Can the OIC help to introduce the world to the ummah?
More than 40 years ago, in the aftermath of the arson attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a variety of Muslim governments came together in Rabat. Their aim was to establish a form of "Muslim United Nations", which would further their aims as a collective voice of the world-wide Muslim community, the ummah.
That aspiration has been adapted over the years to include an Islamic common market, the promotion of human rights and democracy across the Muslim world, and the avowal of national sovereignty among member states.
It's easy to see that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) did not quite live up to the lofty ideals it set for itself. In the last four decades, there have been a variety of conflicts and wars within and between member states; the advancement of democracy and support for basic human rights has not been achieved in the way that was envisioned; and the dream of an Islamic common market has remained just a dream.
If that sounds familiar, it should. In many ways, the OIC resembles other international organisations - the United Nations is only as powerful as its most powerful members within it want to make it, for example. The EU is a much smaller group of states, but it also has its detractors. The union has not achieved as much as some might have hoped and even its major accomplishments, like the establishment of the euro zone, are heavily criticised.
An additional issue for the OIC is that it touches on a religious sensibility. As the political embodiment of the ummah, it has a lofty set of ambitions to fulfil. Never mind that no political grouping has ever comprehensively represented the ummah, there is still a great deal of symbolism for more than a billion Muslims.
Where it is perhaps strongest is in the area of soft power. There are quite a few different institutions that are associated with the OIC, covering everything from banking and finance to education to sport and culture. Many of these agencies carry out useful work and provide forums for cooperation that is often not reported in the international press.
Perhaps most significant in recent years has been the appointment of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu to the position of secretary general. Prof Ihsanoglu exemplifies a type of Muslim internationalism as a Turk who was born in Cairo and received bachelor's and master's degrees from Ain Shams University before studying for a PhD at the University of Ankara. As the first elected secretary general, he has brought attention to OIC issues in a way that previous secretary generals could not.
One area in particular has captured the attention of both Muslim and non-Muslim governments: the place and role of Muslim minorities. The worldwide Muslim community has never been located exclusively in Muslim majority countries. At present, as many as one-third of Muslims live as minorities in different parts of the world.
Under Prof Ihsanoglu, the OIC has increasingly focused on Muslim minority communities in Asia and in Europe. Recently the conference held its second symposium on Muslim minorities in Central and Eastern Europe.
The government of Poland teamed up with the OIC for the occasion. Senior Polish officials including the mayor of Warsaw took part in the symposium, which also brought together analysts and Muslim representatives from across Europe. Discussions focused on the relationship between Muslim minorities and their wider societies and the Muslim world at large.
Prior to attending the symposium, I was interested in the choice of Warsaw as the host. There were obvious logistical considerations stemming from Poland's support for the event. But there were underlying historical reasons that tie Poland to the ummah as well.
Within Europe, a great deal of attention has often been placed on recent Muslim communities that have sprung from relatively recent immigration. From a historical perspective, many communities in southern Europe are of fairly recent origin - but there have been Muslim minorities in the north of Europe for centuries.
In particular, the Muslim Tatar community of Poland has been recognised for producing Polish nationalist heroes since its arrival in the 14th century. Just in November, a monument to Poland's Tatar population was unveiled by President Bronislaw Komorowski. "Tatars shed their blood in all national independence uprisings," Mr Komorowski said. "Their blood seeped into the foundations of the reborn Polish Republic."
Amid widespread unease and discomfort about Muslims in Europe, this historical perspective is crucial - and it's a perspective that is often overlooked in the absence of events like the OIC's symposium. Poland's Muslim community has deep roots in the country's development.
For all of its failings, the OIC's role to focus these issues in the Muslim world and in countries where Muslims are minorities is vital to this dialogue. This second symposium will be followed by another, this time focusing on Muslims in Western Europe. Then, as now, eyes will be watching to see how the OIC can contribute to the discussion about Muslims in Europe - their rights, contributions and roles in society - in a way that benefits Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Dr HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
Updated: January 5, 2011 04:00 AM