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Islam and Politics ( 2 Feb 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A quest for reform across the Muslim world

By Mehmet Kalyoncu

January 24th, 2011

The despicable assassination in Pakistan of Punjab’s provincial governor, allegedly due to his disparaging views on Islam, has once again prompted many to question what century they are living in.

The heinous attack on the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt’s Alexandria by terrorists who either claim or are claimed to have done it in the name of Islam shows that multi-religious communities are not immune to incitements of violence. Similarly, in Tunisia the recent popular uprising because of socio-economic and political deprivation has led to the deaths of many civilians. These and many other unfortunate incidents taking place across what is dubbed the Muslim world make it ever more necessary for Muslims to proactively revisit their problems and come up with their own sustainable solutions. In this process, the onus is on reformist leaders, institutions and intergovernmental organizations, the most overarching one of which is the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the OIC, has recently authored a book titled “The Islamic World in the New Century: The Organisation of the Islamic Conference.” It has been published respectively by Hurst & Company of London in Europe, and by the Columbia University Press in the United States. The book explains the historical formation of the organization, which prides itself on being the sole intergovernmental representative of the world’s Muslim population, and the process of transformation that this organization has gone through in terms of both its structure and vision. Since taking office in 2005, the OIC’s first elected secretary-general, Ihsanoglu, has led this organization through major changes such as the revision of its charter and the adoption of a Ten-Year Programme of Action. Yet the single most daunting challenge for him remains to be convincing its some 57 member states to transform their lofty pledges into actual and sustainable action when it comes to countering extremism, injecting higher doses of moderation into the fabric of societies, ensuring respect for freedom of expression, human rights, rights of religious minorities and gender equality and attaining democratic governance, rule of law and accountability. Beside the unprecedented reforms he has introduced, the extent of the pressure that he puts on OIC member states to deliver on those pledges will define Ihsanoglu’s legacy as the ninth secretary-general of the OIC.

Criticisms aimed at the OIC

Headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the OIC has long been criticized for being insignificant, if not incapable, in defending the interests of Muslims around the world, which it claims to be representing, as well as in resolving regional conflicts and in influencing the international decision-making process on regional or global matters. Naturally the harshest critics of the organization originate from societies who have high expectations of it. As Ihsanoglu acknowledges in the book, the OIC used to be heavy on rhetoric but less so on implementation. For the most of its history, it hardly remained relevant to the international system that it was supposed to be an active part of, and ideally influence. This failure resulted from a number of reasons, which included but were not limited to divergence among the member states politically, socio-economically, culturally and ideologically; cronyism in filling key administrative positions; lack of organizational vision commensurate with the changing international environment and globalization; and an underlying sense of reactive existence.

Ironically though, in recent years, the OIC has gained publicity and visibility in the Western media, especially in the United States, albeit increasingly negatively. It stems largely from the common tendency of normally distinct groups to demonize the OIC over their own concerns about the OIC-sponsored resolution titled “Combating Defamation of Religions.” Civil rights groups accuse the OIC of trying to restrict freedom of expression by criminalizing any derogatory comment on religions and their revered figures and personalities. Freedom House suggests that the OIC initiative is an attempt to reshape international human rights instruments by linking “insult on religion” with “incitement to hatred” against the adherents of that religion, and as such to criminalize opinion. It is also concerned that the revision of law in that direction at the international level would legitimize blasphemy laws at the national level, thereby leaving freedom of expression at the mercy of the national authorities in any given country.

Beside civil rights groups, anti-Islamist groups and individual Islamophobes have spared no effort to spread their phobia by the way of demonizing the OIC, its secretary-general and its member states on the basis of that resolution. Critics of the resolution, going beyond the scope of the resolution, referred to honor killings, wife beating and female genital mutilation, among other inhumane practices stemming from local tribal cultures, as Islamic practices. The OIC has become an easy target to demonize Islam through, and the most convenient scapegoat for every “misbehavior” committed around the world by Muslims, whether in the name of Islam or not. The fact that the OIC has been at the forefront during contentions, from the cartoon crisis in Denmark to the minaret ban in Switzerland, makes it an even easier target to attack.

