The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which in its earlier incarnation was known as the Organization of Islamic Conference, claims to be the collective voice of the Muslim world and aims to protect the interests of Muslims across the globe.[i] It is known to be a prominent inter-governmental organization, established in 1970. Today, the organization consists of 57 countries spread over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean zone.
Over the decades, a wave of political chaos and conflict has engulfed the majority of the Arab/Muslim countries, and, according to one statistic, around 80%-90% of the conflict and terror-related fatalities across the world today occur only in the OIC members countries.[ii] Quite contrary to the desired objective of the OIC to create a unified global Muslim community, today’s Muslim world seems to be confronted with all sorts of conflict and stalemate. One can notice how the issue of Palestine has become redundant in the course of the last five decades, despite Palestine forming the nucleus of the OIC’s mission since its inception. In light of the above statements, this paper will explore the evolution of the OIC in the course of its five decades of existence and how it has failed to achieve its principal objectives. This paper would also examine if the failure of the OIC could be attributed to range of different strategic and political interests pursued by member states or today’s politics, informed by realism has turned the OIC into a redundant entity.
The OIC: Origin, Evolution and Five Decades of Its Journey
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was followed by a series of passionate efforts to create some sort of replica of the Ottoman Caliphate that would reflect the spirit of an imagined transnational identical Muslim community (Ummah) to fill the ideological and political void left by the Ottoman Empire. In pursuit of this, first, the Muslim World Congress was established in Cairo in May 1926 with the participation of many countries.[iii] Efforts in later years to consolidate or expand it further failed because of growing ideological differences within the Muslim block and the emergence of many new claimants, including Pakistan, to lead the Muslim world.[iv] Pakistan hosted two meetings of leaders from the Muslim world in 1949 and 1951; and in both the meetings, Palestine, as usual remained the central theme of the proceedings, along with the proposal for creating a Muslim Monetary Fund for Education.[v] Palestine continued to be the cornerstone of all subsequent deliberations, and the achievement of statehood for Palestine remained the principal objective of the OIC.
Turkiye remained averse to any sort of revival of a pan-Islamic entity, and one of Pakistan’s former Prime Ministers, Suhrawardy, once, satirically speaking about the rhetoric of Muslim unity, even said that a collection of zeroes only makes zero.[vi]
As Palestine continued to dominate the discourse amidst all initiatives to revive the pan-Islamic entity, fortuitously, Palestine emerged as a triggering point for a course of action, culminating in the creation of the OIC. An emergency meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Arab League was called in Cairo four days after an arson attack on the pulpit of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in city of Jerusalem on August 21, 1969[vii] by a foreign tourist.[viii] But King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hassan II of Morocco were of the view that the setting the pulpit of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire was such a critical issue that instead of a meeting of the Arab leaders alone, a meeting of the leaders of all Muslim states was needed.[ix] Hence, another meeting was called in Rabat on September 25, 1969. In Rabat, representatives of 25 Muslim States, including 10 Heads of State,[x] gathered to take stock of the situation and express a collective and unified stance against the incident. Countries like Egypt, Libya, and Algeria reluctantly participated in the Rabat meeting, while Iraq and Syria boycotted it.[xi] It is worth recalling here that the countries boycotting the Rabat meeting were part of the socialist block, which was then a staunch ideological rival of the Saudi-led Islamist block amidst the peak of the Cold War. Egypt perceived the Rabat meeting as a part of Saudi Arabia’s ideological and geopolitical ploys to downplay Egypt.
A more comprehensive meeting was held in Jeddah in March 1970,[xii] where the Foreign Ministers of Muslim/Islamic countries met, which eventually resulted in the creation of the OIC. The town of Jeddah was chosen to be its Secretariat, and Mr. Tunku Abdurrahman, former Prime Minister of Malaysia,[xiii] was appointed as its first Secretary-General, who served till 1973.[xiv] In the span of the last five decades, its membership has expanded from 25 (founding members) to 57. Many non-Arab countries like Iran, Pakistan and Turkiye are members, and countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Central African Republic, Thailand and Russia have observer status in the OIC.[xv]
The third round of the OIC meeting was again held in Jeddah in 1972, and a comprehensive OIC Charter was adopted there. Palestine again remained the focal point of the Charter’s objectives,[xvi] apart from promoting the interests of the Muslim world.[xvii] The OIC also has four specialized institutions: the Islamic Development Bank (Jeddah); the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Rabat); the Islamic State Broadcasting Organisation (Jeddah); and the International Islamic News Agency (Jeddah). The Organization is also assisted by numerous standing committees headed by the Heads of State. For example, the Al-Quds committee was established at the Sixth Council of Foreign Ministers Meeting of the OIC held in Jeddah in 1975.[xviii] An Islamic Court of Justice was also established under the auspices of the OIC at the Fifth Summit meeting in Kuwait in 1987.[xix] The OIC holds its Summit-level meetings once every three years, and the Foreign Ministers of the OIC countries meet annually. Its Secretary-General is chosen for five years, and he is eligible for reelection once. The first Secretary-General of the OIC was chosen for two years, but at the Third OIC Summit in 1981, a decision was taken to extend it for four years, and later, for five years.
