Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)
Opportunities, Challenges and the Way Forward
Aftab H. Wahla
Political, educational, religious and economic decline of Muslim Ummah continues unabated, unchecked and unaddressed. Politically nationalist, religiously sectarianist, economically dependent, militarily vulnerable, socially polarized and academically backward, the Ummah is facing multiple crises, and has failed miserably to respond to those effectively and collectively despite their fast emergence as existential threat to the Muslim countries. From brutal suppression and blatant violation of human and political rights of the Kashmiris to unending sufferings of Rohingya, from Israel-led state terrorism and ever-growing ambitious designs of encroaching upon Palestine’s land via ever-expanding settlements to China-led ‘re-education’ camps for Uighur Muslims in order to deprive them of their Muslims identity and ensure forced acculturation for mainstream mandarin culture, from sectarian and strategic infighting to abetting and awarding anti-Islam forces, the Ummah is fast eroding its relevance, and its strong ideological underpinnings have failed by large to influence the domestic and foreign policy making of the member countries so as to raise collective voice to promote the political and strategic interests of Ummah.
The decline did cause some sporadic movements for political and academic renaissance of Muslims during the two-century-old colonial experience. Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani-led Pan-Islamism movement and Islamic modernism that emphasized the acquisition of modern education and political unity as the panacea of all problems confronted by Muslim countries under European-led colonialism, is one such example. Later, different Islamic scholars and intellectuals like Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammad Abduh, Syed Qutub, Rashid Rida, Hasanul Bana, Molana Maududi and others attempted to restructure the Islamic political thoughts in the modern context, and urged the Muslim heads of state and government to work for confederation-like arrangement or Pan-Islamic multilateral political and economic institutions that would work for safeguarding the collective interests of the Muslim world and identify the malaise afflicting the Ummah.
Notwithstanding the fact that varied historical experience, political ambitions, sectarian polarization and myopic political elite of the Islamic countries diluted the above-mentioned Muslim visionaries-led awakening and consciousness, series of political events in the aftermath of the global wars created enabling atmosphere for establishing Pan-Islamic institutions. Collapse of the Ottoman Empire with connivance of European powers; political and geographical balkanization of erstwhile Ottoman Empire into dozens of ethnically non-contiguous states under Sykes-Picot agreement; Balfour Declaration and ensuing demographic changes in Palestine; and shocking and unjustifiable UNSC-approved partition of Palestine into Israel and Palestine provided strong catalyst to expedite the process for establishment of a representative and inclusive inter-governmental organization for Muslim countries. In addition to these historical developments, the immediate cause for the emergence of representative Muslim organization was the arson attack on Al-Aqsa Masjid by fundamentalist Zionist Denis Michael on August 2, 1969, that destroyed the wooden roof of the holy place and 800-year-old pulpit. The incident sent waves of anguish and agony across the Muslim world and in this connection, King Hasan of Morocco convened Islamic summit on September 25, 1969 in which heads of state of twenty-five Muslim-majority countries participated. The Rabat Summit decided to establish the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which formally came into being in 1972, to protect and safeguard the Muslim interests. Later, on June 28, 2011, during the 38th Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, the official name of OIC was changed from Organization of Islamic Conference to Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Initially, the OIC was mandated to liberalize Palestine from the clutches of Wes-backed Israel, and seek establishment of a Palestinian state with Al-Quds as its capital. But gradually, the goals and objectives of OIC were broadened to include multiple areas of cooperation. As per the OIC Charter, approved on March 4, 1972, twenty objectives have been added under its Article 1. We can broadly classify these objectives under the headings of political, economic, religious and social objectives. As for political objectives, securing fraternity among Muslim states; support of legitimate stance of member countries; right of self-determination of suppressed Muslim nations; restoration of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Muslim states under occupation; incorporating Muslim view in global political, economic and social decision-making processes; and, most importantly, empowerment of Palestinians to exercise their right of self-determination on Al-Quds as capital of their future state of Palestine are worth mentioning.
Promotion of intra-Ummah trade and economic integration and common Islamic market; sustainable and comprehensive human resource development; allocation of resources for promotion of cooperation in development of science and technology among member states are salient features of economic objectives mentioned in OIC charter. The charter also underlines the importance of promotion of true Islamic teachings, undertaking efforts to counter defamation of Islam and inter-civilizational dialogue to discourage Islamophobic sentiments as the underlying religious objectives of OIC. Besides, the Charter includes protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, preservation of family as the fundamental unit of society and combating terrorism and extremism as its leading social objectives.
Article 2 of OIC Charter enlists fundamental principles of the organization. In this regard, adherence to UN charter; peaceful dispute resolution; refrain from interference in domestic affairs of member countries; inalienability of right of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Muslim states; maintenance of international peace and security in line with the OIC Charter, UN Charter, international law and international humanitarian law; promotion of good governance, democracy, rule of law; and environmental protection and ecological conservation are the principles which have been made part of the OIC Charter.
