The organisation routinely takes up issues around the world, from Palestine to Kashmir, but remains divided within on how to tackle them
Dennis Michael Rohan did not dream of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), yet this Australian’s dreams would lead to the creation of one of the oldest multilateral bodies of the Islamic world. The OIC, which hits the headlines in India whenever it comments on the Kashmir issue, was born in the backdrop of a series of historic developments in the Arab world, beginning with the Six-Day War of 1967 that led to the shocking defeat of the frontline Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The war also led to the loss of East Jerusalem, which hosts the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the three holiest shrines in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The sensational victory of the Israel Defence Forces was topped by the arrival of the Jewish troops at the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site adjoining Al-Aqsa. While the Israeli government promised to preserve the holy Islamic shrine, fanatics across the world dreamt of a new era. Dennis Michael Rohan, in Australia, dreamt of the second coming of Jesus Christ and he took it upon himself to make way for the messiah and he flew to Israel.
The original pulpit of Al-Aqsa was an object of wonder. The 12th century wooden structure had survived the ups and downs of history that visited Jerusalem and left its mark on the city that was holy to three religions. In 1969, Rohan arrived in Israel and in the night of August 21, he carried a can of kerosene into Al-Aqsa and set fire to the pulpit. As smoke rose from the ancient mosque’s windows, sending out shock and horror across the world, Islamic countries began brainstorming about the Palestine cause and the need to protect the holy shrines that fell in the occupied territories.
The storm of public outrage triggered the first conference of Islamic governments, which was held in Rabat, Morocco, on September 22-25, 1969, where they resolved to protect the Palestinian territories, and condemned the arson attack.
The Rabat conference had two criteria of membership: the countries with Muslim majority and those with a Muslim head of state could be considered for membership of the collective that would eventually become the OIC. Former Indian Ambassador to Morocco, Gurbachan Singh, has said India was invited to be a participant in the inaugural summit and yet, when the Minister of Industrial Development Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed arrived in Rabat, the Indian case was mixed with the riot in Ahmedabad, which was brought up by President Yahya Khan of Pakistan.
India as a secular democracy was formally invited through Ambassador Singh, but Pakistan, which had already fought two wars with India and had a heating political scenario in East Pakistan at that time, successfully scuttled the Indian case at the Rabat summit.
The summit boosted the Palestine cause considerably and the next four years, the world witnessed a series of developments, including dramatic hijacking of aircraft by various organisations demanding the liberation of Palestine. Meanwhile, Yahya Khan had a personal setback with the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war against India.
This defeat, which was noted within the OIC, was followed by the Yom Kippur War of 1973 during which the Arab air forces were able to stun Israel. This was quickly followed by the oil shock, which was the outcome of the energy embargo imposed by the Arabs mainly at the behest of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.
Soon thereafter, OIC Secretary-General Tunku Abdul Rahman suggested an emergency summit of the Islamic countries for brainstorming the future of the Islamic world. Tunku, who was the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, decided to shift the summit away from the Arab world. In 1974, Lahore hosted the OIC summit.
In the past, Malaysia and Pakistan had troublesome ties. Malaysia had not supported Pakistan in the 1965 war. However, the past was forgotten as the Pakistan leadership found the summit as an opportunity to get out of the economic downturn and diplomatic isolation caused by the defeat in the 1971 war.
The summit turned out to be a success for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. Many big names such as Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the young Colonel Moammer Gaddafi of Libya were hosted at Lahore, and Prime Minister Bhutto personally received each one of the guests.
Pakistan managed to score a major diplomatic point by inviting Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh and recognised the new country. The images of Mr. Bhutto, who had just three years ago demanded harshest punishment for Sheikh Mujib, welcoming him at the airport was broadcast across the world. Gaddafi became the star of the summit as he represented a new oil rich power which had the potential of bankrolling Pakistan’s aspirations. It also hosted Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and treated the outfit as a state representative. It is believed that the gesture went down very well with Arafat, who was reported to have said, “Palestine was born in Lahore”.
Despite the bonhomie, the countries were barely united under the umbrella of the OIC, and the disunity has been a consistent factor of weakness in the organisation. For example, Gaddafi was opposed by the Shah of Iran as the former had described him as a U.S. ally. Mr. Bhutto had personal problems with the Shah, who had reached out to Indira Gandhi around this time for oil trade. The Lahore summit brought the Pakistan factor in a prominent way in the OIC. However, the next big developments like the siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in November 1979 and the Islamic Revolution of Iran earlier that year added new dynamics to the organisation.
Soon, the OIC was divided across the middle as the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980. During the war, Saddam Hussein of Iraq was backed by Saudi Arabia against the Shia theocratic Iran. The jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet troops in the 1980s gave an opportunity for unity among themselves, but they never managed to bridge the Iran-Saudi sectarian and geopolitical gap, which continues to resonate in West Asian politics.
As the group remained divided over its two powerful members, Pakistan brought up the Kashmir issue repeatedly. India was given a rare opportunity in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack to state its case on global terrorism at the Foreign Minister-level meeting of the OIC in Abu Dhabi. This, however, did not deter the organisation from remaining focused on the state of affairs in Kashmir, which was stripped of special status six months after the Pulwama strike.
Headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the group now has 57 member States. Former Saudi Social Affairs Minister Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen is its current Secretary-General.
In recent years, apart from terrorism, the OIC has routinely taken up vexing problems like the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Syrian civil war, Kashmir, the conflict in Yemen and, of course, the Palestine issue. But besides passing resolutions, the group could do little to resolve any of these problems. Also, even when it projects itself as a body for transnational Islamic cooperation, the divisions within the group runs deep.