An Introduction to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

By Shaher Awawdeh

Shaher Awawdeh holds a Ph.D. in Middle East politics from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. He is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Deputy Permanent Observer to the United Nations since 2014. Prior to assuming his post in New York, he served as the Head of Palestine Department at the OIC’s Headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he handled the file of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 2001. He is a member of Board of Directors of the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada, which he co-founded in 2011. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Know Thy Heritage.

Published May/June 2020

1. Introduction

The OIC is considered one of the largest intergovernmental organization, and probably the second after the United Nations, with a membership of 57 countries spread over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean with a population of about 1.5 billion people. Despite its massive size of representation, the OIC is amongst the most under-researched intergovernmental organizations. This article, therefore, aims to provide a general overview of this organization, its history, structure and principles, as well as its challenges and priorities. Because it is difficult to provide a comprehensive analysis of such an organization, it is advisable to consult other sources including the OIC official website.

2. Background

The OIC considers itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world” and endeavors to safeguard and protect the interests of its member states. Such a self-definition of the organization as representative of the Muslim world stems from the belief that the OIC came as a culmination of Muslim efforts to establish a collective institution for joint Islamic action and solidarity. A brief historical background on the development of the notion of joint Islamic action might be useful at this stage.

One of the bonds that have fostered a feeling of togetherness amongst Muslims throughout history is the profound belief of belonging to the Muslim Ummah, which is an Arabic term referring to the collective Muslim community worldwide. The feeling of belonging to the Ummah had helped Muslims to live under different Islamic caliphates for more than thirteen centuries, the last of which was the Ottoman Caliphate, which ruled the Muslim world for four centuries until its collapse in 1924.

Nevertheless, the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Turkish Parliament in 1924, which occurred at a critical time when most Muslim-majority nations were under European colonial rule, created new dynamics for the attempts to find a different form of overarching Islamic authority. Aware of the new geopolitical realities created by the end of World War I, Muslim intellectuals and leaders worldwide engaged in a debate on how to establish a modern caliphate for the post-war Muslim world. Mona Hassan stated that “like their contemporaries, a wide spectrum of Muslim intellectuals and activists creatively engaged the challenges posed by the post-war era and strove to formulate an Islamic internationalism that represented notably modern articulations of deeply rooted religious sentiments.”[1]

A few days after the abolition of the Caliphate, the deposed Caliph Abdulmejid II, in a press conference in his exile in Switzerland, announced his rejection of the Turkish Parliament abolition decree. He further called for the convening of an international conference to be attended by Muslim leaders to discuss the state of affairs of the Muslim Ummah in the aftermath of the abolition of the Caliphate.

The proposal of the deposed Caliph for convening an international conference became a model approach followed by several Muslim leaders worldwide in their endeavour to materialize Islamic solidarity. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, stated that “Islamic solidarity was viewed not only as a workable way to restore the Caliphate, but also as the most appropriate response to the political challenges facing the Ummah as a result of colonialism and fragmentation. It became a prevalent theme in the thinking of a number of community, religious and political leaders in the Muslim world.”[2]

Efforts to establish a transnational Islamic polity continued across the Muslim world. Therefore, several Muslim congresses were held during the inter-war period, where Islamic solidarity was one of the major themes. Inspired by the abolition of the Caliphate, several prominent Muslim scholars called for holding a Muslim congress in Cairo in 1926, which turned out to be inspiring for many.

The search for a workable form of Islamic leadership inspired the very individual who was behind the abolition of the Caliphate: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. In 1927, Ataturk suggested that Muslim communities, after gaining their independence, could bring their representatives together in a congress and establish a multinational body for joint cooperation. He also stated that the envisaged multinational body could be the Caliphate, over which a Caliph would preside.[3]

During the inter-war era, several congresses were held across the Muslim world, most notably in Makkah in 1926 and Jerusalem in 1931. Muslim communities living in Europe were also part of this movement. For example, the European Muslim Congress was held in Geneva in 1935 with the participation of Muslim activists from Europe, Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa. The declared objectives of the Congress were “to establish a social, economic and religious bond between the Muslims living in the West and the Muslim World.”[4]

