America’s relationship with Islam is fraught with tension. No one wins if America ends up fighting an endless war with 1.6 billion people worldwide.
Rather, Washington should encourage responsible Islamic voices. One is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. According the group diplomatic status would give Americans greater opportunity to influence an important forum for Islamic activism.
The OIC was founded in 1969 and is made up of 57 states, most with majority Islamic populations. Past relations have been difficult.
In 1990 the group adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which emphasized the role of Sharia Law. At the UN the OIC routinely attacked Israel.
For years the OIC sought UN support to target the so-called “defamation” of religion, which would have threatened religious liberty. The group also struggled with the issue of terrorism.
However, the OIC has filled a more responsible international role of late. Criticism of Israel continues, but the group has become more willing to challenge its own members.
In 2008 the OIC amended its charter to emphasize human rights and liberty. It also established the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, an advisory body to monitor human rights within member states.
Perhaps most dramatic, in 2011 the OIC abandoned its campaign on religious defamation and backed a resolution more friendly to religious liberty. Although differences remain over how to define “incitement to violence,” the OIC appears to have moved significantly toward Western standards. Last year’s Fez declaration, adopted at a UN forum backed by the OIC, emphasized the role of religious leaders in countering religious hatred, not government in imposing legislative solutions.
Finally, the group acknowledged the problem of terrorists claiming Islam as a justification for murder and mayhem. Moreover, the OIC-backed Marrakesh Declaration concluded that “It is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”
Last year the group’s executive committee developed a program to confront violent extremism and partner with organizations involved in counterterrorism. The OIC plans to review language and messaging, as well as reform education to reduce support for violent extremism.
In 2007 the Bush administration sent an envoy to the OIC. But the Obama administration effectively downgraded America’s representation, withholding ambassador status from the U.S. delegate. Moreover, the group continues to lack diplomatic status, unlike the Organization of American States and even the Vatican.
The Senate Relations Committee currently is moving legislation to grant diplomatic status to the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, but not the OIC, as recommended by the administration. Yet addressing the OIC allows Washington to address 57 countries around the globe with substantial Muslim populations. Bush’s OIC envoy Sada Cumber complained that “The United States has ignored one of its most capable and effective partners in countering the rise of violence extremism around the world.”
As I wrote in Forbes online: “Obviously, engaging the organization offers no panacea for the West’s problems with Islam. Nevertheless, the OIC offers a useful venue for communicating with scores of Muslim nations. And the group provides engagement opportunities for journalists and NGOs.”
No doubt, the OIC will continue to frustrate the U.S. on many issues. However, the organization also appears open to debate. One American who worked with the OIC argued that in many areas the group is at odds with its members.
Thus, ongoing engagement with OIC staff and representatives of member states—involving them in discussions with American advocates of human rights and religious liberty—could prove useful over time. While this is possible today, diplomatic status would ease OIC administration, encourage enhanced operations, and smooth U.S. relations.
Washington would lose little in granting recognition. Among the benefits is the official oversight that comes with diplomatic status.
The latest terror attack in Orlando reminds us of America’s challenge in confronting Islam. One positive step would be to more effectively engage the OIC.