Organization of Islamic Conference: Conceptual Dimensions

Institutions are quite often products of evolving ideas. Ideas act as a source of inspiration and guidance” but they are rarely static and absolute in their manifestations. Therefore, one and the same idea can have different practical expressions in different places at different times and in relation to different socio-political realities. This is true of the idea of Muslim unity and brotherhood as well. This idea, even though integral to the socio-political philosophy of Islam and its historical ethos, has differently influenced the practical situation in the Muslim world at different historical phases. The most recent manifestation of the unifying thrust of Islam is the Organization of1slamic Conference (OIC). It provides a framework for cooperation within the Muslim world suited to its present day structure and conditions. Its edifice was laid on what is called Pan-Islamic doctrine that emerged around the end of 19th century in response to a specific historical situation and was developed and carried forward by some of the leading political thinkers and statesmen of Muslim world in modern times. The idea has had to contend and live along with various socio-political notions and philosophies accepted and operated in the Muslim world.

The strategic importance of the OIC is significantly enhanced by the fact that the territories of' its 57 member nations encompass vast areas with rich natural resources and extremely vital geographical locations from the point of view of international sea and air passages. It has come up manifestly with the objective of promoting Islamic solidarity and to consolidate cooperation among Muslim countries in social, political, economic, cultural and other areas of their day to day concern. Since its beginning in 1969, particularly after evolving a charter and creation of the formal structure in the early 70's, the organization has made significant headway not only at the level of its actual working but also in being able to evolve a number of subsidiary organs and institutions to coordinate the activities of member states in the areas of their common concern. Above all, through its regular conferences and with its observer status in the international organizations like the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity the Non-Aligned Movement etc., OIC has been involved in the socio, political and diplomatic interface with the world community at large.

The phenomenon of Islamic conference, particularly with it diplomatic and multifarious organizational-institutional dimension is a development of recent origin. The OIC by its very nature is an international organization composed of states that are Muslim, that have joined together under the state-centric framework of the organization as its sovereign members. It is only to this extent that the Organization of' Islamic Conference can be linked to the Islamic concept of Ummah, which literally means "community" or, as loosely used in OIC documents, to denote the nation in a reference to the aggregate of the Muslim World as it is constituted today. But it is it not a nation in the technical sense of the word which in modern time has been used to denote a large number of people, mainly of common descent, language, history etc., usually inhabiting an area of well define limits and forming a society under one Government.


    Islam place Muslims to whichever place, language, ethnicity they might belong to in a special relationship towards each other. But that is more in the nature of fraternity rather than a coherent doctrine of unity. The political unity of the community has all through suffered under the onslaught of tangible parochial tendencies of regionalism sometimes reinforced by ethnic, lingual and other affinities. The practical compulsions of huge geographical mass that the. Muslim world is, should have ordinarily made it difficult for a single state to function effectively, especially in the context of available means of communication and transportation during the medieval times. But in spite of the practical division of the Muslim world, there has always been an emotional thrust of unity present within the Muslim world and even a camouflage of political unity was; by and large, retained. This common feeling of affinity and oneness stems from the injunctions of the Qur’an and is enforced by the directives of the Prophet of Islam emphasizing unity, elements of commonness and independence among the Muslim peoples. The OIC Charter also makes a reference to this fact in its initial statement, which says, "that the common belief constitutes a strong factor for rapprochement and solidarity between Islamic peoples." This feeling of affinity and desire for unity on the part of Muslims not only stems from the Islamic ideological ethos rooted in the doctrinal sources, but has also been reinforced by the unfavorable world situation that the Muslim World was confronted with especially in modern times under the onslaught of imperialism.

However, while accepting that the Islamic thrust of the OIC stems from the Muslim feeling of affinity and a kind of nostalgic concern on their part for unity, it has to be noted that its international and organizational character with a diplomatic thrust is a product of modern times. As noted earlier the OIC is an international organization of sovereign nations who are Muslim. In other words, Islamic identity as a religion of masses has provided some common basis to a group of states to join together under the framework of OIC to benefit from what such an international gathering can provide in modern times. International organization is a modern phenomenon. It has come up in circumstances that are the creation of modern times and it is these circumstances that not only sustain it but also strengthens the process in this direction. The emergence of such organizations since the 19th century, especially their proliferation in the 20th century was largely facilitated - rather necessitated - by the rapid industrialization that revolutionized the transportation and communication systems within and among states and thereby reduced the physical world into a smaller unit and created an unavoidable network of interdependence among states. This system of interdependence has stimulated the creation of international organizations of states that use them as a conduit for cooperation in social, economic and political fields.