Likewise, the post-war era, which was characterised by the Cold War and a bipolar world system as well as a decolonisation process where a good number of Muslim countries gained independence, warranted different types of attempts by Muslim countries to band together under an overarching organization. Attempts to create a platform for the Ummah were made by several Muslim states including Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. According to Saad Khan, several reasons explain the accelerated attempts to bring Muslim nations together. Newly independent Muslim nations wanted to express their independence by strengthening cooperation with like-minded countries. Muslim leaders, who fought for the independence of their countries intended to demonstrate their nationalism through Islamic cooperation and solidarity. Muslim countries realised that their political independence would not be complete without economic independence, which could be enhanced through furthering economic cooperation with the Muslim nations. Additionally, the plight of the Palestinian people under the Israeli occupation and the aggression on the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem, as will be explained below, directly sparked efforts to create an umbrella organization for Muslim-majority states.[5]

3. Establishing the OIC

Although the aforementioned attempts to bond Muslims together were sporadic and incoherent, they contributed eventually to the establishment of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1969, which became later “Organization of Islamic Cooperation.” The raison d'être for establishing the OIC, however, was an aggression on Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. On 21 August 1969, extensive damage was caused to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Islamic shrine, when a Jewish fanatic set the building on fire. The arson act caused anguished reactions throughout the Muslim world. On the same day, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem reached out to Muslim heads of state requesting them to convene an emergency Islamic Summit to discuss the matter.[6]

Following the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s call, King Hassan II of Morocco invited Muslim heads of state to an emergency summit in Rabat. As a result of large-scale diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the first Islamic Summit convened in Rabat in September 1969, and despite hesitation and resistance by some countries, representatives from twenty-four states responded positively and attended the summit. This first Islamic summit paved the way for the establishment of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. In 1970, moreover, the first ever meeting of Islamic Conference of Foreign Minister (ICFM) was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where it was decided that a permanent secretariat would be established, headed by the organization’s secretary general. According to the OIC Charter, the Headquarters of the General Secretariat shall be temporarily in Jeddah pending the liberation of East Jerusalem so that it will become the permanent Headquarters of the Organisation.

The OIC came to existence at a time when Middle Eastern politics was characterised by the Cold War, with the region divided by tensions among various conflicting ideological camps. It is therefore hardly surprising that some students of Middle East politics think of the OIC as a product of the “Arab Cold War.” Naveed Sheikh, for example, argues that “the OIC may well be regarded as a child of the ‘Arab Cold War,’ which had [split] the regional system of the Middle East and North Africa into three competing camps – a regional scenario that only added complexity to a global picture of the bipolar Cold War during which the Muslim world found itself divided into three categories: pro-US, pro-Soviet, and non-aligned. Nasserite revolutionarism and Ba’athist anti-monarchism (twin embodiments of secular republicanism with a dogmatic anti-Western edge) were by their very design destabilizing for the status-quoist monarchies of the region.”[7]

It should be noted that national interests of member-states, rather than Islam, became a central factor in the Organization’s work. National interests, to some extent, explain why several states joined the OIC in the first place, although they do not have Muslim-majority populations. While the majority of the population represented in the membership of the OIC are non-Arab Muslims, African and Arab member states constitute a large majority of the OIC’s fifty-seven member countries. This makes the OIC an organisation that “reflects the political and economic diversity of less developed states.”[8]

4. Charter and Principles

The OIC’s Charter, which was approved at the Third Islamic Foreign Ministers Meeting in Jeddah in 1972 and amended by the 11th Summit in Dakar in 2008, described the Organisation’s objectives and the principles of its work, and also defined its organisational structure and jurisdiction. According to Chapter I of the Charter, pertinent to objectives and principles, the OIC member states are resolved to cooperate in achieving, amongst a big list, the following goals:

In order to achieve these objectives, the Charter sets out a number of guiding principles for its work, including the following:

5. OIC Membership

The issue of membership was loosely tackled in the first Charter of the OIC, which stated that “Every Muslim State is eligible to join the Islamic Conference on submitting an application expressing its desire and preparedness to adopt this Charter. The application shall be deposited with the General Secretariat, to be brought before the Foreign Ministers' Conference at its first meeting after the submission of the application. Membership shall take effect as of the time of approval of the Conference by a two-third majority of the Conference members.”[9] It is often said that the relaxed membership conditions allowed several countries with no Muslim majority to become members of the organization. While this was true, at least for some members, at the time of establishment of the OIC, things changed considerably with the amendment of the OIC Charter in 2008.