Over the five decades of its existence, the OIC has so far held 56 Foreign Ministerial-level meetings, 14 Summit-level meetings and dozens of other emergency meetings, both at the Ministerial and Summit levels.[xx] In the span of the last five decades, the OIC has undergone a major transformation, ranging from its organizational architecture to its expansion to its political role and its electoral procedure. A former Turkish Professor, Ekmeldin Ihsanoglu, was the first Secretary-General of the OIC to be elected through secret ballot in 2000, unlike his predecessors, who were nominated by the mechanism of consensus.[xxi]
Under the decade-long leadership of Ekmeldin Ihsanoglu, the OIC witnessed radical administrative and structural reform as it changed its membership criteria at its Dakar Summit in 2008.[xxii] The amended Charter stipulated that any country wishing to join the OIC should be the member of the United Nations, have a Muslim-majority population, and abide by the Charter. The membership is not automatic and it must be approved by consensus only by the Council of Foreign Ministers while in the past, the membership would take effect as of the time of approval of the Conference by a two third majority of the Conference members.[xxiii] In 2010, the OIC adopted the statute of the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission. [xxiv] Given its growing outreach across the world, the USA appointed its envoy to the OIC in 2010[xxv] and, in the next year, the OIC signed an agreement of cooperation with the African Union.[xxvi] In later years, it expanded its Charter to include issues like women’s rights and human rights, economic progress, educational advancement and good governance, and in the Astana Summit meeting of 2011, it asked its Member States to pass legislation to safeguard women’s rights.[xxvii] In the same year, its name was changed from Organization of Islamic Conference to Organization of Islamic Cooperation.[xxviii]
Since its formation in 1970, the OIC has acted more as a political block and less as a religious or cultural group. In its first significant political move, it suspended Egypt after the latter established diplomatic ties with Israel following the Camp David Accord signed in 1979, but OIC readmitted it in 1984.[xxix] In 1980, it called for the evacuation of all the occupied Arab territories by the state of Israel, and in the Mecca Summit of 1981, it called for the jihad to liberate the city of Jerusalem. In the same Summit, it recognised the PLO as the sole representative of the people of Palestine[xxx] and in 1982; the OIC passed a resolution to supply arms to the PLO.
In another meeting, in 1980, the OIC had sought immediate withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and it suspended Afghanistan from the OIC.[xxxi] In another resolution, it opposed the presence of Soviet forces in the Horn of Africa and condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.[xxxii] In the 1987 Summit meeting, it urged the UN to evolve a consensus on the definition of terrorism so that a legitimate fight for independence cannot be termed terrorism.[xxxiii] During the Balkan conflict, the OIC asked the UNSC to intervene and ask for the removal of the arms embargo against Bosnia.[xxxiv] The OIC also proposed to send its own forces to assist the UN Protection Force in Bosnia, and the UN agreed to send 5000 OIC troops, consisting of Turkiye, Pakistan and Tunisia, to assist the UN forces there.[xxxv] During the second Intifada of 2000, the Ninth Summit meeting in Doha called upon its member countries having ties with Israel to shut down their missions there.[xxxvi] The OIC Charter was further amended at the Eleventh Summit meeting in Senegal in 2008 to make it more adaptable to the ensuing challenges of the 21st century.
The OIC: Ideological Dilemma, Divide and Constraints
Since the formation of the OIC in 1969–1970, the Organization has been in a fix over how to enforce its Islamic identity. First, it claims that it believes in the notion of the Ummah, but all of its members are part of a nation-state system, and many states are secular in nature. Many of its members are oblivious to their transnational Islamic ethos. The clash between the modern state system and the transnational logic of the OIC serves as an explanation of its weakness and failure. It uses the concept of the Muslim world to describe Islamic countries, though there are different views in Muslim countries about the role of religion in politics.