Organizationally, Jedda-based, 57-member OIC consists of eight organs: Islamic Summit, Council of Foreign Ministers, Standing Committees (committees on Al-Quds, information and culture, economic and commercial relations, scientific and technological), Executive Committee, International Islamic Court of Justice, independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights, General Secretariat, subsidiary organs, specialized institutions and affiliated institutions. Out of these organs, International Islamic Court of Justice, which was envisioned in 5th Islamic Summit in 1987, is yet to be ratified by member states. In addition, there are dozens of specialized, subsidiary and affiliated institutions which are working far below their potential and wasting their material and human resources.
Despite the fact that OIC has failed – due to multiple factors – to bring about visible change in economic and social well-being of member countries, the potential of OIC cannot be ignored and it necessitates some discussion to highlight the potential of OIC in resolving the problems confronted by Ummah.
OIC, which is the largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations, represents 1.9 billion people inhabiting four continents. The huge population base offers unparalleled opportunities to develop human resources and polish the labour force from the large population pool. If harnessed properly, this huge labour force can ensure rapid socio-economic development of the Muslim world. With total labour force of 578.31 million, OIC member countries can enhance their share in total labour from current 19.7% to above 30%, provided the national governments strategize the human resource development as their topmost priority.
Relative geographical continuity is another competitive advantage the OIC offers in terms of regional connectivity and creation of trade blocs. From Northwestern corner of Africa (Morocco) to all the way up to southeastern extreme of Asia (Indonesia), the Muslim countries create geographical continuum that can be strategically exploited for promotion of intra-bloc trade via elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. The geographical continuity can also offer the possibility of establishment of Islamic corridor linking the Muslims countries with railways, road and communicational infrastructure. This geographical contiguity can also be utilized for visa-relaxation or on-arrival visa facility, if Schengen-like arrangement of European Union is not possible given deep distrust and sectarian differences among Muslim countries. Interconnectivity and ensuing technical, knowledge and resource transfer and exchange within territorial boundaries of Ummah on the back of economic and financial integration of national markets would pave the way for restructuring of OIC on modern lines in order to protect the interests of Ummah as per the aspirations of common Muslims.
OIC member countries have very effective presence in UN General Assembly. The member countries count for 30% of total UNGA vote. Given this significant voting power, OIC, in its 8th Summit held in Tehran, had called for veto power in UNSC in order to protect the Muslim interests, effectively and forcefully. OIC member countries can influence critical decision-making process by dint of formulating collective response and generating consensus on key issues being faced by Muslims across the globe. It is easy to conclude that the superpower-led hegemonic era is entering its terminal phase. The future dominance of world political and economic order would be determined by regional organizations. In order to share the pie in future world order, reorganization and restructuring of OIC is critically important, if we believe that the concept of Ummah is relevant to the contemporary world, not as a manifestation of obsolete political thought.
Geostrategic and geopolitical significance of the Muslim world is a factor too determinant to ignore. The total combined area of OIC member countries is 32.19 million km2 and has many geostrategically critical waterways and chokepoints. These chokepoints and waterways, either possessed or dominated by Muslim world, include Strait of Gibraltar, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are some of the important chokepoints and waterways which are considered lifeline for ocean-based international trade. For instance, 33-km-wide Strait of Hormuz which gives just 3-km-wide shipping lane on both directions is only route to open sea for one-sixth of global oil transport and one-third of world’s LNG. About 17.2 million barrels of oil is transported daily through this strait. The same is the case with the Strait of Malacca. In addition to the possession of chokepoints, OIC member countries possess world’s important land-based and air routes. For example, Turkey acts as bridge between Asia and Europe by dominating internationally significant waterway, i.e. Bosporus. Moreover, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are situated on land-based route that provides the only viable passage to Arabian and consequently Indian Ocean for Central Asian Republics, China and Russia. The Great Game played by Russia and UK in this region speaks volumes about the centrality of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan in regional peace and security.
Though political infighting prevented the fullest realization of OIC potential, it does have organizational, technical and logistic resources to resolve the long-festering issues like poverty, illiteracy, economic backwardness, etc. For instance, establishment of Islamic Development Bank and the specialized institutions under OIC Charter, helped tremendously in boosting the trade volume and improving the social infrastructure of the member countries. Likewise, operationalization of at least 31 allied, subsidiary and affiliated institutions working in various sectors and fields like industries, commerce, trade, agriculture, youth empowerment, poverty alleviation, science and technology, banking and finance, post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction, education and cultural cooperation, food security, broadcasting and news agencies, economic and social research can go a long way in resolving issues confronting the Islamic world. The huge, ostensibly-untapped human and material resources available on the platforms of these institutions offer unique opportunity for bringing about educational and scientific renaissance in the Muslim world in line with golden teachings of Islam.
