The Organization of Islamic Cooperation: Opportunities and Threats
On the Occasion of the 13th OIC Summit in Istanbul
By Hassan Beheshtipour, Expert on International Issues
Holding of the 13th summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Turkish port city of Istanbul on Thursday and Friday, April 14 and 15, 2016, will provide member states with a good opportunity to discuss at the highest political level the issue of rising conflicts in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, and possible ways out of the current crisis. The issue of cooperation of Islamic countries to boost relations among these countries is another important aspiration of all member states, which has been raised in all past meetings of the organization. However, this organization has not been able to forge unity and cooperation among member countries, the majority of whose population is Muslim, as it has been expected. In practice, this organization has served like the United Nations, namely as a venue for the exchange of viewpoints among member countries, and limited practical steps have been taken to eliminate existing problems among those countries. The following article tries to explore the most important opportunities and challenges with which the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is currently faced.
A) High potentialities of Islamic countries in modern world
After the lapse of about 47 years of its establishment, this organization has not been able despite all ups and downs to find a new position in international arena. As a result, the need for mechanisms, which would be able to pave the ground for new cooperation among member states, is felt more than any time before. This issue is especially important because the OIC has been able through expansion of cooperation with other international bodies, including the United Nations, to boost its influence in the world. The most important potentialities of Muslim countries include:
1. Having one-fourth of the world’s population
By accounting for 1.7 billion people (slightly less than one-fourth of the world’s total population), Islamic countries have a great potential for being effective on global level.
2. Relative geographical continuity among territories of member countries
Since most Islamic countries form a geographical continuum from Maghreb in northwest Africa all the way to Indonesia in southeast Asia, this issue provides them with a special geopolitical position and allows them to easily exchange and transfer goods, manpower and other equipment necessary for production in these countries. If this potentiality is combined with visa waiver among Islamic countries and also removal or reduction or discounts on customs tariffs, it could bring about a major development in relations among member countries.
3. Effective presence at the UN
In fact, if these 57 states, which make up this organization out of 193 member countries of the United Nations, could agree over basic issues, they could also create a very strong faction within the UN, which would be able to impact any decision made by this world body. This is true because member countries of the OIC account for about 30 percent of votes at the United Nations General Assembly.
This issue is so important that during the 8th summit meeting of the organization in Tehran, the OIC was proposed to ask for a seat at the UN Security Council as representative of all Islamic countries, but this issue was not followed up seriously.
4. The power to resolve problems of the Muslim world
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has so far played just a consultancy role for the resolution of the Islamic world’s problems. However, it has been able through establishment of such economic centers as the Islamic Development Bank, or by organizing the meeting of culture ministers of the Islamic countries, to explore cultural and economic issues facing the Muslim world and has helped allay those problems. On the other hand, establishment of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), which has helped open creditable universities in Niger, Uganda and Malaysia, and has been supervising the work of many other cultural centers in Mali, the Comoros, and Guinea-Bissau, is another clear reason for the existence of very suitable grounds for cooperation among Islamic countries.
5. Enjoying economic and geoeconomic potentialities
A glance at the economic situation of member countries of the OIC will clearly show that 57 member states of this organization have many remarkable potentialities to promote their international standing. For example, out of the total global oil production, which is the most important fuel consumed by the world’s economic centers, more than 70 percent is produced by member or observer states of this organization. This issue is also true about production of raw materials. Unfortunately, due to the wrong policy that has been exercised in the past years, even Islamic countries have not been able to boost volume of trade among them, because due to their traditional economic dependencies, most of them procure the lion’s share of their needs from developed Western states.
Raw materials account for about 90 percent of the total exports of Islamic countries, while manufactured products make up 68 percent of their imports. As a result, the bulk of foreign trade exchanges conducted by member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is carried out with industrial nations. This comes while planners at the OIC have been trying during past years to boost trade volume among Islamic countries in any way possible. Although the Islamic Development Bank has so far spent billions of dollars on development and promotion of trade among Islamic countries, this investment has not achieved expected goals so far. However, economic experts believe that the volume of economic exchanges among Islamic countries has greatly increased in the past decade and this issue shows that if agreements reached during the OIC’s foreign ministers conference in Kuwait in 2015, which set the legal framework for economic cooperation among member countries for up to 2025, were carried out, one could expect a basic development in economic relations among member countries in coming years. The successful experience of establishing the Islamic Development Bank in 1975 was good evidence attesting to existence of this potentiality among Muslim nations.
