Rethinking Mission and Priorities: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation – by Arian Sharifi

OIC flagArian Sharifi reviews the history, evolution, and performance of the OIC, and provides a vision for its future. He recommends a reassessment of the organization’s focus and priorities, suggesting that the OIC will better serve its member-states if its mission was redefined to specifically focus on cooperation in the fields of economic development and commerce. This will make the OIC more effective in its current situation and paves the way for cooperation on political and strategic issues in future.

Arian Sharifi is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a Partner at Afghanistan Holding Group. He holds a Master in Public Affairs (MPA) from Princeton University, and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Political Science from Wesleyan University.



September 25, 2013 marked the 44th anniversary of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In these forty-four years, the OIC has grown both in width and depth. It has expanded from its original twenty-seven member-states in 1969 to fifty-seven member states and five observer states in 2013, representing almost 1.5 billion people across four continents – Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America.[1] It has expanded in mandate from a mere political forum in 1969 to a full-fledged intergovernmental organization that aims to promote political, economic, cultural and scientific cooperation among its member-states, and create a unified voice for the Muslim community.[2]

As it has evolved, the OIC has had considerable success in encouraging cooperation among Muslim countries in the areas of economic development and commerce.[3] Despite these positive developments, the OIC has not been successful in promoting political cooperation among its member-states. It has struggled to establish a unified voice for the Umma (Muslim community) in the international arena, and to create common points of interest for its member-states. The organization has failed to unify its member-states behind common viewpoints on many critical issues, including the Al-Quds-Al-sharif (Palestine) cause, an issue central to the establishment of the OIC. Even on matters where consensus exists in principle, weak political will on the part of the member-states impedes the implementation of agreements. Thus, many OIC resolutions serve only as expressions of goodwill among its constituents, rather than binding policies.[4]

The geographical diversity and the prevalence of power politics among the organization’s leading member-states have created rifts within the OIC, hampering cooperation on political and strategic matters. Further, the increasing influence of non-state armed groups, including Al Qaeda and its subsidiaries and affiliates, has considerably weakened the power and influence of many Muslim states. This has decreased their capacity to uphold their international agreements, which has in turn impeded cooperation within the OIC.

As the OIC enters its 45th year, it is important to review its history, evolution, and performance. A reevaluation of the organization’s priorities and mission is in order as it seems it has been more successful in facilitating cooperation in commerce and economic development, and less so on political matters. While the Umma must aspire for the highest levels of integration and unification, it must also be realistic and pragmatic. This report aims to provide insights into this issue in three separate parts. Part I briefly discusses the political climate surrounding the establishment of the OIC in 1969 and compares it with the current international political environment. Part II reviews the evolution of the OIC’s mission, and analyzes its past performance in light of its stated goals and objectives. Finally, Part III provides a vision for the future of the OIC, and recommends a reassessment of the organization’s focus and priorities. It suggests that the OIC will better serve its member-states if its mission was redefined to specifically focus on cooperation in the fields of economic development and commerce. This will make the OIC more effective in its current situation and paves the way for cooperation on political and strategic issues in future.

Part I: Political Environment:

Background: Factors Leading to the Establishment of the OIC:

The idea of a unified Umma and a reformed Caliphate emerged in the 19th Century, primarily in response to the gradual decline in power and influence of the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of European colonialism into the Muslim lands.[5]  A number of leading Muslim thinkers, including Sayyid Jamaluddeen al-Afghani, Mohammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida, among others, were instrumental in promoting a pan-Islamic ideology, albeit in a transnational, rather than international, context.[6] However, those efforts never amounted to substantial outcomes as the European powers effectively carved up the world, including much of the Muslim lands, setting up colonial administrations that suppressed indigenous political movements, including the pan-Islamic society of al-Afghani.[7]

The early 20th Century witnessed renewed efforts to create a pan-Islamic body, including numerous conferences and gatherings. The launch of the 1926 World Islamic Conference in Mecca by King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud was not successful as the attendees focused mainly on territorial claims and disputes and ignored the pre-stated agendas of safeguarding the Holy Places, improving conditions for pilgrims, and ensuring religious liberty for all Muslim sects.[8] Delegates from Palestine, the Beirut Society, Syria, Sudan, Nijd, Hijaz, Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, Malaysia, as well as the Soviet Union met periodically throughout the 1930s, but there were no tangible results towards the establishment of a pan-Islamic organization.[9]

In the post-WWII era, both factionalism and efforts for unification appeared in the Muslim World. The emergence of the League of Arab States, commonly known as the Arab League, overshadowed the emergence of a pan-Islamic body. The six-member organization (Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen) soon became the main platform for deliberations on the Palestinian question, as well as other urgent matters in the Middle East.[10] With the intensification of the Cold War, tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia grew. These tensions were mainly a result of ideological differences between the two countries. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a Soviet ally, an avid supporter of pan-Arabism, and an advocate of secularism and republicanism.[11] Saudi Arabia, by contrast, was close to the United States and United Kingdom, and was a supporter of absolute monarchy and Islamic theocracy.[12] Meanwhile, Iran under the Shah was closely supported by the United States and pushed for secularist reforms in the political sphere and market openness in the country’s economy.[13] This was in sharp contrast to Egypt’s left-leaning secularist agenda and Saudi Arabia’s theocratic monarchism. These ideological divergences not only undermined the efficacy of the Arab League, but also hampered efforts for the establishment of a pan-Islamic intergovernmental organization.