By attaching multiple new conditions, the amended Charter made it harder for countries to join the Organization. While stressing that nothing in the present Charter shall undermine the present member states’ rights or privileges relating to membership or any other issues, it stipulated that any country that wishes to join the OIC should be member of the United Nations, have a Muslim-majority population, abide by the Charter, and should submit an application for membership. However, membership is not automatic as it must be approved by consensus only by the Council of Foreign Ministers. However, reaching consensus amongst 57 countries is always difficult, if not impossible.

According to the Charter, moreover, decisions on granting observer status to a state, which must be a member of the United Nations, will be taken by the Council of Foreign Ministers by consensus only, and based on the agreed criteria by the Council of Foreign Ministers. Currently, the following countries are observers in the OIC: Bosnia and Herzegovina (1994), Central African Republic (1996), Thailand (1998), the Russian Federation (2005), and Turkish Cypriot State (1979).

6. Organizational Structure

Although the OIC was originally established as a political response to political developments, its scope of interest was expanded to include a wide spectrum of areas reflecting interests of its member states in economic, social, cultural and humanitarian domains. As an intergovernmental organization with aims to foster joint Islamic action and cooperation amongst its member states in all spheres, the organizational structure of the OIC reflects to a great deal the areas of interest, priorities and concerns of its member countries.

6.1. The Islamic Summit

The Islamic Summit, also known as the Conference of Kings and Heads of State and Governments, is the highest authoritative institution in the OIC. The OIC Charter stipulates that the Islamic Summit is held to discuss the vital causes that face the Islamic world and to formulate policies accordingly. It usually meets once every three years, although Chapter IV of the Charter stipulates that extraordinary sessions of Islamic Summits can be held “whenever the interests of Ummah warrant it, to consider matters of vital importance to the Ummah and coordinate the policy of the Organization accordingly.” So far, thirteen regular OIC Summits have been held, the last of which convened in Istanbul in 2016. Equally significant, Extraordinary Summits may be held upon recommendations of the Council of Foreign Ministers or on the request of a Member State or the Secretary-General, provided that the such a request enjoys the support of simple majority of the member states. It should be noted that seven Extraordinary Summits have been organized so far.

6.2. Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM)

The CFM is the main decision-making organ in the OIC and its decisions are based on the policies determined by the Summit Conferences. Chapter V of the Charter requires that the ICFM meets annually in an ordinary session, but it can also meet in an extraordinary session at the request of any member state or of OIC’s Secretary General, provided such a request is approved by simple majority of the member states. Moreover, the CFM has the authority to recommend holding other OIC sectorial meetings at the ministerial level to deal with the specific issues of concern to the OIC. Because of its central role in the decision-making process of the Organization, the CFM, as specified by the Charter, meets to:

While the first CFM was held in 1970 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the most recent CFM (45th Session) was held in in 2018 in Dhakka, Bangladesh. Additionally, between 1980 and 2017, the CFM held fifteen extraordinary sessions.

6.3. Executive Committee

For about four decades, OIC decisions had always been taken by OIC Summits and CFM meetings which convene every three years and every year, respectively. However, as a result of the increasing need to respond to emerging challenges facing the Ummah, the OIC created the Executive Committee in 2006 as a decision-making mechanism that can meet at shorter intervals. The Executive Committee is comprised of the countries chairing the current, preceding and succeeding Islamic Summits and CFMs, the host country of the Headquarters of the General Secretariat as well as the Secretary-General as an ex officio member. Nevertheless, despite its composition, the Executive Committee usually meets in open-ended format to allow for the participation of all OIC members in its deliberations. Since its creation in 2006, the Executive Committee has met 18 times.

7. Standing Committees

In order to deal with issues of great importance to the Organization and its member states, the OIC has established a number of standing committees, which are chaired by heads of state of member countries:

8. OIC Organs

Modeled on the United Nations, the OIC created a few subsidiary organs and specialized institutions to pursue the Organization’s agenda. In addition, the OIC accepted under its umbrella several affiliated and non-governmental organizations.

