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The Islamic world's United Nations

On 17 February, an imam at a mosque in Peshawar, northern Pakistan, offered a $1 million bounty to anyone who would kill one of the Danish cartoonists who had caricatured the Prophet Mohammed in the pages of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Maulana Yousef Qureshi's call could not have come at a worse time. Across the Muslim world, the cartoons controversy had reached a peak. Several cities in Pakistan had seen demonstrations that ended in violence. Now the capital Islamabad, a small city surrounded by hills and dominated by the business of government and diplomacy, was feeling the pressure. The leadership of Islamist political parties wanted to lead a protest march into the capital, but were being prevented from doing so because they were refusing to guarantee that the demonstrations would remain peaceful.

I was flying into Islamabad to attend a meeting of science ministers of Muslim states. As my plane prepared to land, roads into the capital were closed to traffic. Schools and businesses in the adjacent city of Rawalpindi were also shut and police dressed in riot-gear lined part of the drive from the airport to the city centre. For the next twenty-four hours we held our breath.

The fact that the next few days passed off without incident may have had something to do with the presence in Islamabad of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Turkish secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC, founded in 1969 and based in Saudi Arabia's port-city of Jeddah, represents fifty-seven predominantly Muslim countries and is the largest intergovernmental organisation outside the United Nations system.

A test

It was one of the biggest tests Ihsanoglu had faced since being elected to lead the OIC in June 2004. At a press conference in Islamabad on 21 February, he said the cartoons controversy had everything to do with respecting the feelings of religious minorities. It was not about freedom of speech, about which "there are no two opinions". Responding to a question on the bounty, Ihsanoglu angrily said: "We have no authority to kill anybody and take the law in our hands." Ihsanoglu was emphatic: "Such a fatwa goes against Islam."

His comments were widely reported in Pakistan's press and may have helped to release some of the tension. Ihsanoglu is respected across the Muslim world. In Pakistan (as elsewhere) Islamists cannot criticise him in the same way they routinely do President Pervez Musharraf. This is partly because he represents the consensus (and the conscience) of the Muslim world.

But there is a more practical, immediate reason: it was the OIC's December 2005 summit in Mecca – where the notorious "expanded" dossier of cartoons produced by Danish imams seeking to mobilise Muslim anger was circulated – that helped to alert Muslims to the images' existence. The OIC's vigorous condemnation of the "desecration" and its concern over the "rising hatred of Muslims" in Europe follows its decision to establish what it calls an "Islamophobia Observatory" in Jeddah, with a brief to document and publicise prejudice against Muslims in countries where they are a minority of the population.

Such initiatives have helped raise the OIC's profile – and not just among Muslims. Ihsanoglu is much in demand in the capitals of Europe. In the past few months his office in Jeddah has hosted high-profile visitors, including United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan; those in regular contact include European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and British foreign secretary Jack Straw.

This week Ihsanoglu comes to Britain, a rare destination for an OIC chief. In addition to meetings with Muslim community groups and at the foreign office, he will speak at the opening of 1001 Inventions, a new exhibition at the Manchester Science Museum on the contribution of Arabs and Muslims to modern life.

Ihsanoglu says that one of the themes he wants to talk about is Islamophobia and how it can be combatted. OIC countries want him to look into the possibility of a resolution in the European parliament on Islamophobia as well as a new code of ethics for the media. At the same time he also wants to talk about reforms in the OIC, the most ambitious in its thirty-seven-year history.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference came into existence after a conference of heads of state of Muslim countries in Rabat, Morocco. The meeting had been called by Muslim states to coordinate a boycott of Israel following an arson attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (on this incident – a neglected precursor of the Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoon affairs – see Fred Halliday's openDemocracy article, "Blasphemy and power", February 2006).