Geo-economically, 70% of world’s total oil is produced by Muslim world. In addition, the Ummah has been blessed with rich natural and human resources. Though the total value combined GDP (Nominal) of OIC members is $ 7.5 trillion (9.3% of world’s total) that is far below the $18.8 trillion GDP value of European Union, representing 22% of global economy, potential of intra-Muslim block trade is huge and nearly untapped as intra-Ummah trade is only 12% of total trade of Muslim countries with the rest of the world. With the promotion of intra-Ummah trade and connectivity, this volume can be increased manifolds.
Despite these undeniable geographical, economic and human resources of the Islamic world, it is perplexing that these countries are facing crises after crises with no light at the end of tunnel in sight. Organizational weaknesses, poor coordination among member countries, political infighting, sectarian differences, power tussle, failure to develop common Islamic identity based upon common economic and political interests, proxy wars within the Islamic world, absence of sincere and dedicated leadership, cultural barriers, divergent geostrategic interests on the back of geo-economic and strategic constrains and other factors have turned the organization into a debating club that is high on rhetoric but low on practical and meaningful steps. Except on the issue of Bosnia, the OIC has failed to even convince its members to vote in UNGA en bloc on vital issues facing by Muslims in non-Muslim countries. More than 3000 resolutions have been passed, dozens of Summits have been arranged, scores of standing committees have been erected, hundreds of press releases have been issued, dozens of contact groups have been constituted, but OIC has nothing to show the world that it brought substantial improvement in domestic and international affairs of Islamic world: Kashmir is bleeding with Modi-led infliction of fatal wounds of bifurcation and abrogation of special status (Article 370); two-state solution of Palestine has been buried deeply under Trump-led recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel; terrorism has become synonymous with Islam; economic integration among member countries is at its lowest ebb; fragmentation of Islamic bloc is unprecedentedly pronounced; Yemen is embracing the worst humanitarian crisis; Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan have been torn to pieces and the OIC is busy in passing meaningless resolutions of deepest concern, strongest condemnation and calling for demonstration of maximum constrains and refrain from violence.
Now that the OIC has completed its 50 years, it is still struggling to find its relevance in increasingly unfavourable atmosphere for Pan-Islamism. The need for institutionalized mechanism for conflict resolution and exploitation of resources of Islamic world for sustained growth and enhanced connectivity has assumed utmost urgency given multi-dimensional and multi-faceted challenges the Ummah is faced with. In this regard, the operational division of 57-member countries into five or six regional blocs would pave the way for inter-regional cooperation with implementation of strategic trade policy frameworks under the mechanism of customs union or free trade agreements. The regionalization or sub-regionalization of Islamis world is a strategic compulsion as the bloc is not as homogeneous as European Union or ASEAN. Moreover, geographical and economic considerations must also be taken into consideration. The interconnectivity can eventually be employed to achieve ambitious objectives enshrined in the OIC Charter, e.g. common Islamic market or common currency. Pan-Islamic cooperation in low-key areas like education, technology and defence in tandem with establishment of regional economic and cultural networking can evoke public sentiments of unity and Pan-Islamism that, in return, can help eradicate differences within the bloc.
Failure of OIC must be analyzed and well-hammered-out reforms must be introduced so as to increase the operational, administrative and financial efficiencies of the OIC and its se institutions in order to make them responsive towards the contemporary and pressing challenges of the 21st century. In this connection, well-financed Centers of Excellence in the fields of technology, education and economy must be established and close collaboration with institutes of international dispute be maintained for material and human resource transfer. Investment in frontier technology like artificial intelligence, robotics and other high-tech sectors would be required to ensure export competitiveness, production enhancement and diversification of export base.
OIC resolutions and decisions, adopted at Islamic Summits and Ministerial meetings, are non-binding. There must be an institutionalized mechanism for their follow-up. These and other structural reforms like empowerment of office of the Secretary-General are critically important to evolve collective response of the Islamic world in a bid to counter serious and existential threats to different Muslim countries.
As, in the words of columnist Tayyub Sadiqui, “Islamic world is in state of siege, gripped by illiteracy and despondency, helplessness and apathy, disarray and discord,” abject poverty and social underdevelopment continue to frustrate efforts aimed at scientific and social renaissance. In addition, inadequate weightage of OIC at international level despite representing 1/5th of world’s population, possessing 70% of energy resources and 40% of world’s raw material, is shameful indeed. It is high time we undertook remedial efforts to reinvigorate the OIC as the fact remains that it is useful medium for protecting Muslim interests in the international fora and creating internal cohesion.