On December 12, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a special policy discussion at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha with H.E. Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as part of the Center’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Professor Ihsanoğlu’s address focused on the impact of ongoing Arab revolts on the region and on the wider Muslim world, as well as on the OIC’s position toward them. The event, which was followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Professor Ihsanoğlu opened the discussion by noting that almost one year had passed since Muhammad Bouazizi’s death set the Tunisian revolution into motion. Since that time, he said, three police states have fallen. In his 2010 book The Islamic World in the New Century, Ihsanoğlu had predicted that long-standing demands for justice and good governance would soon come to a head.
Ihsanoğlu went on to assert that although few Muslim countries have recent experience in democracy, good governance has been promoted throughout Islamic history. Modern history demonstrates that democracy and Islam are compatible. Without respect for human rights, good governance, and transparency, however, political actors have no hope of influencing their system of government. They therefore tend to turn to the religious sphere. For Muslim societies to progress, Ihsanoğlu argued, the relationship between the religious and political spheres must be clearly defined. This relationship should be based on mutual respect, pluralism, and democratic values, and should involve a clear demarcation between each sphere.
Regarding the stance of the OIC, which has undergone substantial reform since 2005, Ihsanoğlu cited two documents that have cemented the organization’s commitment to democracy. The first, the Mecca Declaration and the Ten Years Program of Action, formulated in 2005, promotes core values of human rights, transparency, and fighting corruption. The second document, the New OIC Charter, unanimously approved in 2008, stipulates the same notions as core objectives of the OIC. Given the emphasis of these documents, Ihsanoğlu said, it has been critical for the organization to respond proactively to the needs of the Arab people during recent uprisings.
In Libya, for example, the OIC was the first international organization to express as early as 22nd of February a "strong condemnation of the excessive use of force against civilians." In March, the OIC issued additional statements condemning the Qadhafi regime’s brutal actions and sent assistance through Egypt and Tunisia. In addition, the organization participated in international contact group meetings and advocated the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya.
On the Arab uprisings more generally, Ihsanoğlu voiced his objection of the temporally limited term “Arab Spring,” arguing that transformation taking place in the Arab world will take years. “If we want a catchy metaphoric expression,” he suggested, “we can say it is the autumn of Arab dictators." The revolutions in the Middle East have inspired others to take to the streets in such disparate places as New York City and Moscow. What distinguished these revolutions, however, is that they are not led by a single philosophy or ideologue, and they are grassroots movement. The significance of this year’s revolutions, Ihsanoğlu asserted, is that they have allowed the Arab people “to join the context of history.” Since World War I, he stated, Arab nations have been forced to live outside the context of history, with the borders of the region determined by external powers, and rulers managed to stay in office for decades due to their abuse of the international balance of power. Tension accumulated over time, and erupted now under the weight of severe socioeconomic problems, including high unemployment rates, and decades of political stagnation under authoritarian governments.
Following Ihsanoğlu’s presentation, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the ongoing transition in Egypt, and the prospects for future OIC action in transitioning Arab states as well as OIC’s stance on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Ihsanoğlu said that the OIC supports the right of nations to acquire and utilize nuclear knowledge for peaceful purposes in line with (IAEA)’s ability to inspect. This is, of course, something that Iran is encouraged to do in order to assure its neighbours of the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. Salman Shaikh began by asking Professor Ihsanoğlu how he views the rise of Islamist actors in the emerging democracies of the Middle East. Ihsanoğlu said that the rise of such parties has been a natural development. Because people in authoritarian Arab states were not allowed to form political parties, they turned to mosques as the hub for social and political activities. Islam – given its ubiquity and the piety of the people of the region – was a natural means of uniting them, and so the politicization of the religion held great appeal. Ihsanoğlu cautioned, however, that the relationship between the religious and political spheres must be based on mutual respect, consensus that pluralism should be allowed, and agreement that democratic processes must be observed. He said the formation of Islamist parties, then, is not something that should be feared, and stressed that the will of the people should be respected. "We need not fear or repeat what happened in Algeria in the 1990s."
An audience member asked about the OIC’s stance on what steps the international community should take in Syria. Ihsanoğlu responded that since early April, the OIC has been trying to engage with the Syrian government to convince it to embark on political reform and end the use of violence against civilians. The Asad regime, he said, has responded with a series of empty promises. The next step, according to Professor Ihsanoğlu, is to place more international pressure on the regime, so that President Asad eventually resigns. He suggested the Yemeni experience provides cause for hope, as President Saleh was persuaded to step down after international pressure built up. Ihsanoğlu clearly stated, however, that outside powers should not become militarily involved: “we should not repeat what happened in Iraq or Libya.” Such action, he asserted, would endanger the safety of the Syrian people and would likely ignite a regional conflict. As for humanitarian support in Syria, however, Ihsanoğlu reported that the OIC affirmed in its recent ministerial meeting the importance of allowing Islamic aid groups into the country. If they do not gain access, and the Arab League Initiative not been respected, then the United Nations should become involved to avoid an escalation of human rights violations.
Another question concerned Ihsanoğlu’s view of how recent uprisings have affected the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Ihsanoğlu stressed that “there is no other solution than two states.” He added that democratization in the Middle East will likely help the both the Palestinians and Israelis. While dictators tend to act violently, democracies are unlikely wage war on one another. Still, the new democracies in the Arab world will likely adopt agendas more closely aligned with the aspirations of their people and, by extension, with Palestinian demands for self-determination. This will therefore help Palestinians further their cause through peaceful means. Palestinians, he said, need to seize the opportunity at hand and move forward with their plight, and the bid for membership at the UN is one means of doing so.