The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is an international institution that was formed in 1969 as a result of an arson attack upon the Al Asqa Mosque in Jerusalem. The flames that engulfed this symbolic site caused shock and indignation throughout the Islamic world, and the OIC was formed as a result. The man who committed this act of arson, named Denis Rohan, did so to bring about a holy war, a desire that to some extent reflects what Huntington described twenty years later as the “clash of civilisations”. This new form of conflict has seen a departure from the traditional wars of the past and instead sees loosely defined cultural entities pick up the mantle of being the dominant actors in the international system. If the actions of the Australian-born Rohan represent the clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, then the origin of the OIC can be directly attributed to this conflict. By analysing this organisation we can learn much about the current state of relations between civilisations, but more importantly we can see cracks within the Islamic civilisation that are currently trying to mend themselves.
Today the OIC boasts an eclectic mix of 57 member states that are spread out across four continents. After the United Nations the OIC is the second largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, and it seeks to represent the best interests of Muslim populations within its member states. Its sheer size would suggest that it is a key player in the international system; and as acts of violence are increasingly being committed by and against Muslims the need for the OIC has never been so apparent.
Based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the OIC provides an arena where representatives of Islam can come together and “protect the interests of the Muslim world, in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony”. Similar to the model of international organisation that we witness today, the OIC seeks to achieve peace through promoting greater dialogue, economic interdependence and an agreement to foster security between its members. A subtle difference between the OIC and the UN however, is that it often represents the Muslim populations within non-Muslim states. Thus to an extent the OIC supports the claim that the important borders in the world are no longer between nations, but between cultures. The OIC is not however trying to supplant the authority of the UN, and by committing itself to the UN Charter it has sought to supplement its work, not replace it.
Its main state representatives demonstrate the conflict lines that are drawn throughout the Muslim world, as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran all claim membership to the OIC. Even Russia, which has a Muslim population twice the size of London, possesses observer status in this international institution; demonstrating the truly curious mix of nation states that come together under one roof to strive for peace in the Muslim world. Just imagine what it would mean for the security of the international system if the OIC were successful in achieving its goals. Russia may not be propping up a brutal regime in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran may feel no need to fight a proxy war in Yemen; and Iraq may not be ravaged from within by the blight that is the Islamic State (IS). The OIC offers the potential for cooperation between Muslims where today there is conflict, and the Islamic civilisation that can be characterised by much infighting could instead possess a single coherent peaceful identity. But, for whatever reason, this is sadly not the case.
Despite its claims to represent the “collective voice of the Muslim world”, the OIC is almost never mentioned or heard in global political discourse. Who then represents and speaks for the Islamic civilisation? Unfortunately the Islamic entity that receives more attention then any other, despite its goals and methods completely misrepresenting Islam, is the Islamic State. Bad news may travel faster than good news, but the complete absence of the OIC from any current discussion on Islam symbolises a whitewashing of moderate Muslims from the political discussion. Meanwhile IS may not be the most accurate representation of Islam, but its voice is the one that we hear above all others.
However, whilst the actions of both IS and the OIC belong to two opposite ends of the spectrum, we can draw a comparison between the sentiment that underpin much of their existence. IS declared a Caliphate in 2014, a Muslim state that would act as a “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Meanwhile the OIC seek to “galvanise the Ummah (Islamic Community) into a unified body”. Both seem to have noted the clear lack of unity amongst the Islamic world, and have sought out methods and approaches to remedy this. How they go about achieving this goal differs drastically, and reflects a fascinating debate present in International Relations about how to counter anarchy. The difference here is that the anarchy they are trying to counter is an Islamic one, as the absence of a single Muslim governing body has seen conflict spread throughout this civilisation. IS have established a Muslim state that seeks to take Muslims everywhere out of anarchy, whilst the OIC seek to establish an international organisation that does not replace anarchy but seeks to govern it instead. These two approaches represent the contrast between revolution and evolution, as IS wants to completely change the state of the Muslim world whilst the OIC merely want to adapt the Muslim world to exist more peacefully within the current system.
Although these two competing approaches differ, the problem that they both seek to address suggests that there is not a clash of civilisations, but rather a clash within a civilisation. The conflict between Islam and the West is often highlighted as the greatest conflict of our time, yet to refer to Islam as a single acting entity would seem to be misguided when so much violence we see is being committed between Muslims. Both IS and the OIC have sought to remedy this problem, but they have adopted different approaches for different reasons. Through sheer barbarity, IS hope to unite the fractious Islamic world to aid in their fight against the West, whilst the OIC want to unite the Islamic community to contribute and maintain a global peace. If these are the two competing voices of Islam that are on offer, then surely it is obvious which one we should be listening to. Whilst we observe this conflict from afar, we also contribute to it by characterising Islam in the way that we do. The OIC is by far a finished product, and it is highly questionable whether the undemocratically elected heads of state that make up the OIC can be seen to represent normal Muslims. What the OIC does represent however is an opportunity for progress, as countries that often fight one another have proven when they choose to sit together in meetings of the OIC. What we must not do however is disregard this organisation as irrelevant, and every effort should be made for moderate Islam to regain its voice and for the OIC to prove that actions are louder then words.
About the Author
Jacob Goodison is currently Head of International Relations at the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies, where he researches capacity gaps in foreign governments and NGO’s, and recommends training programmes to these organisations to help them govern more effectively. He received a first class honours Bachelors Degree in International Relations from the University of Leeds, and had a short internship placement at Leeds City Council.
Cover image ‘Flag of OIC‘ licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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