8.1. The General Secretariat

Established by the First Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in 1970, the OIC General Secretariat is located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and is charged, amongst other thing, with the provision of facilities and services for consultation of member states, dissemination of information, and implementation of resolutions taken by the OIC decision-making bodies. The General Secretariat is headed by a Secretary General who is elected by the Council of Foreign Ministers for a period of five years, a term that can only be renewed once. It is required that the Secretary General should be a national of an OIC Member State. The post is rotated between different geographical groups in the OIC (Arab, Asian and African). So far, eleven individuals assumed the General Secretariatship of the OIC. The incumbent Secretary General is Yousef Al-Othaimeen, a Saudi national, who assumed the office in 2016.

8.2. Subsidiary Organs

The OIC set up six subsidiary institutions to foster cooperation amongst the Organization’s member states in the respective areas of the subsidiary organs. These organs are directly funded by the OIC and run under the supervision of the OIC General Secretariat. Member states shall automatically become members of these organs. The list of subsidiary organs include the following institutions: Statistical, Economic, Social Research and Training Center for Islamic Countries (SESRIC); Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA); Islamic University of Technology (IUT); Islamic Center for the Development of Trade (ICDT); International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA); and the Islamic Solidarity Fund and its Waqf (ISF).

8.3. Affiliated Institutions

Membership to these institutions is open to institutions of OIC Member states and they may be granted observer status by resolutions from the Council of Foreign Ministers. Unlike the subsidiary organs, budgets of affiliated institutions are independent of the budget of the Secretariat General. Amongst several others, the list of affiliated institutions include the Islamic Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (ICCIA); Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities (OICC); Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation (ICYF-DC); Standards and Metrology Institute for Islamic Countries (SMIIC) and International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). For full list of affiliated institutions, please consult the relevant section in the OIC official site.

8.4. Specialized Institutions

Specialized institutions are established in accordance with decisions of Islamic Summits or Council of Foreign Ministers. Budgets of specialized organs are independent of the budget of the OIC Secretariat General and are approved by their respective governing bodies.

Currently, several specialized institutions exist under the umbrella of the OIC, namely: the Islamic Development Bank (IDB); Islamic Educational; Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO); Islamic Broadcasting Union (IBU); International Islamic News Agency (IINA); Islamic Committee of the International Crescent (ICIC) and the Science, Technology and Innovation Observatory (STIO).

Of special importance among the above-mentioned institutions are the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Below is a brief description of these two institutions.

8.4.1. Islamic Development Bank (IDB)

Established in 1973 and headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) is the main OIC financial arm for fostering economic development and social progress of member states. The Bank provides grants and loans for productive projects and enterprises in member states. The IDB has its own governing mechanisms, where member countries send their representatives to the Board of Governors. The Bank’s authorized capital is six billion Islamic Dinars. The value of the Islamic Dinar is equivalent to one Special Drawing Right of the International Monetary Fund (SDR). One Islamic Dinar = 1.3 US Dollar.

8.4.2. Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO)

Established in 1981 and headquartered in Rabat, Morocco, ISESCO’s functions are like those of UNESCO but at a smaller scale. It aims to “strengthen, promote and consolidate cooperation among OIC member states in the fields of education, science, culture and communication, as well as to develop and upgrade these fields.” ISESCO aims also to “publicize the correct image of Islam and Islamic culture, promote dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, and work towards spreading the values of justice and peace along with the principles of freedom and human rights, in accordance with the Islamic civilizational perspective.”

9. Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC)

The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) was established by the 38th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers in 2011 as a principal organ working independently with advisory capacity in the area of human rights. The concrete areas of priority identified by IPHRC include rights of women and children; right to education with focus on human rights education; right to development; Islamophobia and Muslim minorities; and the human rights situation in Palestine, given that the cause of Palestine is a top agenda item for the OIC. Amongst the tasks of the IPHRC Commission is assisting member states in human rights areas, including “reviewing and preparing the domestic legislations vis-à-vis obligations under international human rights instruments etc.” The Commission’s Secretariat is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

10. Challenges and Priorities of the OIC

The OIC describes itself as an organization that “has the singular honor to galvanize the Ummah into a unified body and have actively represented the Muslims by espousing all causes close to the hearts of over 1.5 billion Muslims of the world.”[11] Challenges addressed by the OIC reflect the widely diversified national, political economic and cultural composition of this organization. Therefore, the OIC Programme of Action for 2016-2025 has identified 18 priority areas with 107 goals. Below are a few examples of the top OIC priorities which have received the most of OIC attention:

10.1. Cause of Palestine

It should be noted that the OIC Programme of Action has identified the cause of Palestine as a stand-alone priority. The question of Palestine, which was the raison d'etre of the OIC, has been a permanent item on the Organization’s agenda since its inception. The centrality of this cause has always been emphasized by almost all OIC meetings.[12] With the start of the Middle East peace process in the Madrid Conference in 1991, which was attended by Israel and some Arab countries, several Middle Eastern actors relaxed their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bahgat Korany describes that era by saying that “a few years ago, few would have imagined the signing of formal agreements or even the convening of multilateral Arab–Israeli talks. Visions of Omani delegates speaking publicly with Israeli counterparts in Moscow corridors would have seemed far–fetched as would suggestions that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar might coordinate moves with U.S. Jewish leaders or that his country would host visiting Jewish delegates.”[13] In this new environment in the Middle East, the OIC, at its summit in 1999, made a dramatic departure from its long-held position on the Palestinian question by replacing its calls for liberating Palestine through military means with adopting positions calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel based on the two-state solution. Furthermore, at its Ministerial Conference in Tehran in 2003, the OIC adopted the Arab Peace Initiative, which allows for normalizations of relations with Israel after resolving the Palestinian question in accordance with relevant United Nations resolutions. At the same time, the OIC has always regarded supporting the Palestinian people a top priority. Therefore, several schemes have been designed to support the Palestinians, mainly in occupied East Jerusalem, in all fields including humanitarian, education, health care, economic empowerment etc.[14] In addition, the Organization provides an extensive political and diplomatic support to the Palestinians. It is very difficult to imagine that United Nations resolutions in support of Palestinian rights could be adopted without the strong backing provided by the large Islamic bloc. Thanks to strong voting support by the OIC, Palestine’s status at the United Nations was elevated to that of an observer state in 2012. Furthermore, Palestine was also admitted to UNESCO as full member in 2011. Moreover, when the Trump administration decided to cut its funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2018, the OIC established a special Fund to help UNRWA survive one of its most difficult financial crises.

10.2. Peace and Security

Today, several conflicts and tension zones exist in the backyard of the OIC, and therefore, perennially appear on its agenda. This reality has called for developing the involvement of the Organization in promoting peace and security, especially regarding its member countries and Muslim communities in non-member states. To this end, the OIC has developed several mechanisms for responding to issues of peace and security, conflict prevention, mediation, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Chief of these mechanisms have been appointing special envoys, forming ministerial contact groups, dispatching mediation delegations as well as holding high-level meetings etc. Below are a few examples of the prolonged conflicts on the OIC agenda.

The situation in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 has also been a major concern for the OIC, which took a few steps to help in stabilizing that country. One of the major steps taken in this regard was taking part in the attempts to end the Sunni-Shia sectarian violence that spread in the country in the aftermath of the fall of the Baath regime. In October 2006, the OIC organized a conference in Makkah which brought together thirty high-ranking representatives of major Iraqi Sunni and Shiite religious authorities where they signed “Makka Declaration” in which they supported “achieving comprehensive national reconciliation” and stated that “The espousal of a school of thought, whatever it may be, is not a justification for killing or aggression, even if some followers of that school commit a punishable act.” Likewise, the OIC adopted a position supporting the reconstruction and development of Iraq and preserving its territorial integrity and sovereignty. For example, in his statement before the expanded meeting of the foreign ministers of neighbouring countries of Iraq in November 2007, the former OIC Secretary General, Ihasnoglu, stressed “the need to respect the sovereignty of Iraq and its territorial integrity and people’s unity, and reject any call for its division.” Also see, Ekmeleddin Ihsanog˘lu, Assessing the Human Tragedy in Iraq, 89 International Review of the Red Cross No. 868 (December 2007). Such a position was also emphasized by several OIC meetings mainly by the OIC Contact Group on Iraq and the annual meetings of OIC Council of Foreign Ministers.