Intra-Muslim divisions were further evidenced by a number of separate conferences, beginning in the early 1950s, for the creation of an all-Muslim body. In 1952, as a result of its ongoing hostilities with India, Pakistan initiated efforts to build what it called the “Islamic Bloc” in order to garner the support of the Muslim World behind Pakistan in possible future confrontations with India.[14] The idea was rejected by Egypt and Syria because of their amiable relations with India through the USSR.[15] The Mecca Conference of 1954 was initiated with an intention to create an international Islamic entity, but after two years of periodic meetings, the Conference adopted a charter specifically focused on cultural and religious matters because participants could not agree on political issues.[16] The entity eventually turned into an Egyptian religious organization called the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.[17] A number of similar initiatives were taken separately by different Muslim countries, including the King Faisal Initiative of 1965, the First Moroccan Conference of 1968, and the first Global Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 1969.[18] None of these initiatives were successful as Muslim leaders failed to come to consensus.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque fire incident of August 21, 1969 shifted the balance from factionalism to some level of limited consensus. This led to the establishment of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Although the attack in the mosque was carried out by an Australian Christian fanatic, the incident became emblematic of an Israeli attempt to destroy holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem.[19] Immediately following the incident, the Arab League Council called for an Islamic summit. Saudi Arabia and Morocco took advantage of this opportunity to hold a preparatory conference in Rabat on September 25, 1969 which laid the foundation of the OIC.[20] The driving force behind the Saudi and Moroccan initiative was to create a larger body that would balance Egypt’s promotion of leftist secularism within the Arab World.[21] In March 1970 the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Muslim countries convened in Jeddah to study proposals for the establishment of an institutionalized pan-Islamic organization. They established a permanent secretariat for the OIC, and appointed its first Secretary General.[22] In 1972, the Charter of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) was adopted by a conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Muslim countries.[23] Twenty-nine years later, in 2011, the name of the organization was changed from the Organization of Islamic Conference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.[24]

Current Political Climate:

The political environment in the Muslim World today is more complex than it was at the time of the OIC’s founding, making intra-Muslim cooperation even more difficult. Notwithstanding the end of the East-West rivalries of the Cold War that had also polarized the Muslim World, serious political rifts continue to divide the Umma. A recent Financial Times satirical description of the political intricacies surrounding the current turmoil in the Middle East sums up this point:

“Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! … Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!”[25]

Clearly, not only are there harsh rivalries among Muslim countries, but there are also serious crises of political stability within many of these states. The relative internal stability of the 1960s and 1970s in many Muslim countries has given way to turmoil and conflict. At least thirteen of the OIC member-states – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, North and South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Turkey, and Yemen – have ongoing internal conflicts that continue to cause death, suffering, and economic destruction.[26] The failure of many Muslim regimes to generate economic development, alleviate poverty, and provide opportunities and access to education, health care, and employment has only intensified the crisis of legitimacy, fueling political unrest and anti-state violence. Many of these conflicts have a transnational component, with organizations like Al Qaeda supplying armed groups with both material and immaterial resources, boosting the scale and scope of violence. Challenged by non-state armed groups, many Muslim regimes are struggling for survival. This legitimacy crisis has substantially weakened the regimes, and affected states’ ability to implement policies, including OIC decisions and resolutions.

In sum, the political environment surrounding the Muslim World today is substantially more challenging than it was at the time the OIC was established. While the necessity for wider and tighter intra-Muslim cooperation is clear, the diverse geographical scope of the OIC, the divergent political positioning of many of the leading OIC member-states, and the challenge of non-state armed groups in these states have made intra-OIC cooperation exceedingly difficult. These issues will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

Part II: Mission and Past Performance

Mission of the OIC:

The initial agreement on September 25, 1969 established the OIC as a forum for Muslim states to discuss issues pertaining to the safeguarding of the Holy sites, as the conference was held in reaction to the Al-Aqsa Mosque fire incident. It was the conference of 1972 that transformed the forum into an intergovernmental organization with a charter and a permanent secretariat. The reasons for establishing the OIC as an intergovernmental Muslim organization were, inter alia, to promote Muslim solidarity, support Muslims’ rights of self-determination, safeguard the Islamic Holy sites (particularly in Palestine and Saudi Arabia), assist with the Palestinian cause, eradicate racial discrimination, and improve intra-Muslim cooperation in the areas of economic development, trade, and scientific exploration.[27]  Although the current charter of the OIC was adopted in 2008, the overall mission of the organization remains unchanged.[28]

In 2008, the organization initiated a new document titled the OIC Ten-Year Program of Action, which turns the OIC’s mission statement into an action plan, emphasizing issues such as combating terrorism, promoting religious moderation and tolerance, countering Islamophobia, preventing conflict among OIC member-states, addressing the question of Palestine, as well as furthering the boundaries of science, technology and human resource development within the Muslim World.[29] The Ten-Year Program of Action is not part of the OIC charter, but was adopted as a resolution. Although a little more specific than the Charter, the Plan is still more of a general wish-list than an implementable action plan.[30] It includes essentially no strategy for achieving any of the objectives it outlines.

