Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the general secretary of the OIC, the world’s largest intergovernmental political organization after the UN, shared the future vision of the OIC with me in a private interview in Libreville.
The selection of Gabon as a venue for the first ever-ministerial level meeting of the OIC information ministers, in the central part of Africa, says a lot to the world. Gabon is a Francophone country with a stable economy and secure environment in the tough neighborhood of Central and West Africa. It boasts harmonious living between the majority Christians and minority Muslims in a country where a Muslim president was elected with the support of both groups in 2009.
İhsanoğlu touts Gabon as a good example of the OIC platform in respecting different religions, cultures and ethnicities. He has established a very close relationship with President Ali Bongo Ondimba whom he knew since he was defense minister during the long rule of the president’s father, El Haji Omar Bongo. The exchange of pleasantries between the two in Libreville was not just diplomatic courtesy but rather personal admiration and respect the two leaders have for each other. Ondimba even drove the OIC leader in his private car to the central mosque across his presidential compound for Friday prayer, during which the two men stood next to each other.
While I was watching the two leaders, carefully listening to the sermon delivered by Imam Muhammad Rizogo from a couple of rows back, I was impressed by Rizogo’s remarks about Christians and Muslims who live peacefully together in this African country. He was offering his prayers for people of both religions and asking the two leaders to work hard to project the true image of Islam, which is something Gabon represents in reality. Rizogo was vocal in his criticism of extremism, radicalism and terrorism, stating that they have nothing to do with the very essence of Islamic teaching.
This was only one scene of many, which indicated the OIC has become a leading voice in raising issues confronting Muslims living all over the world, all under the watchful eye of İhsanoğlu since 2005. As Gabonese Imam Rizogo said in his Friday sermon, İhsanoğlu turned the OIC into an ultimate authority to speak on behalf of all Muslims in international forums, from condemning and rejecting all types of terrorism, be it committed under the name of Islam or not, to holding governments in the West and in the East responsible for the rising anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia.
Though the OIC was established in 1969, over four decades ago, it was only under Turkish diplomat İhsanoğlu’s efforts that the OIC was able to transform itself from a simple “talking shop” forum to an organization with real teeth to use when grievances of Muslims were not addressed properly. The fact that the US appointed a special envoy to the OIC, Russia maintains observer status, China and the UK regularly consult with İhsanoğlu on Muslim issues and many non-Muslim countries from Serbia to Brazil have lined up to get observer status within the OIC says a lot.
As expected, it was not easy for İhsanoğlu, the first democratically elected secretary general of the world’s largest Muslim body, to overhaul the organization by introducing new reforms and actually implementing them. Although many challenges still remain within the OIC, I must say he did a remarkable job in the seven years of his tenure, which will expire in 2014. He managed well the current crises facing Muslims in different countries from Sudan to Somalia, from Syria to Palestine. For example, it was the OIC that first issued a statement in a standoff over the Heglig oil field located in Sudan after it was seized two weeks ago by troops from South Sudan, which declared independence last year. “We were involved in the dispute even before the African Union issued a statement,” İhsanoğlu said. Again it was the OIC to establish first global organization to open a Humanitarian Mission in Somalia after twenty years of clashes and violence in a failed state.
The fact that OIC’s 57 member states have linkages to other international and regional organizations has further raised the clout of İhsanoğlu in pushing many issues on different platforms. The OIC members maintain their positions in the African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, and NATO and these relations boost the OIC’s image in the world. Even UN Secretary General Ban KI-Moon acknowledged that the OIC has become a strategic partner to the world’s largest body, the UN, in dealing with peace and security. Indeed the OIC helped diffuse tension in Iraq with the 2006 Mecca Agreement in which Iraqi Sunni and Shiite religious leaders agreed to stop the bloodshed. Now he is trying to open a new stage for that agreement to resolve the governance crisis in Iraq.
Despite differences among its member states, İhsanoğlu, an outspoken general secretary of the OIC, did not shy away from taking a strong yet principled position in the so-called Arab Spring events (He prefers the term “Arab Autumn” instead). In Libya, he was the first international figure to denounce the use of force against civilians and to urge a process of political transition to meet the legitimate aspirations of Libyan people. On Syria, he described the civil unrest as a demand of citizens for democratization rather than a sectarian conflict. The secretary-general rejected military interference into Syria while silently working on a diplomatic push to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime into a compromise deal.
Even when it comes to two archrival members of the OIC, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, İhsanoğlu has crafted a delicate diplomacy in order to ensure that the OIC is not damaged in any way because of the two heavyweights’ staunch opposition to each other on every platform. He took the gloves off when needed as well. For example he did not hide his utter displeasure in the face of controversial statements made by Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, who said in a March fatwa that the building of new churches should be banned in the Gulf region and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed. He said Islam respects the religions of Ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) and their houses of worship, citing a treaty that Caliph Omar had signed with Christians in Jerusalem on the protection of churches -- a treaty he said created a model for the Islamic world on how to treat the houses of worship of other religions.
As for Iran, he has strongly resisted Tehran’s unrelenting overtures to gain more influence in the OIC club, warning Iranians against exerting further pressure on the OIC. According to him, it is simply out of question for Iran to overstep boundaries in the world’s largest Muslim body because of the overwhelming Sunni majority bloc within the OIC, which includes heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others.
When it comes to protecting the rights of minority Muslim groups, İhsanoğlu did not avoid picking a fight with many governments in Europe, Americas and Asia, establishing an office to monitor rising Islamophobia in Europe. He directed the OIC to keep a close eye on the situations of Muslims in China, the Russian Federation, Bulgaria, Greece, Thailand, and the Philippines while blasting the blockade and isolation efforts of Greek Cypriots to suffocate Turkish Muslims in the Turkish Republic of Northern Republic (KKTC), which is an OIC observer member.
Capitalizing on the huge economies of OIC member states as a springboard for action, İhsanoğlu developed the Trade Preferential System and Rules of Origin agreements -- both of which entered into effect in Feb. 2010 and Aug. 2011 respectively -- to encourage Muslim countries into trading with each other more and it worked. The intra trade within the OIC bloc increased from 14 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010 with a set target of 20 percent by 2015. The trade volume jumped from $205 billion in 2010 to $539 billion in 2011.
The Turkish diplomat has really turned a dysfunctional organization into one of the most dynamic actors in international politics. He cannot run beyond 2014 but if anything he will leave a legacy that far outlasts his term. That legacy is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 16/18, which was unanimously adopted in March 2011 and formulated on the basis of the eight points provided by the OIC secretary-general to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual understanding.
The resolution, titled, “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief,” was backed by the US and the EU as well as by other non-OIC members. It framed the discussion of Islam on a constructive platform while inspiring the UN and other international bodies who deal with similar issues. I would say kudos to Mr. İhsanoğlu.