Another example of a conflict on the OIC agenda is the Jammu and Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India. For the OIC, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict, if left unresolved, could escalate into military confrontation that could lead to endangering peace and security in South Asia. Therefore, an OIC Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir was established in 1994 and meets regularly on the sidelines of OIC Ministerial meetings. Resolutions of several OIC Ministerial and Summit meetings, like 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of 2019 and the 14th Summit, have called for respecting the aspirations of the Kashmiris and supported peaceful resolution of this dispute in line with the relevant United Nations resolutions. On several occasions, the OIC has urged the Indian government to improve the situation of human rights in Kashmir. Moreover, the Organization appointed a special envoy in an attempt to facilitate peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The situation in Somalia has also been amongst the issues tackled by OIC meetings at different levels, especially by the Contact Group on Somalia, since the start of the civil conflict in that country, which began in 1991. The OIC expressed concern over the presence of foreign forces in Somalia, especially after the arrival of Ethiopian forces in Somalia in 2006. The OIC in OIC/NY-2006/FC/FINAL called “on all States to respect the … sovereignty of Somalia and to refrain from interfering in its internal affairs.” Additionally, the OIC, in a ministerial resolution OIC/NY-2006/FC/FINAL, fully endorsed the UN plan for replacing the foreign forces with the UN blue helmets. As part of its effort to address the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, the OIC, supported by its member states and OIC development institutions, opened a representative office in Mogadishu to undertake humanitarian and reconstruction actions.

10.3. Counterterrorism, Extremism, and Islamophobia

One of the difficult challenges facing the OIC is combating Islamophobia and the various misconceptions and antagonistic views of Islam that prevailed in several societies, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For example, the association of Islam with terrorism bestowed unique responsibilities on the OIC. This challenge occurred at a time when terrorism, extremism, radicalization and sectarianism were also on the rise in the Muslim world, the fact that made the OIC mission more complex. This also happened while major world media outlets focussed on terrorist attacks targeting non-Muslims. A simple look at maps of terrorist attacks would reveal that majority of targeted countries were OIC member states. According to Statista, for example, 23.7% of all deaths from terrorism worldwide in 2014 occurred in Iraq.

OIC action for dealing with the global threat of terrorism has preceded the wave of terrorism that followed the 11 September terrorist attacks. The OIC, as early as 1999, adopted the OIC Convention on Combating International Terrorism. The Convention functions as a mechanism for cooperation amongst the Organizations’ member states in the field of counter-terrorism efforts. This includes working together in areas such as preventive and combative measures, exchange of information, investigation, education and information as well as in the judicial domain, including the arrest and extradition of terrorists.

The OIC, in most of its Ministerial and Summit-level meetings, has strongly rejected all forms of terrorism. The 13th OIC Summit, for example, “unequivocally condemned all acts, methods and practices of terrorism committed by whomsoever and wherever, and expressed determination of member states to remain united in the fight against terrorism.” On different occasions, OIC meetings (OIC/13TH SUMMIT 2016/FC/FINAL) stressed that the fight against terrorism is a major priority for all member states, and reiterated its resolve to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts through increased international solidarity and cooperation, in full recognition of the UN’s central role, and in accordance with UN Charter and obligations under international law. In addition, the OIC resolution OIC/CFM-42/2015/POL/RES/FINAL on “Combating Terrorism and Extremism” emphasized that terrorism cannot not be tackled by security or military means alone. It further called for attaching “due attention to and devising concrete plans for addressing the various dimensions and root causes of terrorism.”

At the international level, the OIC was part of world counter-terrorism efforts. The OIC Council of Foreign Ministers requested the OIC “Secretary General to establish counter-terrorism partnerships with international and regional organizations and relevant government centers.” In line with this approach, the OIC and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two organizations in the field of countering terrorism. Recognizing the value of enhancing the strategic partnership between the OIC and the United Nations in countering extremist ideology, the Security Council held a special session on cooperation with the OIC where councilmembers called for strengthening cooperation between the two organizations in efforts of countering terrorism.

To deal with the challenges of extremist ideology and Islamophobia, the OIC established two institutions within its General Secretariat: the Islamophobia Observatory to address anti-Muslim sentiments, and Sawt Al-Hikma (Voice of Wisdom) Centre to combat terrorism and radicalization. In the preface of the 11th OIC Report on Islamophobia, the OIC Secretary General considered that “both institutions jointly address the two evil phenomena of Islamophobia and terrorism, which are two sides of the same coin.”

