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A mission of moderation and modernization

Interview - September 17, 2013
Eminent Turkish academic and diplomat, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, became the OIC’s first democratically elected Secretary General in 2005, and has been instrumental in its mission for development, peace and understanding
Since his election as Secretary General of the OIC back in 2004, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu has led the organization through wide-spanning structural reforms which have seen vast improvements in efficiency and effectiveness and a general increase in the OIC’s scope of activities. 
Significantly, the Ten-Year Program of Action – initiated soon after his appointment – along with a new charter, have been based on reinforcing the common Muslim values, which are congruent to international values including democracy and human rights, between the OIC’s 57 member states and for the promotion of Islam as an example of tolerance, moderation and a force for international peace. 
With his truly revolutionary term as OIC head coming to end in December 2013, in an exclusive interview with United World, Mr. İhsanoğlu reflects on the progress of almost nine years towards modernizing the OIC, and the challenges that continue to face the Muslim world such as Islamophobia and terrorism.
Throughout your tenure you have embarked on a mission of transforming the OIC from a “mere observer” into an active participant in global politics and affairs. How far has the organization progressed towards attaining better recognition?

Since my election, I have devoted myself to turning the organization into an effective player in international affairs so that it is seen as a collective voice of 1.6 billion Muslims across the globe. This required transforming the organization from within. As part of that, the new charter incorporated universally accepted values like democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, empowerment of women etc. 
The new charter together with the visionary document, the Ten Year Programme of Action, brought visible change in the activities of the OIC. Following the decision of the 38th Conference of Foreign Ministers in 2011, the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission was also established. 
These are considered as landmark achievements of the OIC, and in parallel to these structural changes and reforms, I have pursued promoting OIC in non-member states as an intergovernmental political organization, not a religious organization. That has resulted in non-member states gradually recognizing the OIC as an intergovernmental political organization like the UN, the EU, the AU etc. Furthermore, many countries sought to obtain observer membership in the OIC and others have appointed special envoys including key countries such as the USA, UK, France, Canada, Australia, and Italy.
Despite such progress in gaining acknowledgment and credibility for the organization around the world, one of the issues that continues to challenge the rapprochement between cultures, particularly with the West, is so-called “Islamophobia”. In what ways does Islamophobia act as an obstacle for progress for the OIC and for Muslim people? 

Islamophobia goes way beyond being merely an obstacle for progress for the OIC and for Muslims. Muslims both indigenous and immigrants in some Western societies are living in a state of uncertainty and often being subjected to negative stereotyping, stigmatization, racial discrimination and ridicule with the rising trend of Islamophobia. Although Western governments and their leaders have openly spoken out against this phenomenon, the anti-Muslim agenda pursued by some extremist elements who deliberately distort and malign Islam and its adherents (Muslims) as a threat to Western civilization continues unhindered.
Whether you choose to defend attacks of religious sentiments and beliefs as freedom of expression or indict it as an abuse of freedom of expression, the damage that is done by the act is irreversible: communal harmony is destroyed by violent repercussions, innocent lives are lost and a culture of mutual suspicion and animosity takes root. This in turn creates the perfect ground for terrorists whoever they may be, to destabilize society and threaten global peace and security. 
Allow me to make one point very clear; there is absolutely no sanction or support for violence, killing of innocent civilians, or inciting communal hatred in the Islamic faith. The OIC and the member states never hesitated in their spontaneous and sincere condemnation of violence, terrorism and killings of innocent people carried out for the so- called cause of Islam.
What pains me is the aspect of double standards. In case of a crime where two people with Muslim names, such as the recent Boston bombing, are involved, the blame usually goes beyond the individual and placed on Islam and Muslims as a whole, whereas when a non-Muslim commits a crime, his or her faith is never brought into question.
In our strategy to combat Islamophobia, we took upon ourselves to sensitize the international community on the grave dangers posed by the scourge of Islamophobia to global peace, security and stability. To attain our desired goal, we have set up an Observatory at the OIC Headquarters in Jeddah that monitors Islamophobic incidents and developments on a daily basis. The Observatory issues a daily report and an annual report that not only highlights anti-Islam, anti-Muslim hatred but also positive developments, in particular the different statements of and initiatives taken by different governments, scholars and civil society activists.
I would also like to stress here that we also reject anti-Semitism and Christianophobia and the discrimination against any religion. Our position on tackling religious intolerance is not exclusive to Islam; it is based on respecting all beliefs and promoting peaceful coexistence, which we have expressed many times and made several proposals on how to approach that.

