Established in 1969 to safeguard global Muslim interests, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second largest inter-governmental body after the UN.
In its 40-year history, the OIC has worked with the UN and others to settle conflicts and disputes, particularly among its member states.
While the preamble to the OIC’s charter holds that Islam "is a strong factor for rapprochement and solidarity between peoples", conflicts continue to rage in many parts of the Muslim world.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the OIC, says the organisation has gained prominence in recent years as a trusted mediator in conflicts involving the Muslim world and was the "initiator" of a UN war crimes inquiry in Gaza.
Al Jazeera’s Firas al-Atraqchi spoke with Ihsanoglu on the sidelines of the seventh annual Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue.
Al Jazeera: The UN’s Goldstone report has been in the headlines in the past few weeks – not without controversy – and has brought to light the conduct of the Israelis and Hamas during the war on Gaza earlier in the year. Does the OIC see this as a step forward in recognising what transpired during that war and in bringing the plight of the Palestinians to the fore on an international scale?
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu: Let me first start by completing the story of the history of the Goldstone report. What I would like to put on record is that the OIC was the initiator of this process.
On January 3, during the attacks on Gaza, we convened the executive committee of the OIC on a ministerial level. It was decided that the OIC group in Geneva should ask the Human Rights Council to convene and consider the possibility of sending a fact-finding mission to Gaza.
The OIC was instrumental in getting through this resolution and thanks to the good offices of Ms Pilay, the UN high commissioner, that she formed this fact-finding mission headed by Judge Goldstone.
On October 8, I visited Geneva and had a meeting with OIC ambassadors and the high commissioner. We revived the process again and the Goldstone report has been approved by the rights council.
Now as for the prospects of the Goldstone report, I think the first thing to mention here is that the acceptance and approval of the report by the UN’s human rights council is itself testimony of the world’s public opinion about what happened in Gaza.
This report has certain operative paragraphs which aim to determine who is responsible for the massacres and destruction – illegally and in flagrant violation of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.
I think now the OIC and the international community should work hand-in-hand to implement the proposals made in the Goldstone report.
You said the OIC initiated the process that led to the Goldstone report. Were you surprised then that the Palestinian Authority asked for the council’s vote on the report to be delayed?
This was a big surprise for us – an unhappy and sad surprise. I was in Washington DC at the time meeting with the media, think tanks and I was meeting with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, when news of this broke.
We did not expect that, but I am glad that we eventually managed to revive it and get it adopted by the human rights council.
Will the council’s adoption of the Goldstone report impact the way Israelis conduct war after hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed during the war on Gaza?
The Israelis already understood the importance of the impact of this report and that is why you find them leading a very strong campaign to impede the Goldstone report.
You visited Gaza in March 2009 and the OIC pledged $100mn for reconstruction in the wake of the war. What has happened to that money, has it been channelled to Gaza?
The OIC has ensured that 37 per cent of that has been delivered through NGOs, not only in the Muslim world, but from Europe as well. We are really happy to have European NGOs cooperating with us.
A major NGO from Norway donated $21mn worth of medical equipment and facilities.
These have entered the Gaza Strip?
There is an ongoing regular process for this … we have no problems there … we have good co-operation from the Egyptian government. We established an OIC office in the city of El-Arish in Egypt across from the Gaza border and it is working in cooperation with the Egyptian government.
But some Palestinians say they have yet to see any reconstruction.
No, reconstruction is not happening in Gaza because Israel does not allow any reconstruction material to be introduced into the Gaza Strip. So, this is true. We cannot do this, no one can do this. Unless the UN or UNRWA find a way to do this.
Palestinians and Islamic institutions around the world have been warning of the "imminent dangers" to the al-Aqsa Mosque, pointing to tunnels of excavations underneath the Noble Sanctuary. A few weeks ago, there was violence – what is the OIC doing to safeguard Islam’s third holiest site?
Let us be frank – the OIC is doing everything possible and at its disposal that are available to any international organisation. There are numerous activities usually made in statements by secretary-generals of international organisations or responsible authorities.
When we look to the reality on the ground, however, it is very difficult to say anyone has the power to do anything because the Israelis deny every international organisation – and of course they deny the OIC – any access there. The only way we can influence events is through the UN and Unesco.
About two weeks ago at Unesco’s general assembly in Paris, I called on the UN and Unesco to declare East Jerusalem, the historical city of Jerusalem, as a world historical site – untouchable. That way it would preserve the Muslim and Christian monuments.
We hope that the political will of the 57 member states of the OIC will be able to levy international pressure – through various channels – on Israel to stop threatening the al-Aqsa Mosque.
I think the OIC member countries have the potential to do that.
The OIC mobilises member states to exert pressure on key countries – the US, UK and EU – to in turn exert pressure on Israel. The OIC also resorts to diplomatic and political pressures through the UN and its various organisations.
In the 1990s, during final status talks between Israel and Palestine, a proposal was floated that the Noble Sanctuary fall under the jurisdiction of the OIC. Do you see this as a solution and if so, are you up to the challenge?
Well, of course, our ultimate objective is to preserve this holy heritage of Muslims and we are dedicated to doing everything in the interests of saving such institutions, buildings and the traditions related to them.
This also includes the rights of the Palestinians, Jerusalemites and the whole world to have free access to these buildings and institutions.
But primarily and ultimately, this is a Palestinian decision. If the Palestinian people, the legitimate guardians of the holy sites, believe that there should be a special relationship between the al-Aqsa Mosque and the OIC, then it becomes incumbent upon us to oblige them.
But neither we – nor anyone else – can impose this on the Palestinians.
Moving from the issue of Palestine and looking at other parts of the Muslim world, there are some who would argue that every Muslim country is either facing war or a major crisis. What is the OIC’s role, and vision, in resolving these crises?
First of all, let us understand why these crises occur and I will give you a two-tier answer.
We have crises, because these societies are suffering from two sources of turmoil – internal and external sources.
From an internal perspective, these societies could not develop into modern societies with social and political institutions, and economic development which distributes the wealth and prosperity between the peoples.
Then there is external interference whereby you have outside powers who want to dominate and exploit these countries for their own self-interests. We are in trouble and this is what is happening. The question remains how to solve this dichotomy.
While these are not easy issues to address, we have been working hard to encourage confidence-building measures between rival factions; we are trying to resolve conflicts through negotiation and shuttle diplomacy.
There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. We managed in certain cases to resolve many issues.
Of course, none of these problems can be solved overnight. For example, Afghanistan’s problems began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, so this is a decades-old problem.
Equally, in Somalia, it has been more than 20 years of statelessness and chaos. There are no quick fixes for these problems.
The OIC has become more dynamic and more accepted as a mediator by rival factions.
In 2006, the OIC was successful in bringing about reconciliation between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. We were the first to bring the factions and all their leaders to the table in Mecca.
Through a very diligent and methodological negotiating process, we managed to get 15 representatives from every major faction to sit down and agree to a document of reconciliation, which included 10 articles.
This happened during the holy month of Ramadan in 2006, and was praised and signed by all major Islamic institutions, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran, the Grand Mufti of Turkey and the Sheikh of al-Azhar in Cairo.
This is acknowledged by all as the beginning of reconciliation in Iraq.