Past Performance of the OIC:

The organization has met with some success on certain issues, particularly in promoting cooperation in the areas of economic development and trade. The establishment of numerous specialized, subsidiary and affiliated agencies, which work on specific functional areas within the OIC, is commendable.[31] To name a few, the Islamic Solidarity Fund (ISF) was established in 1974 to provide financial support for cultural, educational, technical and economic activities in the Muslim World. The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) was established in the same year, aimed at supporting socio-economic development, expanding trade, and promoting economic cooperation among its member countries.[32]  In this way, the establishment of the Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Center (SESRTC) in Turkey, the Islamic University of Technology in Bangladesh, the Islamic Center for Development of Trade (ICDT) in Morocco, the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI), the Organization of the Islamic Ship-owners Association (OISOA), and the Federation of Consultants of Islamic Countries (FCIC), among many others, are credited to the work of the OIC.[33]

Assessing the performance of each of these agencies is beyond the scope and intention of this report, but some highlights include ICDT’s completion of 70 trade finance operations valued at over $2.5 billion in twenty-four member countries,[34] IDB’s $10 billion fund for poverty alleviation, named Waqf,[35] and the Islamic Solidarity for Development Fund (ISDF)’s Micro Finance Program, which assists over five million people with financing education.[36] Furthermore, there are opportunities for education for thousands of students at Islamic universities of Nigeria and Uganda, as well as hundreds of exchange programs in the fields of science, technology, education and cultural affairs spearheaded and implemented by other specialized, subsidiary and affiliated organs of the OIC.[37]

Notwithstanding these achievements, the OIC’s performance in more sensitive political and strategic matters has not been impressive. The organization has frequently failed to achieve cooperation on such vital issues as preventing war within its own constituency, pursuing a unified Muslim view on the Israel-Palestine issue, reducing sectarian rivalries and conflict within the Muslim World, and combating extremism. Member-states often take diverging positions on political matters, blocking consensus, or the achievement of a two-thirds majority vote – needed for resolutions to pass.[38] Even in cases where consensus exists in principle and resolutions are passed, a lack of political will in member-state capitals obstructs implementation, leaving most OIC resolutions as mere declarations.[39]

Some critics argue that the central reason for the OIC’s lack of success is the large diversity of the OIC member-states.[40] The OIC is a community of states whose differences vastly exceed their similarities, as stated by Haroon Moghul, a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.[41] The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) similarly writes that OIC member-states are diverse in geographical situation, culture, race and ethnicity, ideology, level of wealth, political systems, and a host of other issues with only Islam as a common point of convergence – a phenomenon insufficient to supersede the other differences and generate cooperation.[42] The ICNL concludes that geopolitical, regional, ideological, and sectarian considerations dictate member-states’ foreign policy choices, leading them to pursue policies that could be divergent from those promoted by the OIC.[43] Based on this reasoning, the OIC is unable to act as an expression of collective Muslim will because member-states are not united by their modes of government or foreign policies.

Diversity alone, however, may not provide a sufficient explanation for why the OIC fails to achieve cooperation on political and strategic issues among its member-states. Diversity within intergovernmental organizations is not a variable; it is a constant. No intergovernmental organization is composed of member-states that are entirely similar in size, population, levels of economic development, ideological orientation or state-structure. The European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of American States (OAS), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are all composed of diverse groups of member-states. Yet, many of these organizations have been successful in promoting cooperation among their respective member-states within their organizational mandates.

The EU, in many respects the most cohesive of all limited membership intergovernmental organizations, has member states as dissimilar as Lithuania and Germany. Not only are many EU member-states different from each other in language, culture, level of wealth, etc. at present, but also have long histories of constant conflict and bloodshed. In fact, the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, the first step in the evolution of the EU, is credited to the differences among European powers, mainly Germany and France, rather than their unity. By pooling the production of Franco-German coal and steel, two critical ingredients in the conduct of industrial war, the ECSC architects sought to make the initiation of another large-scale European war practically impossible.[44] Thus, it was antagonism, not camaraderie, among the European nations that led to the creation of the European Union.

In many cases, it is the differences among a group of states that necessitate the establishment of interstate organizations to facilitate cooperation. If no major differences exist within a community of states, cooperation can be achieved without the formation of an intergovernmental body. Thus, the very creation of an intergovernmental organization indicates that member-states have considerable differences that prevent cooperation. They create a joint organization in order to mitigate the differences and facilitate cooperation. Therefore, most intergovernmental organizations are born out of diversity, not unity, among their member-states.

However, most successful limited-membership intergovernmental organizations are either geographically cohesive or have specified, limited missions. In the case of the EU, despite vast cultural differences and histories of belligerence among its member-states, it is located in one geographical region – Europe. This geographical cohesion helps with intra-EU cooperation for many reasons; foremost among them is that it creates common geostrategic interests for most member-states due to geographical proximity. Instability in one EU member-state, for instance, is likely to spill over into others, giving member-states a collective incentive to cooperate. This may not be the case for many OIC member-states, as they are spread over four continents.

