ, the General Secretariat implements decisions reached by the Council and Summit.
But while the OIC first convened to institutionalize international Muslim solidarity, improve economic cooperation between Muslim nations, defend the Palestine cause and protect Muslim holy sites in Palestine, its mission has evolved. In 2005 the OIC adopted a ten-year program of action to address Islamophobia and extremism – largely through the Istanbul Process, an international effort led by the OIC, the European Union and the United States, to combat religious hate speech. In 2008, the OIC expanded its charter to include concerns over economic inequalities, the lack of political and social mobility and health and environmental issues facing member states.
As then OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ä°hsanoÄŸlu warned, “When these issues are not addressed properly,” an opening exists for extremists. Today, under Secretary-General Iyad Ameen Madani, the OIC is more committed than ever to combatting the threat of violent extremism. This year’s Council of Foreign Ministers placed countering violent extremism, and the need for a coordinated response, front and center. Subsequent to the Council, the OIC has worked to develop collaborations between religious scholars, Muslim youth and media to broadcast this message.
But Secretary General Madani and the OIC recognize that, in addition to creating a coordinated strategy between member states to combat extremist rhetoric and recruitment, we must consider the greater social forces that give violent extremism its momentum and appeal. To address violent extremism we must also focus on social mobility, political participation, cultural production, and the hard work of building strong identities and resilient societies.
The Muslim world faces real, systemic challenges: The world refugee population is higher now than it has been for decades. Some eighty percent are Muslim, and OIC member states such as Turkey and Pakistan host the greatest number of these refugees.
While the world’s Muslim population is already some 1.6 billion, that number is expected to rise past 2 billion within decades. Much of this population growth will occur in OIC member states; some that are already strained by the demands of rising populations. This will present significant challenges and cannot be addressed except through long-term cooperation and mutual assistance. If the OIC does not facilitate such partnerships, it is likely violent extremists will exploit the ensuing socio-political fallout.
But these same challenges can be turned into opportunities, if only the political will is present. There, too, the OIC will be invaluable. A rising and young Muslim population can be a driver for economic growth. The need to find new sources of energy in the various climates and conditions of OIC member states can, in turn, facilitate the production of cutting-edge technologies. Growing Muslim populations outside the OIC can, in turn, help build bridges of tolerance, understanding and mutual appreciation, which can help fight Islamophobia and encourage trade, tourism and other forms of investment. What is sometimes called a “brain drain” could instead be a bridge between cultures and peoples.
The OIC can and will help convene and encourage such initiatives. After all, the OIC has exhibited such aspirations before; in the creation, for example, of the Islamic Development Bank, which presents $150 billion in authorized capital to assist Muslims across the globe. Likewise, the OIC has established the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to accelerate cooperation across these spheres and between and across member states. Its numerous subsidiary specialized and affiliated organs and institutions across various fields – from arts, media and religion to statistics, trade, science and higher education attest to the wide and diverse interest of the OIC.
In furtherance of a commitment to charity, the OIC is now also working with USAID. This partnership connects relief agencies in emerging crisis zones and areas of long-term instability, from West Africa to Southeast Asia. This is important evidence of what the OIC is capable of, and can and will contribute. But these issues, as necessary as they are to the Ummah’s future prosperity, are not necessarily the OIC’s biggest contributions.
Those, rather, reference a far more significant reality.
The OIC hosts official envoys from Britain, France, Italy, Australia, and Germany amongst countries, reflecting the importance and success of the OIC’s ongoing work with major powers. It also hosts an official envoy from the EU and also the United States, through whom America has sought to accelerate cooperation and dialogue with the Muslim world. With these two Western powers, and the United Nations, the OIC has worked diligently to implement the Istanbul Process to combat religious hate speech. This critical and unprecedented global deliberation has seen the OIC take the lead on highlighting, defining and addressing the urgent need to combat Islamophobia, and other religious hate-speech, at the international level. The OIC knows first hand the connection between dehumanizing hate speech and violent oppression – for example in the Bosnian civil war, against Myanmar’s Rohingya and Iraq’s Yezidi community.
By working with institutions of global significance and reach, the Muslim world is directly rejecting the clash of civilizations thesis. The OIC believes, and seeks to model, a respectful form of global engagement. The world must learn to accept that different peoples may have different values, but that the best to reconcile our perspectives is through respect, dialogue and consultation. The Istanbul Process represents the OIC’s commitment to that process, and the patient and detailed work it takes to arrive at lasting diplomatic solutions. This is an invaluable commitment on the international stage, even as it models for the Muslim world a more fruitful approach to difference.
In our age, many Muslim societies struggle with sectarian and ethnic rifts, the pressures of growing numbers, and rapid global transformations. There have been two very different responses to these pressures. A minority of Muslims has attempted, through violence and intimidation, to impose unity, unleashing great violence in the process. The OIC represents an opposite approach: unity emerges horizontally, through cooperation between sovereign member states, consultation, dialogue, and discussion. This means the OIC moves slowly. But it also means it moves responsibly. The world should know that dialogue and cooperation are the routes chosen by the Muslim world –not extremism or violence.
And we will carry this spirit forward.
With our Ummah larger now than it has ever been before, and growing larger everyday, the OIC is more necessary than ever.
About the author:
Maha Akeel is Director of Information at the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Chief Editor of the quarterly OIC Journal. Maha previously worked as a journalist and has participated in local and international workshops and forums on women’s rights. She has also been interviewed by newspapers and broadcast channels including the Wall Street Journal, BBC World and Sky News.