Judging by the structure of the organization, style of operation and functioning, procedural aspects, and the character and the nature of its membership, OIC qualifies to be called an International Governmental Organization like UNO, ASEAN, OAU etc. But it is unique in the sense that it is neither universal like UNO, encompassing all countries irrespective of their geographical, ideological and political placement nor is it regional like ASEAN, GCC, SAARC, specific to the countries of a given region. It is based on an ideological linkage drawn from the concept of Islamic brotherhood but as said previously, operating in a modern setting. Therefore, the OIC is unique in the sense that it is possibly the only international governmental organization which is based on religious foundations and in which Islamic tradition is used in the contemporary context and in convergence with the modern organizational framework to serve the imperatives of cooperation created primarily by modern situation. In the case of such international organizations representatives of member states assemble to deliberate on issues or problems of common concern and try to arrive at a common stand or strategy to deal with them. The Conference in the technical sense of conference diplomacy has been identified with this pattern of decision-making mechanism of such international organizations. The working of the OIC and its conference sessions either at the Foreign Ministers' level or at the summit level, stand a testimony to this style of functioning. Its sessions are identifiable; they deal with identifiable issues and at the end of each session a set of resolutions is passed and communiqué is issued.


In sum, the international governmental organization provides a framework for cooperation to countries that are different with some common bases to cooperate. This has been made use of by Muslim states in the formation of the OIC. But whatever the framework, they could not have come together all of a sudden and at a single instance. In addition to the common religion, which provides the Muslim nations identifiable bases to join together, several factors rooted in their modern history have stimulated their moves in this direction. This urge is commonly known as Pan-Islamism that found manifest expression in the closing decades of the 19th century. So far as the term Pan-Islamism is concerned, it can be hardly explained or comprehended by any stereotype definition. Pan-Islamism is no prescribed doctrine to suggest any ideal type either. It is simply a general and even vague name given to the urges of some concerned Muslim personalities like Jamaluddin Afghani for the moral, material and political resurgence of Muslims. The phenomenon also refers to a common feeling of Muslims, all over the world, for some sort of unity and solidarity, which is rooted in their doctrinal guidelines and has got reinforced by the unfavorable world atmosphere with which they were confronted especially since western imperialist onslaught entangled them. Afghani has typified the Islamic response to it through his Pan-Islamic views.

Therefore, the term "Pan-Islamism" used here is not to denote any stereo/ideal type, but simply to refer, that too in a general sense, to a common longing (even though it may not be always manifestly strong) of Muslims of all places for the regeneration of the Muslim community both in secular and religious sense. This concern incorporates certain amount of motivation for unity, solidarity and cooperation, in some common areas and it stems from their consciousness of belonging to one faith that placed them in a relationship of mutual brotherhood and to that extent different and distinct from the rest of mankind. This urge as said earlier possesses the dynamism to live and evolve according to the changing conditions and thereby befit the requirements of the Muslim world in different times. In modern times the appeal for the unity on Islamic basis was first made in the last quarter of 19th century by Ottoman ruler Sultan Abd-ul-Hamid (1876-1909), and Jamaluddin Afghani who had different (even though complementary) objective in mind. Abdul Hamid, as a ruler of the decaying Ottoman Empire, wanted to revitalize and infuse some element of unity in the disintegrating empire. During his rule and the period preceding him, the Ottoman Empire was tottering under the onslaught of the national liberation movements in the Balkans and Arab areas on the one hand and the expansive ambitions of the Europeans on the other.

As compared to Sultan Abdul Hamid, Jamaluddin Afghani's pan-Islamism had relatively wider and more long-term objectives and he operated in broader Islamic context. He was operating in a period when the Muslim world was on decline, and was being increasingly entrenched upon by the imperialism. He had a remarkable understanding of the nature of imperialism with its political, economic and cultural dimensions. Therefore he strived for consolidating the social, economic and political resources of the Muslims so that they could regain, retain and protect their independence. He thought that this objective could be realized only through the moral, material and spiritual resurgence of the Muslim people. He maintained that European powers were not innately stronger than the Muslim States. He asserted that the existing belief that the Europeans were superior was more of an illusion, and a dangerous one. He felt that such illusions made men cowardly. Muslim decay, according to him, was mainly because they were ignorant, disunited and lacking in public virtues. He exhorted that "There ought to be no doubt in the fact that for the honour of Muslim countries, unity and mutual solidarity is the most essential pre-requisite under the Islamic law. The belief in this has to be the primary element of their faith."

However, he did not want all Muslims to merge into a single political entity. Instead of organic unity, he visualized Muslim countries internally strong, becoming units in some kind of federal or con-federal arrangement. Islam, he said, "having once been great could be great again, if it did not allow Europe to trample over it; it must resist because it could resist.” The way to resist was to bring about reforms in each Muslim country to make them strong and then to unite those in some sort of loose Pan-Islamic federation or confederation. With all his devotion and energetic involvement, Afghani had not limited success in getting certain socio-political reforms introduced in Muslim communities nor could he unite them to fight back and resist the challenges of Western imperialism. Therefore, such Pan-Islamic assertions did neither succeed in keeping Ottoman Empire intact for long nor could it save the Muslim world from Western encroachments. On the contrary after the death of Afghani, at the turn of the century and in the early years of the 20th century the Muslim world witnessed greater Western penetration into its social, economic and political life that resulted in almost the total disintegration and subjection of the Muslim world. Particularly after the World War-1, Muslim world was in shambles and most of the Muslim countries were colonized and people remained preoccupied with their own subjective problems of gaining independence. So, in such an atmosphere, no serious attempts for Pan-Islamism could be pursued with success. However, at the intellectual level Afghani's thought and action did leave a deep impression on the consciousness of Muslims of the later generations. His teachings reached almost every corner of the world. The vigour and the originality of his ideas greatly inspired some of the leading reformers of the Muslim world in late 19th and early 20th century. In the words of Allama Iqbal : "He (Afghani) wrote little, spoke much and thereby transformed into miniature Jamaluddins all those who came into contact with him. He never claimed to be a prophet; yet no man in our times has stirred the soul of Islam more deeply than he. His spirit is still working in the world of Islam and nobody knows where it will end”.