NATO is an example of the latter model, an intergovernmental organization whose members are diverse in most respects, including geographical situation, but whose mission is limited and specific. NATO is a military alliance of twenty-eight countries, stretched from North America to Europe with the sole mission of safeguarding the security of its member-states.[45] Although NATO has had internal challenges in the past, notably with France’s intermittent half-heartedness toward the alliance, the organization has been successful in projecting a unified voice for its member-states on security matters.[46] The limited nature of NATO’s mission helps the organization to generate cooperation among its member-states on security issues even if they have differences on other matters.

The OIC is in stark contrast with the EU and NATO. It is neither geographically cohesive nor limited and specific in its mission. Geographically, it is stretched across four continents while its mission is so broad that it aims to work on everything from education and scientific innovation in the Muslim World to creating a unified foreign policy for its fifty-seven member-states. Therefore, the OIC does not compare well to any other intergovernmental organization, including regionally focused organizations such as the EU or mission-oriented ones such as NATO.

While diversity is mitigated in the EU and NATO by geographical cohesion and a limited mission, respectively, it remains an important impediment to cooperation within the OIC. Implied in the establishment of the OIC is the notion that member-states have a strong common identity that supersedes the differences among them. And that identity is Islam. This notion has both theoretical and empirical validity throughout Islamic history. Theoretically, Islam is not only a religion but also a sociopolitical ideology that shapes and guides human life both at the individual and collective levels.[47] The fact that Islamic law, Shari’a, remains at the center of many Muslim countries’ constitutions and legal systems corroborates this notion.[48] The majority of the Muslim World was historically under the jurisdiction of the Caliphate and ruled by the Caliph. The Caliphate was transferred several times from the last Rightly-guided Caliph Ali to the Umayyad Dynasty of Damascus in 661[49], to the Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad in 750[50], to the Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt in 1261[51], finally to the Ottoman Dynasty of Constantinople in 1519[52]. This process effectively ended when in 1924 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate.[53]

While various Muslim kingdoms and princely states within the Caliphate had considerable autonomy, the Caliph exercised supreme rule on religious and political matters. The legitimacy of his rule was based on the idea that, irrespective of differences in race, language, culture, and geographical locations, all Muslims were part of the Umma, and the Caliph was their supreme leader. Islam served as a unifying factor for Muslims for about thirteen centuries, and still remains a strong identity among most Muslims.[54] While still a popular identity, Islam’s unifying power has been substantially reduced by the emergence of the nation-state system. Independent Muslim countries, by the very nature of the nation-state system, are self-interested actors in their international relations. A Muslim state may wish to have cordial relations with other Muslim states, but more immediate strategic considerations may impact its policy choices. This leads to decisions that may not be in line with the spirit of intra-Muslim cooperation. Depending on a country’s geographical location, issues arise that may be more important to the state than its relationship with other Muslim states. Great power politics, a direct consequence of the nation-state system, is a further impediment to cooperation, sometimes leading to intra-Muslim conflict.

The following section highlights the importance of geography and great power politics on patterns of cooperation within the OIC. It also expands on the point that the rise and prevalence of non-state armed groups within the Muslim World – both national and transnational movements – further impedes intra-OIC cooperation by decreasing states’ capacity to implement agreed-upon treaties and by reducing their domestic legitimacy and international credibility.

Impact of Geography on Intra-OIC Cooperation:

Geographic incoherence within the OIC hampers cooperation on political and strategic issues because member-states cannot find common points in their geostrategic interests. For instance, due to a lack of physical proximity, instability in one member-state, say Tunisia, is less likely to impact the stability of states such as Malaysia or Guyana, as the three countries are located in three different continents. Therefore, Malaysia and Guyana can hardly be convinced to contribute resources to stabilize Tunisia because they see little strategic interest in doing so.

Depending on a member-state’s location, issues such as geostrategic calculations, relations with non-OIC countries, and membership in other intergovernmental organizations, have greater and more immediate importance and often dictate a state’s foreign policy choices. This pattern has been repeated time and again throughout the history of the OIC, as in the following examples:

  • The Afghan-Pakistani Problem: Since the birth of Pakistan as an independent state in 1947, Afghanistan and Pakistan have had troubled relations. The main reason behind this is a territorial dispute over a region in north-west Pakistan that was separated arbitrarily from Afghanistan by the British in 1893.[55] As one of the successor states of the British Raj, Pakistan inherited the region in 1947, while Afghanistan has continually refused to officially recognize the border.[56]

Although Afghanistan and Pakistan have never fought a formal war, Pakistan has housed and supported various anti-government Afghan militias for decades, in an attempt to keep Afghanistan fragmented and unstable, preventing the revival of its claim over the territory.[57] In turn, Afghanistan is alleged to cooperate with Pakistan’s archenemy, India, as well as United Arab Emirates in arming, training and providing sanctuaries for the Baluch separatists in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.[58] India supports these insurgents because of the inherent Hindu-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir. The UAE supports the Baluch insurgents because of Pakistan’s construction of the Gawadar deep seaport, which would compete with the UAE’s ports in the Persian Gulf.[59]

The geographical locations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the UAE create tangled strategic interests, leading these OIC member-states to pursue their own interests at the cost of OIC cohesion. For Pakistan, closer relations with China take precedence over cooperation with Afghanistan and the UAE because China provides considerable economic and military support to Pakistan. Similarly, Afghanistan and the UAE align with India because of their shared strategic interests against Pakistan.