Its 1998 resolution’s claim that all Muslims, though different they may be in their language, culture, race, history, color and condition, form one nation[xxxvii] itself seems to be devoid of any truth or reality. In the Third Islamic Summit of the OIC in 1981, the President of Lebanon (a Christian) was not invited because a non-Muslim cannot enter the holy land of Mecca, which was the host city then, despite Lebanon being one of the founding members of the OIC. When it comes to the possibility of membership for India, country like Pakistan opposes it on the ground that India is not home to a significant number of Muslims, while the same OIC inducted Uganda in 1974 despite being a Christian-majority nation but with a Muslim President. [xxxviii]
The OIC Charter envisages that only constitutionally Islamic countries are eligible to be its members, but Turkiye, despite being a constitutionally secular state, is one of the prominent members, and the same holds true for Algeria.[xxxix] Turkiye had earlier refused to participate in the Rabat meeting because it was constituently a secular state and participated only as an observer only to evade the ire of secular political elites in the country[xl] and it became a full-fledged member of the OIC only in 1969. When the OIC was being renamed, many had suggested tagging it as the ‘Organization of Islamic States’ or the ‘Organization of Islamic Countries,’ but there was resistance from within on the grounds that all its members were not Muslim states.[xli]
There has been an explicit divide between the Arab members of the OIC and its non-Arab members, which has prevented it from emerging as a collective block of the Muslim world. The OIC has always suffered from internal ideological, political, sectarian and strategic divide. For example, Egypt’s return to the OIC in 1984 was opposed by seven countries because of their political and strategic differences with Egypt.[xlii] Many OIC members were against the OIC’s unilateral condemnation of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and 12 Heads of State did not participate in the Senegal Summit in 1991, convened following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The PLO and Jordan sided with Iraq, and the OIC’s proposal to cease material support to the PLO was opposed by many.[xliii] Later, in a Council of Foreign Ministers meeting of the OIC in 1991, many countries resisted Iraq’s demand for the repeal of economic sanctions imposed against it.[xliv]
Unlike the neutrality of the past, the OIC Foreign Ministerial meeting of 2016, for the first time, openly sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran on regional affairs such as Yemen and Syria.[xlv] Again, in the 14th Islamic Summit Meeting of Mecca in 2019, the final Statement condemned Iran for supporting the Houthis, but Iran rejected it, saying that it was not reflective of the collective voices of the OIC Member States. [xlvi] In the same Summit, Syria and Lebanon defied the resolution, and Lebanon stated that the resolution reflected nothing except Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability in the region.
In the spheres of education and culture, the OIC has achieved some visible success, but it has failed to prove its political capability. Its futility was further exposed amidst large-scale violence and bloodshed in the Arab world following the Arab uprising. Their political or religious rhetoric has rarely translated into reality. Though it claims to be the collective voice of the Muslim world, more often than not it has failed to unify itself, and even in the UN, the OIC members aim for their own interests, which are far from akin to each other. What renders the OIC an entity with limited influence is its representation of different cultural and political spectrums. The Thirteenth Summit meeting in Istanbul called for friendly ties between Iran and the rest of the Muslim world,[xlvii] but the existing reality is just contrary to it.
The OIC and India
As mentioned earlier, the issue of India’s membership in the OIC was resisted by Pakistan in the first preparatory meeting of 1969 in Rabat. Pakistan has always sought the cooperation of the OIC countries to help Pakistan internationalize the Kashmir issue and has always manipulated the OIC agenda for its own geopolitical gains.
In September 1994, Pakistan called for an emergency meeting of the OIC and insisted on passing a resolution seeking a Kuwait-like UN intervention in Kashmir. In the same meeting, a Contact Group on Kashmir was created within the OIC, consisting of representatives from Pakistan, Turkiye, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and one representative of the OIC Secretary-General.[xlviii]
India has learnt long back to ignore the organization’s periodic diatribe. But what came as a major breakthrough in India’s relations with the OIC was its invitation to India to participate as a ‘Guest of Honor’ in its 46th Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in 2019 in Abu Dhabi. India was accorded this status despite Pakistan’s relentless efforts to prevent India’s entry into the OIC in any form or capacity. Earlier in 2003, Qatar pushed the OIC to change its stance on India, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia himself stated in 2006 that India, like Russia, should have observer status in the OIC.[xlix]
The participation of the late Sushma Swaraj, former Foreign Minister, in the 46th plenary session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC testified to the waning influence of Pakistan in the Arab world and the growing stature of India in the regional and global domains in the wake of its exponential rise in economic, political, diplomatic and strategic spheres. Pakistan had not only asked the UAE (host country) to rescind the invitation, but it also boycotted the address of late Sushma Swaraj.
This invitation by the UAE was a testimony to India’s successful outreach to the Gulf nations and the growing belief on the part of the Arab leaders to de-hyphenate their ties between India and Pakistan.
Is the OIC Still Relevant?