The fledgling organisation quickly grew into a complex network of specialised agencies each aimed at strengthening bonds between Muslim states. These agencies include the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia, Comstech (itself based in Islamabad, which promotes scientific cooperation), a network of universities, and an OIC-wide news agency.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books to be published in 2006: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (August 2005)

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"A post-Satanic journey" (February 2006)

"Alexandria's bridge" (February 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

A time to make waves

The institutional architecture may look impressive, but the way the OIC is run reflects the democratic deficit in many Muslim countries. For example, its highest decision-making body calls itself the "Conference of Kings and Heads of State and Government". Until recently, its workings were opaque to the outside world (even to citizens of Muslim states). There are few opportunities for non-government groups (such as charities, trade unions, professional societies or business) to participate in its decisions. Only five new countries have been given observer status (Russia was admitted in 2005; India is being discussed), and the OIC has little contact or cooperation with other organisations in the global community, such as agencies attached to the UN.

This very absence of engagement and connection has meant that inside the OIC, pressures for change have been incubating for some time. In 2004, several of the OIC's more influential players (including Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey) supported the candidacy of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as a figure who would implement reforms of the organisation to make it more outward-looking.

The choice was a smart one. Ihsanoglu is not a diplomat in the usual sense, but a historian (specialising in the transfer of technology from Europe to the Ottoman empire) and a former president of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science. At the same time he is an OIC-insider having headed the OIC-affiliated centre for research in Islamic art and culture (Ircica), which is based in Turkey. This profile makes him ideally placed to play a less bureaucratic and more outspoken role than his predecessors.

Ihsanoglu is also assuming the leadership of the IOC at an opportune time, when significant reform of the organisation is already on its agenda. The Mecca summit in December – an extraordinary gathering of OIC heads of state – agreed to support most of the recommendation of a commission of experts charged with envisioning the IOC's renewal. There, a ten-year action plan was signed and it was agreed that the organisation needs a complete internal overhaul: a new charter, a new name, more staff, and even a new building.

The action plan is an impressive document. It promises an organisation that will uphold transparency and accountability in governance and protect the rights of women, children and minorities. It promises to promote sustainable development and to assist the least developed states in tackling diseases such as Aids, malaria and tuberculosis (twenty-seven OIC member-states are African). It also pledges to work more closely with international agencies and with existing development initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

The action plan also promises concrete steps on theological issues, for example confronting ideologies that claim to be able to use Islamic rulings to justify extremism. Meanwhile, Ihsanoglu has opened up the Jeddah secretariat to the outside world. We know this because the OIC website contains details of where he goes, who he meets, even names of people that he speaks with on the phone.

A turning-point?

All of this represents genuine progress. For a predominantly Muslim body to acknowledge good governance, rights for children, the threat from Aids is welcome evidence of fresh, innovative thinking. Some of the OIC's specialist development agencies (such as Comstech) have already started to coordinate what they do with other specialised agencies outside of the OIC system.

Yet some of the text in the OIC's reform package seems unchanged from a generation ago. For example, the ten-year plan of action says that OIC member-states will invest in what it calls "advanced technologies" such as "nuclear technology for peaceful purposes". The technology for nuclear power is now more than half a century old, but there is no mention of more recent developments such as biotechnology, new materials, or nanotechnology.

Then there is Palestine/Israel. Israel may no longer be referred to as the "Zionist entity", but the OIC still maintains a "Bureau for Islamic Boycott of Israel". Will the election victory of Hamas provide an opportunity for the OIC to demonstrate its capacity to make a difference in the region?

Several OIC members now have contacts with Israel. These range from formal diplomatic relations (Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey) to informal contacts (Pervez Musharraf's famous handshake with Ariel Sharon at the United Nations). Europe's foreign ministers will therefore lose no opportunity in pressing Ihsanoglu to suggest that leaders of Hamas make some public gesture of Israel's existence; and that Hamas acknowledge that it will need to put its weapons beyond use. The OIC has more leverage on the second of these issues. Member-states provide financial and military assistance to the Palestinians, and the OIC has made a public pledge to counter any justification for extremism in the name of Islam. It would seem odd if an exception was made for Hamas.

When I spoke with Ihsanoglu in summer 2004 as he was preparing to take up his new job, he said: "The world has changed and the OIC needs to change with it." The OIC has travelled a long way in the direction of change in a relatively short time. Leaving aside the possibility that his term in office will be extended, Ihsanoglu has three more years to prove that his organisation really can go all the way.


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