  • Turkey and the EU Membership: Given its geographical proximity and historical ties to Europe, Turkey seeks to become a member of the European Union (EU). It has been a member of many European organizations such as the European Council (EC), the European Economic Community (EEC), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and others.[60] Despite years of effort, Turkey continues to negotiate with the EU on its possible entry into the organization.

Turkey’s eagerness to join the EU is driven by interests, as Turkey will benefit substantially from EU membership. If admitted to the organization, Turkey will likely receive economic development aid, as in the cases of Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.[61] EU membership will increase European investment in Turkish economy and contribute to Turkey’s economic growth. Once in the EU, many Turks will have the opportunity to move across Europe freely in search of employment or higher standards of living. More economic growth, as well as better employment opportunities will likely boost the Turkish government’s domestic legitimacy, easing separatist tensions in eastern Turkey.

Before it can accede to the EU, Turkey must undertake substantial reforms in its political, social and economic spheres, some of which would be contradictory to the policies promoted by the OIC. For instance, Turkey would have to adhere to human rights codes that are different from the OIC’s Cairo Declaration on Human Rights.[62] The EU would push for a definition of terrorism that is substantially different from that proposed by the OIC, which does not identify Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists.[63] It would also alter Turkey’s policy toward Israel where Turkey would officially recognizing Israel, a divergent policy from the OIC. These are only a few examples while the reforms Turkey must undergo are very elaborate. Nevertheless, Turkey appears to be willing to undertake these policies if its application is accepted by the EU. Thus, Turkey’s interests in the EU take precedence over the OIC, given the country’s geographical proximity and historical ties to Europe.

  • Other Cases: There are a great number of other examples that show how geostrategic issues have hampered intra-OIC cooperation. The Pakistan-Bangladesh war of 1971 over political and territorial issues;[64] Egypt’s 1979 unilateral peace deal with Israel against the OIC’s formally declared position;[65] the Iran-Iraq war that was rooted in internal security concerns, a territorial dispute, and ideological differences;[66] the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait over territorial and economic disputes;[67] and the current intra-OIC rivalries in Syria[68] are each salient examples. These examples show that geostrategic considerations often surpass the unifying forces of Islam in foreign policy decision-making, impeding cooperation on strategic matters within the OIC.

Impact of Great Power Politics on Intra-OIC Cooperation:

Great power politics within the OIC have resulted in rivalries between some of the leading members of the OIC on ideological or sectarian issues, hampering intra-OIC cooperation. During the Cold War, ideological rivalries between Egypt and Saudi Arabia created great rifts within the OIC. Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser was a Soviet ally, an avid supporter of pan-Arabism, and an advocate of secularism and republicanism.[69] Even after Egypt switched camps and turned to the United States for support it kept a secular state system, and remained a promoter of secularism within the Muslim World. This was in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, which was a supporter of absolute monarchy and Islamic theocracy.[70] These rivalries were tangibly realized in the North Yemen Civil War in the 1960s, where Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the royalists while Egypt took the side of the republican revolutionaries.[71] Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the royalists by providing funds, armament, supplies, and food, while Egypt sent in about 70,000 troops to fight on the side of the republicans.[72]

The Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalries are another issue of great power politics interfering with intra-OIC cooperation. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Shia-Sunni divide took a strong political shape when Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme revolutionary Iranian leader, believed that his ideas had external applicability and that his revolution could be exported to other parts of the Muslim World.[73] Iran began supporting Shia communities across the Muslim World, particularly in the Gulf region, encouraging them to rebel against their Sunni rulers.[74] Khomeini’s concept of Vilayat-e-Faqih, or the governorship of the jurists, was rooted in the Shia jurisprudence, which the Saudi Wahhabis avidly rejected.[75] As a result, the two countries embarked on a fierce and long contentious journey that continues to this day. This is evidenced by their conflicting positions in the Syrian crisis – Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian rebels while Iran backs the Assad regime.[76] Saudi Arabia also supports madrasas (Islamic religious schools) across the Muslim World, which are known for their puritanical approach and interpretation of Islamic text.[77] This directly counters the OIC’s stated objective of fighting religious extremism and promoting moderation.

Great power politics also impacts the OIC through the budgetary issues. The OIC runs on a very modest operating budget that is collected through member-state dues, appropriated as a percentage of their national income.[78] Budget for all subsidiary and specialized organs, including the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), is collected through voluntary donations.  Rich states contribute most of the donated funds, thereby pushing their own agendas through the Bank’s programs. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest shareholder of the IDB and contributor to its development programs.[79] Using its leverage within the IDB, Saudi Arabia continues to promote its Wahhabi conservative agenda through funding development programs across the Muslim World. Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait, and the UAE, are all major contributors of funds to the OIC’s specialized and subsidiary organs and also pursue their own interests. For instance, Pakistan has been the main force behind preventing India, which has the world’s third largest Muslim population, from joining the OIC.[80]

Impact of Non-state Armed Groups:

While non-state armed groups existed in some Muslim countries in the 1960s and 1970s, they became a widespread phenomenon in the aftermath of the Cold War. The al-Qaeda Network, which consists of at least six affiliate and thirteen associate organizations, operates throughout the Muslim World and beyond, acting on a Salafi-Jihadi ideology that is irreconcilable with the norms, standards and values of the modern world.[81] Al Qaeda has not only declared jihad against the West, but has also renounced most of the Muslim leaders as apostate, calling for arms against them. Al Qaeda’s ideology defies national boundaries, international organizations, and the Western idea of the nation-state, advocating a return of the Muslim World to its 7th Century form of the Caliphate.[82] Its campaign of terror has inflicted tremendous loss of life and property in the West, and the death of tens of thousands of Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and Turkey. It has substantially defamed Islam and Muslims in the world, jeopardized Muslim interests worldwide, and threatened the sovereignty and integrity of many Muslim states.

Beside Al Qaeda, which is a transnational actor, there are hundreds of locally-focused armed groups that continue to impede the rule of national laws and the sovereignty of national states in the Muslim World. As mentioned earlier in this report, thirteen OIC member-states are currently involved in internal conflicts. Most of these conflicts are a result of crises of regime legitimacy, driven by the failure of states to generate economic development, alleviate poverty, and provide access to education, health care, and employment. In the meantime, continued authoritarian rule has fuelled political unrest, as exemplified in the Arab Spring. Challenged by internal non-state armed groups, many states in the Muslim World are struggling for survival.

These political developments represent grave ramifications for intra-OIC cooperation. The increasingly weakened position of Muslim states not only hampers their ability to enter into cooperative agreements with each other, but it also makes implementation of agreements problematic. These intra-state conflicts have also increased rifts and tensions among OIC members, as states get involved in each other’s internal affairs by supporting one side or the other due to sectarian, racial, or political considerations. For instance, Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt due to the current Turkish ruling party’s ideological resonance with that of the Brothers. On the other hand, the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, support the Egyptian military because of their ideological differences with the Muslim Brotherhood. This has negatively affected Turkish-Gulf relations.[83]

In sum, the diverging positions of many OIC member-states due to ideological, sectarian, or political considerations, reinforced by the widespread geographic diversity of the organization, have prevented the OIC from producing a coherent and concrete institutional basis. The OIC charter fails to establish any enforcement mechanism for the organization’s decisions. Unlike the UN, which can issue binding and enforceable resolutions through the Security Council, the OIC lacks enforcement mechanisms. As a result, the OIC mission statement, ten-year plan of action, as well as its numerous resolutions are little more than general declarations with no specifics for implementation or ramification of misconduct. Meanwhile, the increasing power and influence of non-state armed groups in the Muslim world – both locally-focused and transnational – has created serious challenges to the sovereignty of many Muslim regimes. This undermines their ability to engage in credible cooperative agreements and effectively implement domestic policies. This has significantly hampered intra-OIC cooperation, preventing the organization from meeting its stated objectives.

Part III: Way Forward

Redefining the OIC’s Mission:

Presently, the OIC’s mission is unrealistically ambitious and broad. It aims to achieve intra-Muslim cooperation on everything from education and scientific exploration, to cultural exchange, to economic development and trade, to combating sectarianism and extremism, to creating unified strategic views on critical world affairs for its member-states. Given the realities on the ground, notably the geographic challenges discussed, the ideological, sectarian and political differences within the Umma, and the increasing prevalence of non-state armed groups, the OIC’s goals are unrealistic, if not impossible. By trying to achieve everything, the OIC might end up achieving nothing.

The organization’s mission must be made limited, focused and cohesive in order to deliver tangible results.  Since the organization has been more successful in trade and economic development, it should reorient its mission to focus solely on trade and economic cooperation. Cooperation on trade and economic issues is easier to attain because these are less sensitive areas relative to political and strategic issues. World history supports this point and shows that even when there are political and strategic tensions, states can still benefit from trade and economic cooperation. This was demonstrated with U.S.-U.S.S.R. trade relations during the Cold War.[84]

Additionally, focusing the mission on a specific field will give the OIC a sense of direction. At present, the OIC is overwhelmed by its expectations and does not have the capacity or resources for its mission. With a more limited, specialized mission, the organization will be able to concentrate its resources – financial, human, and institutional –, develop practical, actionable plans, and implement them in a timely manner.

A focus on trade and economic cooperation will also pave the way for future cooperation in other areas, including on political and strategic issues. This can happen in two ways. First, by focusing and limiting the its mission, the organization will be able to deliver better results, which in turn, will give the OIC confidence and credibility. While at present many OIC-member states, as well as external actors, view the organization as ineffective and symbolic, if the organization proves that it can achieve tangible results, those views will change. Internal and external actors will see the OIC as a serious entity capable of achieving its stated mission and objectives. They view it as a platform through which real cooperation is possible, and will start dealing with the organization as such. This will substantially boost the OIC’s confidence and credibility, enabling it to gradually extend its mandate to include other issues.