Many thinkers that were influenced by him further clarified the idea of Muslim unity and its nature. In this regard Dr Mohammad Iqbal produced a remarkable insight into what could be the nature of this Muslim unity in the modern context. His conception reflects the realistic understanding of political situation in the Muslim world. He says: "For the present, every Muslim nation must sink into her own deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on herself alone, until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics." A living unity: is truly manifested in a multiplicity of free, independent units whose racial rivalries are adjusted and harmonized by the unifying bond of common spiritual aspiration. It seems to me that God is slowly bringing home to us the truth that Islam is neither nationalism nor imperialism but a league of nations which recognizes artificial boundaries and racial distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restructuring the social horizon of its members. This shows that how close was his conception to that of international organizational framework on which OIC is based.

At practical level since early 20th century, the idea of Pan-Islamism found expression in the form of various calls for Islamic conferences, which were being made every now and then to evolve a forum for cooperation and coordination in the Muslim world and also to develop a uniform approach towards the common problems. It was immediately after the World War-I that the first few such conferences were held.  In post-colonial period many of the Muslim states made attempts to bring the Muslim world closer on the basis of some broad Islamic framework. This was facilitated by several factors. A host of new Islamic states with the experience of anti-colonial struggle emerged on the scene and almost all of them were disadvantageously placed in a world which had been socially, politically and economically dominated by the two blocs of countries from the East and West. The context provided the great scope for such countries to join together and thereby withstand economic and political pressures in which they could be otherwise caught up in the bipolar system. The growth of the phenomenon of international organization offered a kind of framework for such cooperation. Therefore, we find that a variety of Islamic conferences were held in the 50's and 60's on the invitation of various Islamic countries. The main initiatives in this regard came from Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia but without any substantive success.

It was ultimately the Saudi initiative in 1960’s that had some success.  King Faisal pursued the matter with all his material resources and diplomatic skill. His initiative resulted in the creation of the Organization of Islamic Conference as most viable of all Islamic organizations that came up to work as conduit for cooperation among Muslim countries in various fields. Saudi quest was rooted in the specific geo-political and diplomatic setting in which. Saudi Arabia was placed from the end of fifties to the end of sixties. Change in the diplomatic balance in the Arab world after 1967 war, greatly contributed to the success of the Saudi initiative. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war not only shifted the balance of power in the area but it also created a new set of issues to deal with. The most important development in this regard was the military occupation of East Jerusalem - the third holiest city for Muslims - by Israel. Faisal was deeply committed to the liberation of the city and the Al-Aqsa mosque located there. So he called upon all the Islamic states to support the Arabs for securing the liberation of Jerusalem. Increase in his country’s oil wealth since mid-sixties helped in giving sustenance to his initiative.

In such a situation of diplomatically more conducive atmosphere, the arson of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on August 21, 1969 under Israeli occupation provided a natural opportunity to Faisal to call for the Islamic Summit Conference. The widespread belief was that the fire was intentional aimed to destroy al-Aqsa mosque to facilitate the resurrection of the Temple of Solomon. It was in this context that Faisal, himself disturbed, found a-suitable environment and called for an Islamic Summit Conference to consider the situation. It was in this context that first Islamic Summit conference was convened at Rabat that resulted in creation a formal organization of Muslim states named as the OIC. During the last about 30 years of its existence, the OIC has made a modest headway in evolving a network of institutions to operate as a conduit of cooperation within the Islamic world. But at the present level of its development it has only been able to create the necessary infrastructure for such cooperation; it is yet to reach the take-off stage (with possible exception of Islamic Development Bank).


However, looking at the gradual process in which the idea of Islamic unity has evolved and got concretized during the last more than a century, one can afford to be legitimately optimistic about its future accomplishments.  While assessing its success we need to keep its state-centric character in mind. That means that the OIC is not overarching supreme organization capable of functioning independently and effectively. Instead, it is an organization where members with their divergent interests retain sovereign initiative. More so, most of the Muslim states have yet to completely emerge from the disadvantages that the colonial order had pushed them to. The contemporary world order has constrained them by a number of predicaments. But as we understand today the global order is in a flux allowing new possibilities to unfold with greater democratization of the order and the Muslim countries internally. The emerging order is also creating stronger imperative for interdependence at different levels. This is likely to give new meaning to Muslim cooperation with enriched intellectual and cultural resources and socio-political empowerment sustained by people’s participation.
# Prof. Noor Ahmed Baba is author of book OIC. He is Professor of Political Science in University of Kashmir. He was also Dean of Social Sciences.