The OIC : Revisiting its Identity and Promise
The standing of OIC from the perspective of its identity and mission as an international organization, based on religion, makes a thought-provoking study. The phenomena of its birth and more curiously, its survival in the past more than three decades, has come about in the most secular century in known history of humankind. The organization though discussed more often for its failings than successes, has in fact steadily enlarged its organizational structure as well as membership. Looking beyond the contemporary phase, it will be a curious question as to whether the organization should be dismissed merely as a ‘talk-shop’ or viewed as a ‘promise for tomorrow’ in the context of hopes and aspirations of its protagonists.
The OIC as it unfolded in the year 1972, was indeed an expression of Muslim identity through inter-governmental concord of the founding fathers. It epitomized hopes which characterized Muslim psyche since the end of the Caliphate. The birth of the organization represented consensual response which the governments of predominantly muslim countries could offer in the wake of contemporary challenges. It was first triggered by the assault on Masjid al Aqsa and then driven by the interplay of forces that were not necessarily harmonious: ‘idealists’ carrying forward the mantle of ‘revival’ and the protectors of status quo, characterized by inertia and geo political constrains. The end product in terms of achievements is the full-bloom organizational apparatus though with an uncertain readiness to deliver, that keeps up hopes for a better tomorrow.
* The writer is a Kashmiri, born in Jammu now living on Pakistan-side of the State. He served Pakistani Foreign Service for 34 years, retiring as Ambassador and re-entering academic profession in the domain of politics. Currently, he chairs Global Studies at the Institute of Strategic Studies; Research and Analysis (ISSRA) in Islamabad.
Since the end of Caliphate, muslim psyche has always been pre-disposed towards concepts that relate to muslim identity and revival of the Ummah. Consecutive efforts to enact a Pan-Islamist organization, whether inter-governmental or at popular level, were indicators of the phenomena. The OIC is one amongst several manifestations of the phenomena of our re-awakening. However the organization ought to be viewed in the context of its role as an inter-governmental platform, that mirrors all the strengths and failings of its constituents. Our expectations from the OIC can not, therefore, be overstated or overstretched. Indeed, the organization should be given a realistic appraisal.
To recall, the exponents of Islamic Renaissance in the later colonial phase and its aftermath did not necessarily view the Ummah as a monolith, that seeks allegiance at the cost of diversity it represents. In this context, the contemporary thought process has been enriched by Jamal ul Din Afghani and people like Muhammad Abdu in the Arab World and of course, Dr. Iqbal in South Asia. The calls made by them were focused on the need to enhance internal strength of muslim countries instead of merging them into a single political entity. Various political entities could thus be part of a trans-national umbrella, whether federal or confederal. The most apt articulation of concept was done by poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, a son of Kashmir. He wrote:
“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 restricting the social horizon of its members”.
(The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam)
Iqbal’s thought was unwittingly the fore-runner of idea behind OIC as an inter-governmental organization.
The OIC from its very inception, proclaimed an Islamic identity and a mission commensurate with challenges that the Ummah faced in the contemporary arena. The critics, however, continue to find a wide gap between its lofty goals and ideals, and its report-card as expected from its functional attributes as an international organization. Yet the organization has over the years, not merely survived and evolved an elaborate infrastructure comparable with any international organization: Permanent Secretariat with specialized committees and subsidiary organs. More importantly, the organization has doubled its membership since its inception: from 26(?) to 57 at present. The membership by now encompasses all muslim-majority nation-states.
The survivability and growth of the OIC inspite of its name-tag and upturn in its membership in the wake of a deficient report card as an international organization, carries significant political connotations. First, the very birth of an inter-governmental organization with muslim identity, is new since the abolition of Caliphate. It is indeed the first and the only model of its kind in the contemporary arena. Second, this very existence rejects the post-World War-II notions that the birth of nation-states and the related secular ideas has in any way outweighed the ideal of a supra-national Islamic identity. The OIC ranks today include as dynamic partners all those who were either weary of Islamic conferences or belong to the secular realm. Even the Secretariat is now headed by a Turk. There are no significant exclusions in the process today.