Second, more successful cooperation in trade and economic areas will likely generate a “spillover effect,” gradually making cooperation in other areas not only possible but also necessary. For instance, in order to continue broad and deep cooperation on trade and commerce, OIC member-states will need to cooperate in the area of transportation. Once they extend cooperation to transportation, it will become inevitable to start cooperation on inter-state highway security issues. The spillover effect can continue, gradually making possible a broad, more ambitious mission. The OIC began with a very wide, unrealistic mission from the beginning, which did not give the organization a chance to build confidence and credibility. Gradualism is the key in the progression of the organization, as evidenced with the experience of the European Union and other regional organizations.

Finally, limiting the OIC’s mission and mandate is the only realistic way forward. 44 years of OIC past performance indicates that by trying to achieve everything, the OIC has actually achieved very little. Success has only been achieved in the fields of commerce and economic cooperation. Moving forward, the OIC member-states have two options. The first option is to continue the status quo. In a best-case scenario, this will prolong the OIC as an overstretched, under-resourced, primarily symbolic and ineffective organization. At the worst, this will eventually lead to its disbandment, as member-states will deem it irrelevant. Another option is to enact changes to improve the organization’s performance. In principle, this can be done by making the OIC geographically cohesive, getting the leading OIC member-states to stop engaging in power politics, and circumventing the influence of the non-state armed groups within the Muslim World – an impossibility. However, the more realistic way to make the OIC more effective is to manage our expectations by limiting the organization’s mission and immediate goals.

[1] Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, “Commerce And Economic And Commercial Cooperation Among The OIC Member States”, Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs:, retrieved 10 October, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] These successes are simply in principle, as evidenced by the establishment within the OIC of a number of specialized and affiliated agencies working in the mentioned fields. See, “OIC Organs”, Organization of Islamic Cooperation:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[4] Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, “SPEECH OF SECRETARY-GENERAL AT THE INAUGURAL MEETING OF THE OIC COMMISSION OF EMINENT PERSONS”, Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu:, retrieved 19, October, 2013.

[5] Dr. Abdul RAUF, “PAN-ISLAMISM AND THE NORTH WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE OF BRITISH INDIA (1897-1918)”, Center for Strategic Research, Winter 2007, p. 22:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[6] Murat Çalışkan, “Ideas and Activities of Sayyid Jamal-al din Afghani”,, retrieved 16 October, 2013.

[7] S.V.R. Nasr, “European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States”, Oxford Islamic Studies Online:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[8] “The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) One-Page Summary”, Forum for Democratic Global Governance, p. 2:, retrieved 14 October, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) One-Page Summary,” p. 2.

[11] Adeed Dawisha (2002). Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 2 – 14.

[12] For Saudi Government’s support of Wahabbism, see: “Saudi Arabia”, The American Foreign Policy Council’s World: ALMANAC OF ISLAMISM, 6 September, 2013:, retrieved 19 October, 2013. For US-Saudi relations, see: Christopher M. Blanchard, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations” Congressional Research Center, 16 November, 2009, p. 2, found on Federation of American Scientists:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[13] Stephen McGlinchey, “How the Shah Entangled America”, The National Interest, 2 August, 2013:, retrieved 28 October, 2013.

[14] Praveen Swami (2007). India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947 – 2004, New York: Routledge, p. 31.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Egypt and The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation”, The 12th Session of the Islamic Summit Conference, 2 – 7 February, 2013:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “NGO Law Monitor: Organization of Islamic Cooperation”, The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 12 September, 2013:, retrieved 16 October, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “About OIC”, Organization of Islamic Cooperation:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Patrick Goodenough, “New Name, Same Old Focus for Islamic Bloc”, CBS News.Com, 30 June, 2013:, retrieved 20 October, 2013.

[25] K .N. Al-Sabah, “A short guide to the Middle East”, Financial Times, 22 August, 2013:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[26] These are the conflicts the author counted based on multiple media reports. There might be others that I have missed.

[27] “OIC Charter”, Chapter I, Article 1, Organization of Islamic Cooperation:, retrieved 16 October, 2013.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “OIC Ten-Year Program of Action”, Organization of Islamic Cooperation:, retrieved 29 October, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, “Comcec And Economic And Commercial Cooperation Among The OIC Member States”, Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, p. 13:, retrieved 10 October, 2013.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid, p.26.

[36] Ibid.

[37] For specifics on the performance status of specialized, subsidiary, and affiliated organs of the OIC, see “OIC Organs”:, retrieved 22 October, 2013.

[38] See OIC Charter, Chapter XVII, “Rules of Procedure and Voting”:, retrieved 21 October, 2013

[39] “NGO Law Monitor: Organization of Islamic Cooperation”, The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 12 September, 2013:, retrieved 16 October, 2013.

[40] Devon A. Hansen and Mohammad Hemmasi, “The state of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the dawn of the new millennium”, Prairie Perspectives, Prairie Division: Association of Canadian Geographers, Vol. 4, pp. 258 –282, Abstract:, retrieved 24 October, 2013; see also Toni Johnson, “The Organization of Islamic Conference”, Council on Foreign Relations, 29 June, 2010:, retrieved 24 October 2013.

[41] HAROON MOGHUL, “Obama’s Muslim Strategy 2.0”, Religious Dispatches Magazine, 3 June, 2010:, retrieved 24 October, 2013.

[42] “NGO Law Monitor: Organization of Islamic Cooperation”, The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 12 September, 2013:, retrieved 24 October, 2013.