Transformation at the hands of Ihsanoglu

Amid these tensions, Secretary-General Ihsanoglu’s structural and substantial overhaul of the OIC has gone mostly unnoticed both in the member and non-member states, if not deliberately ignored. Probably, his most important contribution was the shift of a paradigm that defines the very existence of the OIC. He has transformed the OIC’s institutional purpose of existence from the one that is defined by the past grievances of its member states and that aims to reactively guard against the repetitions as such, to the one that is future oriented and that aims to proactively make the Muslim world a constructive and integral part of the international community. Accordingly, under Ihsanoglu, the OIC has prioritized the improvement of the socio-economic, legal and political environment in OIC member states. He argues that the future of the Muslim world depends on the development of principles of good governance, together with the establishment of a tradition of pluralistic democratic practices, respect for human rights, empowerment of women, rule of law, transparency and accountability of the administrative authority. With the adoption of a new OIC Charter in 2008, these values and concepts have officially entered into the lexicon of OIC member states.

Observers and OIC officials acknowledge that Secretary-General Ihsanoglu was influential in the preparation of the new charter by providing guidance. The OIC General Secretariat sources cite the inclusion of an independent and permanent human rights commission as an OIC organ in the new charter as an example of the many innovations that would not have been possible without his leadership and persistence.

Under the current circumstances, Secretary-General Ihsanoglu cannot be expected to pick on any OIC member state for its misconduct that paves the way for violations of human rights or an increase of religious extremism, just like the UN secretary-general is expected not to interfere in the domestic or foreign policies of UN member states. Understandably, he has to be aware of various sensitivities. However, at the same time he has to be vocally critical of such misconduct, even if doing so may make him less popular in the eyes of conservative elements of some OIC member states. There are a plethora of contentious issues from blasphemy laws to the treatment of homosexuals in which misconduct has so far not only tainted the image of OIC member states, but more importantly resulted in wider defamation of Islam. It is inconceivable that Islam does not provide solutions for these kinds of contentious issues, while it is the religion that enabled former slaves to lead nations some 1,400 years ago, whereas so-called beacons of democracy of our time have not received that level of inclusiveness and democracy even today. The OIC can greatly contribute to elucidating the true Islamic approach to any contemporary issue by revitalizing its subsidiary organ, the International Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Academy as an independent and scholarly institution, whose rulings are to be heeded by the entire Muslim world. It is quite promising that, as he indicates in the book, Secretary-General Ihsanoglu prioritizes the revitalization of the Fiqh Academy as an essential part of OIC reform.

The need for an Islamic jurisprudence authority

Current challenges faced by Muslim-majority countries, radicalization among Muslim youth in the West and the concurrent trend of Islamophobia, existence of radical elements to incite Muslim-Christian strife from the Philippines and Pakistan to Iraq, Egypt and all the way to West Africa necessitate the existence of a resourceful, proactive and moderate Islamic jurisprudence authority. In order to prove itself as a credible international organization, the OIC should assume wider and proactive roles in dealing with challenges and crises affecting the Muslim world. Secretary-General Ihsanoglu is said to have a strong conviction about the OIC’s responsibilities in this regard. He has been pushing the limits of existing mechanisms to encourage the OIC membership to devise comprehensive approaches, particularly for Somalia and Afghanistan, by taking into account the OIC’s comparative advantages.

In conclusion, the OIC symbolizes a colossal intergovernmental organization that has existed for more than 40 years, but only recently started to figure in international relations thanks to its reformist leadership. It has the potential to lead democratic change across the Muslim world and contribute to international peace and security. However, for that to happen, Secretary-General Ihsanoglu needs to be more of a general when it comes to convincing member states to deliver on their respective pledges to support the new reformist vision of the organization.

Otherwise, not only does the OIC run the risk of regressing back to oblivion once this reformist and visionary man completes his tenure, but the world community will also lose a formidable partner.

*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.