Like other intergovernmental organizations in the Arab world, such as the Arab League and the GCC, the relevance of the OIC too seems to be eroding. In the course of the last decade, the OIC, like the Arab League and the GCC, has also been reeling under the after-effects of the Arab divide in the wake of the Arab turmoil. Its futility was more exposed after it entirely failed to prevent decade-long bloodshed. For example, when Libya faced devastation due to NATO-led bombardment, the OIC failed to step in or take note of what NATO was doing.[l]. Similarly, it failed to resolve the crisis arising out of the Qatar blockade in 2017. One has never heard even about the existence of the OIC’s Islamic Court of Justice, let alone the resolution of any Arab dispute by it. In the past too, it had failed to play any role during the Lebanon-Israel conflict in 1982, the Iran-Iraq war or the US invasion of Iraq.
Moreover, the geopolitics and strategic priorities of many countries in the Muslim world are changing, and the OIC cannot evade the impact of this geopolitical transformation. Today, Saudi Arabia, one of its important members, has come a long way and seems to have lost appetite for ideological politics or grouping and instead is in pursuit of adapting to a new global political reality. Pakistan has always treated the OIC as an agency to mobilize pro-Pakistan views on Kashmir, but the issue of Kashmir itself has lowered in significance in international geopolitics. This became more evident when the OIC passed a nuanced and mild statement after India revoked Article 370 on Kashmir.[li] India’s growing stature and rise is transforming its relationship with the Islamic world .The OIC cherishes its principle of Islamic unity, but it has rarely been found to be a reality. In the era of a territorially divided world of nation-states, and national interests, concepts such as pan-Islamism seem far from real politics. The OIC’s spirit seems to be antithetical to the modern-day state system.
It can be concluded that despite all its commitment to the cause of Palestine, the OIC has not been able to affect any change in the political and diplomatic trajectories of the Israel-Palestine conflict, let alone the resolution of the crisis. Palestine has been one of the key causes of the OIC’s creation, but over the years, there has been no solid action on its part to resolve the crisis. Equally, it failed to forge any sort of unity among the Muslim countries. The Muslim world was never so divided, and there was never a kind of intra-hostility as is being witnessed today.
Almost every Summit meeting calls for containing the conflict and creating unity, but the region is laden with all sorts of conflicts. On the economic and educational fronts, it has similarly failed. Half of its population lives below the poverty line. The OIC represents 22% of the world population, but it merely contributes 2% of the world’s GDP, 1.3% of world trade and 1.5% of investment. This poor economic index is very surprising because the OIC countries possess 70% of the world’s energy resources and 40% of the available raw materials. Since the establishment of the OIC, the Muslim world has suffered many catastrophic events and the existence of the OIC throughout these years of crisis has almost been reduced to a non-factor in the politics of the Muslim world.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a Senior Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[iii]Gokhan Bacik. Genesis, History and Functioning of OIC: A Formal Institutional Analysis, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs , December 15, 2011 ,Accessed , https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13602004.2011.630864 August 20, 2023
[iv]Dr Abdullah Ahsan, OIC: A Study in Islam Political Foundation (Arabic) (Cairo: Intentional Institute of Islamic I996 ). P.n 42.
[v]Dr Abdullah Ahsan, P.n 42.
[vi]Dr Abdullah Ahsan, P.n 47.
[viii]Ihsan Mejdi Middle Eastern Politics Presentation Paper: OIC, Ipec University 2015.
[ix]Kevin O. J. O’Toole, Islam and West: Clash of Values, Global Change: Peace a and Security, Vol.20, 2008 P.P. 25-40.
[x]Kevin O. J. O’Toole.
[xi]Kevin O. J. O’Toole, 0.
[xvi]Hadi Mustafa, Cause of Formation of OIC: Its Objective and Roles.
[xvii]OIC:40th Anniversary General Secretariat Information Department, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
[xviii]Alfitri, The OIC and its Significance in War against terrorism, Asian Journal of International Law, Vol.1. Issue. December 5, 2006.
[xix]OIC Opened its Office in Kabul: Know about OIC, Aljazeera (Arabic).
[xxvi]OIC Resolution, 4/38-LEG on Cooperation Agreement Between the OIC and the African Union,
June 30, 2011.
[xxvii]OIC Resolution, 4/38-C on Family Issues Promoting Women’s Status, Astana, June 30, 2011.
[xxix]Darshan Singh, India and the OIC, India Quarterly, October-December, 1994. Vol.50. No.05. PP. 15-34.
[xxxvi]Saddam Yusuf Abdul Jughefi, The Issue of Palestine in OIC Summit Meetings, Open Educational College, Syria, 2003.
[xxxvii]Kevin O. J. O’Toole.
[xxxviii]Kevin O. J. O’Toole,
[xlvii]Abdussattar Ghazali, 50 Years of Failure of OIC.
[l]Yousuf, OIC and its Failure.