B) Challenges facing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
1. Weak cooperation among members within the organization
In order to have more influence among Muslim societies, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should try to elevate the level of political, economic and cultural cooperation among member states in all fields. Naturally, increased cooperation among member countries in economic and cultural fields has two important aspects. Firstly, it ties economic interests of member counties to one another, which will in turn boost political cooperation among them. Secondly, more cultural cooperation will help promote understanding among Muslim nations and this factor of higher understanding and closeness among those countries will have a positive effect in further increasing the number of cooperation grounds.
2. Lack of strong Islamic motivation to cement organizational ties
In order to boost economic and cultural cooperation, the OIC is facing a major obstacle due to some sort of heterogeneity among 57 nations that are its members. This heterogeneity is not simply limited to elements of power, but also includes differences in political systems and cultural values. Since these countries are not linked together by such elements as “common language” or “common ethnic origin” or even “common interests,” but their sole common denominator is that the majority of their population is Muslim, this common denominator has not been able to provide necessary motivation for unity within framework of national and regional interests of these countries.
If all member countries could achieve a “common identity” pivoted around Islamic notions, promoting economic and political cooperation would not be difficult. It is an undeniable reality that most Islamic countries are among developing or undeveloped countries according to common economic classifications. We also know that most Islamic countries are ruled by secular and nonreligious governments. However, rapid progress of some Islamic countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and some other countries shows that it is possible to provide grounds for regional cooperation within framework of such group of countries as the D-8 [Organization for Economic Cooperation] despite the existing difference in viewpoints. This would pave the way for a new form of cooperation between developing and undeveloped countries within framework of the OIC.
3. Existing differences among Islamic countries
Due to escalating unrest in the Middle East in recent years, member states of the OIC have been facing very serious problems for promoting unity among them. During past years, the issue of al-Quds and setting fire to al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 was used as an excuse to establish this organization, and the situation in Palestine and fighting Israel’s occupationism had provided a strong motivation for solidarity among member states. Today, however, the Islamic world is dealing with the worst form of internal conflicts among Islamic countries, which have had no precedent in the past century. Emergence of such phenomena as the Daesh terrorism and Takfiri groups, who excommunicate all other Muslims sects, has increased the necessity for a rapid action to be taken for the restoration of security and stability to the Middle East as the gravity center of the Muslim world more than any time before. As a result, the 13th summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation can help member states find practical solutions to get out of this crisis, because continuation of these conflicts would be only to benefit of the enemies of Islam.
Since Islamic countries have good potential in terms of such facilities as mass media outlets and print media, they are already provided with a good ground to fight the West’s onslaught in the correct way. At present, more than 10 Islamic countries are able to air their programs via various satellites and most Islamic countries have many local radio and television stations. Also, in view of vast press facilities that Islamic countries have, there is a very fertile ground in these countries to promote solidarity among Islamic countries in order to encourage Muslims to take part in healthy humane and spiritual activities. Unfortunately, most media outlets in Islamic countries are currently beating the drums of differences instead of helping promote unity and solidarity among world Muslims.
Through an overall assessment, one may say that member countries of the OIC have very good facilities at their disposal in all fields, including economic, political and cultural fields, which if they took better advantage of these facilities this organization could gain a very important position in international arena. At present, and during the third millennium, what seems to be more necessary than anything else for this organization is solidarity and unity among these countries in a bid to come up with a comprehensive working plan in order to create a political, economic and cultural bloc at global level. Achieving this goal would not be impossible and to do this, member states of the organization must try through understanding to create an integrated system with necessary power and responsibility in the form of a consolidated Islamic organization. The current situation in which the Organization of Islamic Cooperation looks more like a political club where heads of state come together every three years is by no means desirable. On the other hand, it is not clear what the result of issuing so many repetitive statements is. Good decisions were made during last summit meeting of the organization, which was held in Cairo in 2013, but following the overthrow of the then Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, it was not clear who should follow up on those decisions.
The 13th summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul is, therefore, expected to provide member countries with a good opportunity to solve the existing problems through brotherly negotiations among heads of Islamic countries on the sidelines of the OIC summit. A possible meeting between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman could be a major breakthrough in this regard.