Not the least, the OIC provides the leaders of Muslim nations across the globe one platform for inter-governmental dialogue and action, and an opportunity to project a Muslim world view. The opening had not existed in centuries. (A scholar regarded this as the first ever common platform since rival Caliphates in Baghdad and Qurtuba: 750 AD, opted for separate development). “The mere existence of OIC, therefore, is a great achievement in the ordinary muslim life.
The OIC’s report card is often put to litmus test with reference to major functions expected of an international organization: collective security, peaceful resolution of inter-member disputes, foreign policy coordination, and the promotion of economic and technical cooperation. The OIC has a declaratory position that “the security of each muslim country is a concern of all”. However this assertion has not been transformed into a collective security system that could be put to use. Second, it has very often employed ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to contain tensions and resolve disputes amongst its ranks, and used the deliberative fora to enlarge awareness regarding potential threat from outside in case of internal contradictions are accentuated. However, the non-containment of Iran-Iraq war and later Iraqi occupation of Kuwait were major setbacks. The organization, unlike the UN Security Council, does not have a regime for censure or enforcement. Third, the organization has registered good progress in evolving common positions on political issues although “without teeth” and in enforcing moral standing and international legitimacy of issues that are vital. In this context, the consensus stance on issues such as self-determination for Palestine and Kashmir, besides support for Bosnian people, attained high visibility. However, the organization has not been very effective in perusing the causes of Muslim minorities, owing to limitations imposed by national sovereignty question. Fourth, the OIC organs are making a good beginning in cooperation in the economic and technological fields.
The OIC decisison making process: ‘consensus’ rather than majority vote carries double-edged implications. It has met with success in formulating common positions on political questions. Yet it is deprives the ranks of dynamism in consonance with its standing and profile. It can lead upto inertia and blame as a mere ‘talk-shop’. At times, “the absence of teeth” in the way of follow up, can be further compounded by the constraints imposed by international system under which individual nation- states have to operate.
Notwithstanding the so called inertia, the most striking feature of the OIC relates to its elaborate intuitional network and the continuity this infrastructure represents in the international arena. The main organs are the Conference of Heads of States, Conference of Foreign Ministers (annual meetings), Permanent General Secretariat, which follows up the resolutions and takes care of finances, and the Islamic Court of Justice which is in the process of ratification. Concurrently, it has set in motion four Specialized Committees, Subsidiary Organs including the prolific Islamic Development Bank, and a number of institutions in the area of education and culture. All this indicates the good work already done and potential in store that holds the promise for tomorrow. Interestingly, the Secretariat and members are now showing greater readiness for reform: re-ordering priorities and managerial efficiency, and to adopt a new Charter in harmony with the environment.
In the contemporary history, the capacity of muslim nation–states viz action or inaction had been very much related to two key factors, one external and another internal. The limitations imposed by the prevalent, weather related to the pulls of Cold War bipolarity or the demands of uni-polarity, have been crucial pace – setters. Concurrently, the political elite of nation – states, not always in harmony with the popular pulse, continue to contribute towards status quo. Consequently, we are witnessing a two-fold phenomena: continued marginalization of the Ummah in influencing and setting the international agenda. Secondly, there is a widening gap between state and street in the muslim societies that has ramifications on politics, economy and culture of the Ummah. This setting, ought to be kept in full view while evaluating the OIC report card of the past decades and what can be achieved once the external and internal factors undergo a climatic change.
No doubt, we live in an era of Islamic Re-awakening, even though our view of the phenomena may be blurred, and progress slowed down owing to manifold challenges that overwhelm today’s scenario. The 21st century should be unfolding a greater revival within the muslim societies: democratic cultural, good governance, economic upturn, side by side with growing pride in common identity. The upcoming 25 years or so, should also witness an erosion in unipolarity and in unilateralism, giving a greater leverage to the muslim world in the political and economic direction. The optimists like to look for right time to match and click the existing OIC infrastructure with the new international environment as it starts unfolding.
#Author is of Kashmiri descent
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