Speaking of violence, the organization has passed several resolutions condemning every form of terrorism and initiated various programs for promoting inter-religious harmony…

Yes, the OIC places fighting terrorism as one of the top priorities on its agenda, after all more people have been killed in the Muslim world because of terrorism than anywhere else. The TYPOA reiterated the OIC’s commitment to combating terrorism by issuing a strong message of condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purpose. Terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or race. 
The TYPOA also reaffirmed the commitment to the OIC Convention on Combating Terrorism adopted in 1999 (perhaps the only convention that defines terrorism) and to the implementation of the recommendations issued by the International Conference on Combating Terrorism, held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in February 2005, including the establishment of the International Centre for Combating Terrorism.
The OIC endeavors to combat terrorism at its roots whatever its possible underpinnings, whether political, economic, social or technological. Furthermore, the OIC has consistently pursued a policy of engagement with the West to remove misgivings between Muslims and the West and extended its hand of cooperation on issues of common concern. 
Indeed Muslims not only face false association of their religion to violence, but also general misconceptions about Islamic society as a whole. What steps are being taken to uphold the true values of Islam by enhancing member states’ dedication to issues such respect for freedoms and human rights?

The OIC has been criticized for undermining human rights. I decided that this sensitive issue must be addressed effectively. Taking the cue from the directives of the OIC TYPOA, we initiated the process that led to the establishment of the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC comprising 18 elected Commissioners, four of whom are women). The institutionalization of human rights in the Muslim world is a gradual process, taking the first step by including it in the TYPOA and the OIC Charter. The IPHRC is now fully functional having adopted its rules of procedure and its mandate is comparable with any other international or regional human rights commission. However, this is just the beginning. We are aware that human rights standards in some member states are not optimal and they need to be addressed by the IPHRC.
The issue of women empowerment is also high on the OIC’s agenda. The adoption of the OIC Plan of Action for Advancement of Women and the establishment of a center for the development of women in Cairo for addressing the issues faced by women and for taking concrete action for their empowerment in all spheres in society including decision making stands in testimony to the serious commitment of the OIC’s in this field. 
Reputed international and regional organizations including the OSCE and UN Human Rights Council are in regular contact with the OIC through bilateral exchanges and taking joint initiatives for bridging the gap between the West and the Muslim world including on such issues as democracy and rule of law.
Going back to the topic of rapprochement with the West, how do you assess the importance of mutual trust and respect you’ve now reached with the U.S., and how their help is vital for the development of the Muslim world?

The U.S. and the OIC enjoy excellent bilateral relations based on mutual trust and respect. Frequent meetings and exchanges between the two sides have solidified the OIC-U.S. relationship, while former Secretary Clinton visited the OIC Headquarters on 16 February, 2010. I also met with President Obama on 12 April, 2011 at the White House and discussed key issues of mutual concern, in particular relations between the U.S. and the Muslim World. 
Naturally, the resolution of conflicts figures very high in the OIC-U.S. agenda. If we analyze the map of world conflicts we would see that most of the active hotbeds of conflicts and disputes in the world are located in what is termed the “Muslim world”. 
The underlying causes of this phenomenon could be attributed to the fragmentation of the Islamic world due to political instability, economic underdevelopment and the legacy of colonial past in some countries, in addition to the failure to address the challenges of the times and suffering under dictatorial regimes for decades. This is compounded by corruption and obstacles to establishing human rights, democracy and rule of law. 
In adressing conflict prevention or peace-building, the OIC considers preventive diplomacy and peaceful means as the best approach. Addressing the root causes of conflicts would also bring results to our joint efforts. The OIC firmly believes that the engagement of the U.S. in this regard is very crucial and vital and the organization has been working closely with the U.S. to achieve our common goals.
In other areas the U.S.-OIC collaboration has made great strides in many areas ranging from improving mother and child health to promoting women’s empowerment across the Muslim world, and from providing humanitarian assistance in crisis regions such as Somalia to contributing to regional and global peace and security. This collaboration has taken an institutionalized framework with the appointment of a special envoy to OIC first by President Bush and then by President Obama.
One of the most important issues of collaboration is on the consensual passage of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 on combating religious intolerance in 2011. And we did not stop at the mere passage of a resolution. The Istanbul Process initiated with Secretary of State Clinton to build on the consensus building that went into resolution 16/18 has been adopted by all stakeholders as the way forward. This approach carries a lot of potential in terms of evolving an international consensus to deal with the matter while addressing genuine concerns of all parties.
Looking to the future, what is your vision for how the OIC should go forward over the coming years in facing its challenges towards prosperity?

What we in the Muslim world aspire to is evolving a more just, equitable and democratic global system, founded upon humane, universal, and moral values in this age of connectivity and permeability. 
Today, the OIC is considered as a strategic partner of the United Nations and our member states are committed to cooperating in solving problems and enhancing their collaboration in the economic and social development fields under the umbrella of the OIC. 
People in the Arab world, for example, woke up against injustice, corruption, poor governance, nepotism and lack of services and now they are demanding their rights to good living, education, employment, and healthcare facilities to be fulfilled. The member states have reached consensus through the adoption of the TYPOA and the OIC Charter to go forward, in the coming years, to realize these common goals.