The Islamophobia Observatory is responsible for monitoring Islamophobia trends in different parts of the world according to an index and indicators. The Observatory Report of April 2018 (covering time period of July 2017 through April 2018) noted a “decreasing trend of Islamophobia under the covered period, indicated by the number of incident which was much lower if being compared to those at the latest trimester of 2016, or at the first trimester of 2017, during which the US and Europe were always at the top of the Hotspot List—but were now moving towards significant improvement despite the remaining ‘worrisome’ overall situation.”

The Sawt Al-Hikma (Voice of Wisdom) Centre, however, is part of the OIC contribution in international efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism. The Centre aims at delegitimizing and deconstructing extremist narratives. According to the Centre’s website, “the duties and responsibilities of Sawt Al-Hikma (the Voice of Wisdom), inter alia, include:

10.4. Moderation, Cultural and Interfaith Harmony

The spread of anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the globe following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wave of terrorism that swept the Muslim world, including attacks against mosques residential compounds in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, created a momentum amongst leaders of OIC countries to address the issue of extremist ideologies. One of the first responses came from Pakistan, whose former president Pervez Musharraf called for what he coined as “enlightened moderation.” In an opinion piece entitled “A Plea for Enlightened Moderation” published in the Washington Post in June 2004, Musharraf noted that “the suffering of the innocents, particularly Muslims, at the hands of militants, extremists and terrorists has made it all the more urgent to bring order to this troubled scene.” Remedy, according to Musharraf, lies in embracing the path of “enlightened moderation,” which makes it necessary for the Muslim world to “shun militancy and extremism and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift” and "for the West, and the United States in particular, to seek to resolve all political disputes with justice and to aid in the socioeconomic betterment of the deprived Muslim world." He also stressed that “the OIC must be restructured to meet the challenges of the 21st century, to fulfill the aspirations of the Muslim world and to take us toward emancipation. Forming a committee of luminaries to recommend a restructuring of the OIC is a big step in the right direction.”[15]

The OIC Programme of Action identified intercultural and interfaith dialogue as a priority for the Organization’s efforts to promote a culture of peace and moderation. Believing in the instrumental role of intercultural dialogue in combating extremism and intolerance, the OIC Programme of Action called for reaching out to the grassroots of the society for wider acceptance and deeper impact. To this end, several OIC member states launched numerous initiatives for fostering intercultural dialogue and cross-cultural understanding. For example, the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) was established with the aim of promoting interfaith and interreligious dialogue and harmony. Moreover, the OIC, in cooperation with several Western Countries, mainly the United States, initiated the Istanbul Process as a result of the adoption of General Assembly Resolution A/HRC/RES/16/18 by the Human Rights Council in March 2011 on “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.”

11. International Relations and Partnerships

The OIC stands today as one of the largest intergovernmental organizations. The large constituency it represents (57 states with population of 1.5 billion) and the big array of issues and causes it promotes confers on the OIC certain responsibilities as an international player. Within this framework, the OIC has built a wide horizontal web of relations with international and regional organizations.

Today, the OIC, which enjoys observer status to the United Nations, is considered an important partner of the UN in matters related to international peace and security, humanitarian action, development, mediation, etc. Former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon, in a September 24, 2010 press statement (Ban praises UN partnership with Islamic States to overcome global challenges), described the OIC as “a strategic and crucial partner of the United Nations [that] plays a significant role in helping to resolve a wide range of issues facing the world community.” This strategic partnership is demonstrated by the various joint UN-OIC projects and activities which are discussed and planned biennially in a large convention bringing together representatives of the two organizations and their specialized institutions. See for example, Final Document of the General Meeting on Cooperation between the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Istanbul, 20 -22 May 2014. Likewise, the UN General Assembly adopts a biennial resolution A/72/L.10 on UN-OIC cooperation covering a wide range of areas. In addition, the OIC has built strong partnerships with several other regional organizations including the League of Arab States, European Union, African Union, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organization of American States, to name a few.

By the same token, the OIC has formed institutionalized relations and partnerships with individual non-OIC countries. For example, former United States President, George W. Bush, appointed a special envoy to the OIC. Relations between the two parties developed over the years and U.S. Relations with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Department of State (Dec. 22, 2016) was established in areas such as combating diseases in Africa as well as countering extremism. Nevertheless, with the arrival of the current US Administration, relations with the OIC have retreated considerably as the post of the U.S. Special Envoy to the OIC has not been filled, and sessions of bilateral consultations have ceased to convene. See Arsalan Suleman, Why the U.S. Needs Its Envoys: Particularly at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Foreign Affairs (August 24, 2017).

