The Saudi-led OIC must recognise the desire for autonomy and real change in Muslim countries or risk being replaced by new actors.
Most Muslim countries are in a state of crisis. That much is clear for all to see. As Muslims witness the ongoing civil wars, foreign intervention and economic deprivation, they wonder, often aloud, "Where is the Muslim unity?”
Exactly 50 years ago, an international body was created for this exact purpose.
With 57 member states, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (formerly Conference) is the second largest international body in the world after the UN.
However, despite its size and projects, many Muslims today are unaware the institution even exists.
The OIC was formed out of a Muslim summit held between September 22 and 25 1969 in Rabat, Morocco, in response to an arson attack on the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
The OIC’s charter declares Jeddah as the body’s temporary headquarters “until the liberation of the city of Al Quds so that it will become the permanent headquarters of the organisation”.
This quote shows not only the centrality of the Palestinian issue for the OIC’s formation, but also Saudi Arabia’s central role in it.
At the time, Jeddah must have seemed a natural choice. Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam. Furthermore, the initiating force behind the summit was King Faisal, the leading pan-Islamic figure of his day.
But the Saudi Arabia of yesterday is very different than the one of today.
Is it time for a new OIC?
In light of the Muslim world’s current depressing situation, the Malaysian President Mahathir Mohamad called for a conference in Kuala Lumpur to gather scholars and activists from across the Muslim world together. He described it as: “[A] first step … to help Muslims recover their past glories, or at least to help them avoid the kind of humiliation and oppression that we see around the world today.”
The summit has mostly focused not only on political issues, but especially the need for sustainable development in the Muslim world.
The summit’s declaration almost immediately sparked rumours and fears that the five primary countries of Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Qatar were trying to form a new bloc of power to rival the OIC.
While Mahathir officially denied such accusations personally to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz, it seems to have been to no avail.
‘National Security Concerns’
Leading up to the summit, most of the coverage was focused not on the conference’s agenda or its potential, but rather on Pakistan’s withdrawal.
After being “summoned” for a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman four days before the summit, Pakistan’s Imran Khan bowed out of the conference. It is being widely reported that Khan backed out from the Malaysian summit because of economic pressure from Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan, currently facing an economic crisis, secured a $6 billion bailout from Saudi Arabia last year and has four million foreign workers in the country who send remittances back home. The two countries have military cooperation stretching back decades.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s ex-president, Pervez Musharraf, who was recently sentenced to death for high treason, is currently living in exile in the UAE, a Saudi ally.
The withdrawal was a major blow as Khan was one of the initiators of the conference after meeting with his Malaysian and Turkish counterparts on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this September.
Khan’s announcement was soon followed by Indonesia’s Vice President Ma’ruf Amin’s announcement that he too would no longer be in attendance, citing his ailing health.
A rising tide
Saudi Arabia, fearful of a rival bloc or organisation to the OIC, seems to have successfully taken action to diminish the summit’s potential impact.
However, by playing geopolitics-as-usual, Saudi Arabia failed to recognise what this summit truly represents in the long term.
While it remains to be seen how many of the suggestions put forward in the summit will be put into policy and actionable steps, the Kuala Lumpur summit highlights and draws attention to the Muslim world’s deep-rooted desire for change and unity.
Most Muslims my age are fed up with Muslim states too busy feuding amongst themselves to achieve true development for their own population, nevermind taking action to stop the multiple genocides taking place against fellow Muslim populations.
The problems the Muslim world faces are so much larger and deeper than any one institution and it would be unfair to blame them solely on the OIC, which indeed contains valuable and unrecognised projects and programmes, or on any one individual state.
However, most Muslims, fairly or unfairly, fail to see how the OIC has truly led to greater unity for the Muslim world over the past five decades.
The Muslim world’s desire for autonomy and real change is not going away anytime soon. Saudi Arabia and the OIC would do well to recognise it or risk being replaced by new actors.
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