OIC: myth and reality

Published in the Daily Times on October 30, 2003

Touqir Hussain

The OIC like the UN is as good as its members can make it to be. It is not an entity independent of the will of its members, and that will does not bend to exhortations and lamentations in the name of God and for the glory of our great faith

Under assault from religious militancy at home, and belligerent rhetoric from the West, the morale in much of the Islamic world is low. Its response is threefold: denying any responsibility in fostering the forces of extremism; aggressive defensiveness towards the West, which is being blamed for almost everything that has unfortunately gone wrong in our societies; yearning for a miracle, i.e., the ummah becoming a strong economic and political force to solve the problems facing the Islamic world; finally, to look up to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) as the miracle maker.

Let’s see if the high-minded deliberations and resolutions of the recent OIC Summit can achieve this dream? The analysis must be informed by the fact that in the world of diplomacy words are often used to hide rather than reveal and are removed from actual policies.

What exactly is the OIC and can it achieve the ideal of the ummah’s economic and political co-operation, wished so fervently by Muslims around the world? The Conference is a collection of 57countries speckled in four continents, ranging from Surinam in South America to the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia.

A country’s economic interests stem from its geography and resources, political and security concerns, its history, relations with the neighbours and the geo-strategic profile of the region. A complex of domestic conditions — culture, ethnic mix of the population, social structure, domestic political compulsions, and the wishes and assumption of the ruling classes — are also relevant. It also makes a difference that some are conservative Islamic states, some radical Islamic and others Islamic socialist, while the rest are quasi-liberal democracies.

Given these realities, can one expect the Islamic countries to unite in a common purpose in harmonising their foreign policy and aligning their economic interests and policies? The truth is that it is simply not possible to base a state’s policies on religion, however strong one’s personal faith and conviction may be. Look at the actual picture. The Maghreb has natural economic ties with the EU, not only because of the geographical proximity and the historical linkages but also due to the presence of its sizeable immigrant population in Europe. Muslim Southeast Asia has strong economic ties with Confucius, Christian and Buddhist Southeast Asia both through ASEAN and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). The Sub-Saharan Africa, including some Islamic countries, has its own economic groupings many of which enjoy preferential tariff with EU.

The security picture follows the same logic and is no less complex. Saudi Arabia is cooperating with Pakistan and Iran with India. Bangladesh is as friendly to India as to brotherly Pakistan. The Muslim countries in Southeast Asia are worried over the looming strategic shadow of China and the status of South China Sea, while Pakistan is a close ally of China and has normal, if not friendly, relations with North Korea, a serious threat to many of our friends in the Asia Pacific, including some brothers-in-faith. And there is a larger strategic dialogue in that region known as ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) which Pakistan is desperately trying to join. Now let us ponder over which of these groupings or relationships is religion-based and inspired.

Let us not get carried away with our illusory expectations of OIC or get despondent over lack of unity and sterility of co-operation among the Muslim countries. It is not possible. This is not a reflection on the eroding influence of religion. Even strong religious conviction would not bring about the chimerical unity prevalent in the days of Islam’s glory. Islam was then for most of historical times a single empire — one family, not 57 nation-states. To expect these states to start re-living now in the 21st century as an extended family is to ask for the moon.

But on individual basis, depending on the commonality of interests, backed up by a community of values and culture, Muslim countries can, and should, cooperate to the extent possible. We must bear in mind, however, that whatever little cooperation already exists between individual countries is largely based on realpolitik and not on religious ideals, though for political reasons religion is often credited with such ‘fraternal’ ties. The Houbara hunting grounds in Pakistan perhaps add as much to our strategic value among the Arab Sheikhs as our common faith. But seriously speaking, there is still some scope for further cooperation, because Muslims are facing certain common challenges. This relates to issues like how to reform and modernise, deal with terrorism and radicalism, and how to fight back the propaganda war launched by the West.

The OIC may have some relevance and the potential to do some good in these areas. Not that it matters much but it can also help members to harmonise their diplomacy at the UN on political issues affecting the Muslim world, especially Palestine and Kashmir, and to share respective expertise and experience in developing a reformist Islamic outlook, in education and the introduction of such concepts as Islamic banking and so on.

The true potential of the OIC will be realised only when we recognise its limitations as much as its potential strengths: what it can and cannot do. By narrowing the focus on achievable goals we may be able to enhance public confidence in the organisation and lend it support. Unrealistic objectives lead to disappointments and disillusionment dampening the motivation for commitment and support to the institution.

The OIC like the UN is as good as its members can make it to be. It is not an entity independent of the will of its members, and that will does not bend to exhortations and lamentations in the name of God and for the glory of our great faith.

The writer is a former Ambassador