Nonetheless, OIC relations with numerous countries have developed and expanded. Countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Germany and Italy have appointed special envoys at the ambassadorial level to the OIC. Regular rounds of consultations on issues of mutual concern have been conducted between the OIC and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of these countries. Over the past few years, many countries in Europe, South America and Asia have also sought observer membership in the OIC.

12. Conventions and Agreements

The OIC seeks to further cooperation among its member states through a variety of agreements and conventions. Accordingly, several conventions and agreements covering an extensive range of areas have been legislated by consecutive OIC decision-making bodies. Such conventions and agreements include, for example, the Agreement Establishing the Islamic Commission of the International Crescent, Covenant on the Rights of Children in Islam and the OIC Convention to Combat Terrorism (1999), inter alia. The following agreements are examples of some of OIC economic mechanisms:

13. Concluding Remarks

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which was created in 1969 with a single item on its agenda, has transformed into a large intergovernmental organization with an expanded agenda covering a wide variety of issues ranging from peace and security to alleviating poverty and combating diseases and terrorism. It is an organization that stands today as a recognized partner to well-established international and regional organizations including the UN and the EU. Nevertheless, the OIC, in order to become a more effective organization that can leave positive impacts in the world and to have a say in world politics commensurate with the size of its membership, needs to reform several of its working methods, strategies and structures. For example, the OIC should consider establishing a special organ within its structure to deal with issues of peace and security and counterterrorism. While the current Programme of Action of 2025 can help steer the Organization towards an active role in addressing important concerns of the Muslim world, the OIC structure needs to be carefully reviewed. Adequate attention should also be given to the visibility of the OIC. In this regard, the OIC should seek to branch out and open more representative offices in different parts of the world, mainly in major capitals across the world, including those of OIC member states. Improving the work and efficiency of the OIC, however, remains a difficult task without genuine and strong support of its member states. It is incumbent on OIC members, therefore, to empower the Organization and to enable it to become a more effective instrument in furthering coordination amongst its member states and advancing their joint action.

[1] Mona Hasan, Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 187.

[2] Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, The Islamic World in the New Century (London, Hurst & Company 2010), p.14.

[3] Martin Kramer, Islam Assembled: The advent of the Muslim Congresses, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 713-14.

[4] Muhammad el-Sayed Selim (Ed.), The OIC in A Changing World, (Cairo University, 1994), p. 15.

[5] Saad Khan, Reasserting International Islam: A Focus on the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and Other Islamic Institutions, Oxford University Press, p. 13.

[6] The centrality of the Palestinian cause to the OIC is very evident in the OIC Charter’s multiple references to this cause. It is very rare for intergovernmental organizations to have country specific references in their charters. Even the successive programs of action of the OIC have designated the Palestinian cause as a priority area.

[7] Naveed S. Sheikh (2003), The new politics of Islam: Pan-Islamic foreign policy in a world of states, London, Routledge Curzon, p. 34.

[8] Tariq Salim Chaudry (1998), “The response of the OIC to crisis: The case of the Bosnian conflict from 1992 to 1995”, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, UK, p. 5.

[9] Saad Khan, Reasserting International Islam: A Focus on the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and Other Islamic Institutions, Oxford University Press, p. 52.

[10] Moinuddin Hasan (1987), The Charter of the Islamic Conference: The legal and Economic Framework, Oxford, Clarendon Press, p. 188.

[11] Handbook of the OIC (OIC, Jeddah 2016) p.9.

[12] Final documents of almost all OIC meetings, including Resolutions, Final Communiques and Declarations, have reaffirmed the centrality of the cause of Palestine. The whole list of these documents can be accessed at the OIC website.

[13] Bahgat Korany, “The Arab World and the New Balance of Power in the New Middle East”, in Michael C. Hudson (ed), Middle East Dilemma, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, pp. 51-52.

[14] For example, the OIC, through its major financial arm, the Islamic Development Bank, and Islamic Solidarity Fund provides different types of humanitarian and development-related support.

[15] Pervez Musharraf, A Plea for Enlightened Moderation, Washington Post, Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A23.