[43] Ibid.

[44] “Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, ECSC Treaty”, European Union:, retrieved 24 October, 2013.

[45] “Basic Points”, North Atlantic Treaty Organization:, retrieved 24 October, 2013.

[46] “Q&A: France and Nato”, BBC News, 11 March, 2009:, retrieved 24 October, 2013.

[47] For various Sunni versions of political Islam, see Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29, Issue 3, May 2006, pp. 207-239 . The Shias have a slightly different version of political Islam, but they do not question the notion that Islam must guide all aspects of human life, including politics, as promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of Vilayat-e-Faqih (the governorship of the jurists):

Roger Cohen, “1979: Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” The New York Times:, retrieved on 24 October, 2013.

[48] Turan Kayaoğlu, “A Rights Agenda for the Muslim World?: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Evolving Human Rights Agenda”, Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, Brookings Doha Center, Number 6, January 2013:, retrieved 24 October, 2013; for general support for the role of Sharia in the Muslim World, see: John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed (2007). Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, New York: Gallup Press, 46-54.

[49] G.R. Hawting (2000). The First Dynasty of Islam: The Ummayad Caliphate A.D. 661-750, New York: Routledge, p. 21.

[50] M.A. Shaban (1971). Islamic History: A New Interpretation A.D. 600-750 (A.H. 132), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

[51] Reuven Amitai-Preiss (1995). Monglos and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281, Cambride: Cambridge University Press, pp. 51-69.

[52] Caroline Finkel (2005). The History of the Ottoman Empire: Osman’s Dream, United Kingdom: John Murray Publishers, pp. 113-122.

[53] Andrew Mango (1999). Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, New York: Peter Mayer Publisher, p. 36.

[54] John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), 46-54.

[55] “The Durand Line: History, Consequences and Future”, Report of a Conference Organized in July 2007 by the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and the Hollings Center in Istanbul, Turkey, Boston University:, accessed on 25 October, 2013.

[56] Ibid.

[57] C. Christine Fair, “The Militant Challenge in Pakistan”, Asia Policy, Number 11, January 2011, p.111; Hussain Haqqani (2005). Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pp.103-5; Barnet Rubin (2002). The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, New Heaven: Yale University Press, pp.83-4; and Rizwan Hussain (2005). Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan, Burlington: Ashgate, pp.79-81.

[58] Saba Imtiaz, “MPs told Russia, India and UAE involved in Baloch insurgency”, The Express Tribune, 2 December, 2010:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “EU-Turkey relations”, European Information on Enlargement & Neighbors, 23 September 2004:, retrieved 25 October, 2013; see also Leo Cendrowicz, “Fifty Years On, Turkey Still Pines to Become European”, Time, 8 September, 2009:,8599,1920882,00.html, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[61] See articles on EU economic aid to these countries in “EU Crisis”, Spiegel Online International:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[62] Toni Johnson, “The Organization of Islamic Conference”, Council on Foreign Relations, 29 June, 2010:, retrieved 25 October 2013.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Mark Dummett, “Bangladesh war: The article that changed history”, BBC News Magazine, 15 December, 2011:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[65] Toni Johnson, “The Organization of Islamic Conference”, Council on Foreign Relations, 29 June, 2010:, retrieved 25 October 2013.

[66] Efraim Karsh, “Geopolitical Determinism: The Origins of the Iran-Iraq War”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), 256-268, pp. 257-260.

[67] Peter Fitzgerald, “The Invasion of Kuwait”, The Finer Times:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[68] Benedetta Berti and Yoel Guzansky, “The Syrian Crisis and the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, October, 2012:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[69] Adeed Dawisha (2002). Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 2 – 14.

[70] “Saudi Arabia”, The American Foreign Policy Council’s World: ALMANAC OF ISLAMISM, 6 September, 2013:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[71] Staly Sandler (2002). Ground Warfare: An International Encyclopedia. Vol.1: ABC-CLIO, p.977.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, “The Shia Factor in Iran’s Foreign Policy”, Center for Strategic Research, November 2008:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Roger Cohen, “1979: Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” The New York Times:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[76] Benedetta Berti and Yoel Guzansky, “The Syrian Crisis and the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, October 2012:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[77] Michael Busch, “WikiLeaks: Saudi-Financed Madrassas More Widespread in Pakistan Than Though”, Foreign Policy in Focus, 26 May, 2011:, retrieved 28 October, 2013.

[78] See OIC Charter, Article 29, Organization of Islamic Cooperation:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[79] “Islamic Development Bank Group in Brief”, Islamic Development Bank, May 2013:, retrieved 25 October, 2013.

[80] Toni Johnson, “The Organization of Islamic Conference”, Council on Foreign Relations, 29 June, 2010:, retrieved 25 October 2013

[81] Katherine Zimmerman, “The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy”, American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threat Project, September 2013, p. 21:, retrieved 19 October, 2013.

[82] Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29:3, 207 – 239, pp. 225-228.

[83] K. N. Al-Sabah, “A short guide to the Middle East”, Financial Times, 22 August, 2013:, retrieved 26 October, 2013.

[84] “Trade in Goods with USSR”, United States Census Bureau, US Department of Commerce:, retrieved 29 October, 2013.



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