The groundbreaking transformations initiated in some Middle Eastern and North African countries in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, and the processes of reform unfolding in varying degrees and intensity in other member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), raised hopes for new social contracts based on more balanced relationships between states and citizens and between majority and minority communities in terms of ideological, religious or sectarian divides. However, despite these hopes, such an outcome will not be easy to achieve and cannot be taken for granted — as recent developments in Egypt have displayed.
Any new social contract of governance in Muslim majority countries should be accompanied by open dialogue and sincere soul searching on the common challenges that these countries face, including societal divisions as well as radicalization and sectarianism. Additionally, these challenges require not only common understanding but also collective and comprehensive responses from the Muslim world. Therefore, serious discussions among political, intellectual and religious leaders should be increased within OIC member states.
Understandably, due to fears of negative implications for their own societies, many Western governments, think tanks, and universities are spending considerable time and resources on programs addressing global challenges, particularly in the MENA region. Yet, sustainable remedies are primarily initiated and realized from within. There is a danger that even indirect Western support provided to local civil society initiatives can place local institutions in precarious situations, and there is no guarantee that resources will be used effectively.
More vocal interventions from prominent religious leaders and interfaith initiatives advocating for co-existence and mutual respect are needed. It is also high time that national governments and politicians act as role models and rise to the challenge of advocating for compassion and acceptance through their actions. A good example is OIC Secretary General Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu’s visit to a church in Iraq after it was attacked, and his recent visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. These were not only human gestures of solidarity, but appeals for moderation, mutual respect and co-existence in the face of messages of hate.
Unexpected Opportunities for Reflection
Crises caused by the manipulation and incitement of religious sentiments have paradoxically brought about a process of self-reflection, enlightenment and learning, not only for Muslim communities but for all stakeholders. I have observed this in cases where US Muslims have exhibited a reserved and low-profile public stance in the face of incitement, choosing to determinedly pursue legal avenues against discriminative acts. In the same vein, a Danish colleague’s recent admission to me that the Danish Government learned important lessons from its mistakes in managing the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005-2006 was noteworthy. Reaching a viable compromise between Western states and OIC Groups at the UN on promoting religious tolerance, by leaving the concept of defamation of religions behind, only became possible as a result of lessons learned on both sides.
There is certainly a need to interlink political and intellectual dialogue efforts. The Istanbul Process on the implementation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 of March 2011 should not be limited to holding technical-legal workshops. Rather, its political dialogue component should be strengthened — allowing for a much-needed sincere exchanges of views and perspectives outside the confines of official UN meetings. In addition to the Istanbul Process, where the OIC, US, and EU come together in open dialogue, the continuation of the OIC-EU Joint Ministerial Forum, the first and last meeting of which was held in Istanbul in February 2002 as a response to the strained relations created by the attacks of September 11, 2001, could also have provided a precious venue for open and sincere political/intellectual debate.
Holding the OIC Accountable
Intra-Muslim challenges are becoming increasingly serious and less manageable, partly because national governments and intellectuals are not paying sufficient attention to transnational issues. Yet, despite a lack of interest from member states, transnational and regional organizations such as the OIC are still being kept accountable, and expectations of them remain high. In the case of the OIC, countless vital questions are being asked by academics, peace institutes, NGOs and activists — many of whom are based in OIC member states. What are the OIC policies for reforming the curriculum of madrasas and religious schools? Does the OIC have means to support the Muslim communities in the West and to train their community based Imams? How can the OIC be helpful in de-radicalization and mainstream incorporation of youth elements that are splintering away from Al Qaeda in Maghreb? What are the OIC’s plans to support political participation of women?
While expectations of what the OIC can achieve remain high, in the absence of support and interest on the part of the national governments of member states there is a limit to what intergovernmental organizations such as OIC can achieve. It is high time that the OIC is empowered with increased means and capacities in order to design innovative approaches to these questions.
During preparations for the OIC Extraordinary Summit of December 2005, an innovative Muslim Scholars and Intellectuals Forum was held in Makkah. The deliberations of the scholars and thinkers, which took place next to Holy Kaaba, were conducted in three panels: political and media; economics, science, and technology; and socio-cultural issues involving education and Islamic teachings. In the final panel, among the main themes of discussion were combating extremist views, trends and unlearned fatwas, the role of educational institutions in this regard, restructuring of the Islamic Fiqh (jurisprudence) Academy to deal with this issue as a pan-Islamic authority, and the need to disseminate across the Islamic world teachings of moderation which reject bigotry, fanaticism, and extremism. These themes and challenges still warrant attention from Muslim scholars and intellectuals.
Acknowledging Internal Challenges within Islam
As a point of caution, it should be noted that the more Muslim leaders and intellectuals ring alarm bells on Islamophobia, without showing recognition of internal challenges within Islam — particularly the situation of minority religions and minority sects within Islamic societies, and issues facing women throughout the Islamic world — propagandists of Islamophobia will have all the more ammunition to fan anti-Muslim sentiments. Furthermore, the lack of continuity in response to all forms of stigmatization and discrimination will remain an obstacle to true, meaningful dialogue and real change in relations.
One case of particular concern for the Islamic world is that of Syria. Fears are growing as to the long-term implications of the destruction of the social fabric and traditions of Syria. The Syrian crisis, in addition to the loss of inconceivable number of precious lives and destruction of its precious history of co-existence, could dangerously heighten the Sunni-Shia divide. Everybody bears responsibility in not letting the political divisions in the Middle east turn into a sectarian confrontation. In this regard, we should expand on the wisdom of the OIC Secretary General Professor Ihsanoglu who called on Muslims to draw a line between politics and religion so that politics does not dominate religion and religion does not dominate politics. Would it not be inspiring if we could hear more words of wisdom and compassion from political and faith leaders?
The Muslim world should increase efforts to counter the widening Sunni-Shia chasm and the struggle between moderate and extremist forces by utilizing the intellectual capacity of its people. At the same time, OIC member states should provide assurances of safety and religious freedom to their native Christian minorities. Although concerns with regard to Islamophobia are quite legitimate and warranted, fairness in treating all types of injustice and discrimination with equal urgency and care would bring far more credibility to Muslim activists and communities.
In this particular period in our history, showing empathy towards the concerns of all communities and cherishing compassion and respect for every single human being without any favoritism or discrimination will surely enhance the prospects of peace and stability.