Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal made a surprising and alarming announcement last week. He declared that King Abdullah has called for an emergency session of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca on August 14-15. Reportedly, the purpose of the meeting is to discuss critical issues facing the Islamic world.
King Abdullah has summoned “an extraordinary Islamic solidarity meeting to ensure… unity during this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition,” Prince Faisal was quoted as saying by the Saudi Press Agency.
Given the precarious situation of the Middle East, it certainly is a significant development. However, the news was not picked up and widely reported by the international media. The question firstly is why was the conference summoned at this juncture, around the 27th of Ramadan, and secondly why was the news not considered important.
The 2005 Special Session
This is only the fourth emergency meeting of OIC since its inception in 1969. The previous special summit was held in 2005 and was presented as a turning point in Islamic history. Its main thrust was to examine and promote the compatibility of Islam in modern times. It advocated political participation, equality and social justice for the masses of the Islamic world and called for studying the political, economic, cultural and scientific challenges.
In preparation for the 2005 session, three panels were formulated. One of them studied the political and media issues, the other one looked at the economic, scientific and technological hurdles, while the third one reviewed the Islamic culture, thought, and tradition. The panelists provided their astonishing findings in a report.
The group on political and media issues noted that the Islamic concept of good governance is “compatible with democracy, equality, freedom, social justice, transparency, accountability, anti-corruption and the respect for human rights”. The panel on Islamic culture was highly critical of people who have been passing irresponsible fatwas but are not qualified to do so.
Clearly, the panelist failed to see the distinction between theory and practice, or ‘Qol’ and ‘Fayl’. Moreover, the issue has never been about the compatibility of Islam. The astute and seasoned Saudi royal family, and other leaders that attended, clearly understood what was amiss; it’s the will that seems to be absent. In a couple of years after the 2005 summit, the lack of values such as equality, freedom, social justice, and human rights triggered the revolt on the Arab street.
Agenda For The 4th Emergency Session
The upcoming 4th emergency meeting of OIC is likely to be another exercise in rhetoric. Talking to Saudi newspaper Okaz, President Zardari, who will be attending the special session, commented, “We hope the emergency summit will not only identify most critical issues facing the Ummah but also suggest practical ways to address them.”
However, there are many issues that can be considered a priority. According to Arab media, OIC’s Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, met with Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi in Cairo on July 21st and discussed the agenda for Mecca Summit. Although not much was disclosed, it must have a lot to do with Syria, Iran and the escalating Shia-Sunni tensions.
An invitation has been extended to Iran to attend the summit, which it has accepted. Although, the country made clear that it wants Bahrain high on the list. The spokesman for the nations foreign ministry had recently commented, “We will welcome any meeting that brings together Muslim countries and will actively participate in it. But the crises are obvious, and it is also clear which countries are taking interventionist measures. If such a meeting is supposed to be held, resolving the issue of Bahrain” should be on the top of the agenda.
The Saudis and the Qataris are both playing with fire by supplying weapons to rebels in Syria with Turkish assistance and western backing. There is a great deal of worry that the tensions over Syria will escalate into a regional conflict, with NATO and GCC countries on the one side and Iran, Syria, Russia and China on the other. This has created an unprecedented situation where Muslim countries, including Pakistan, and others such as India, are being hard pressed to side with one or the other grouping. The emergency session will likely attempt to create unanimity of views on Iran.
The Timing Of The Summit
The emergency session is taking place when the Arab Spring has spread to many countries. Although other than Bahrain, the revolt has so far spared the Gulf countries. Nonetheless, the small riots have continued on and off in eastern Saudi Arabia, in the Shia-populated areas. Moreover, the activities of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Horn of Africa are progressively more alarming.
This situation in the Arab world is not without precedent. Studying the causes of the fall of Ottoman Empire, historian Paul Kennedy reflected on the Shia-Sunni dynamics in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Empires,
“However, across the border, the Shia kingdom of Persia under Abbas the Great was quite prepared to ally with European states against the Ottomans, just as France had worked with the ‘infidel’ Turks against the Holy Roman Empire” (p.10).
It seems the opposite is occurring now, where the Sunni’s are prepared to ally with West to handle the Iranian threat. Fearing each other, Shias and Sunnis adopted extreme measures that proved detrimental in the long run. For example, Paul Kennedy goes on to write, “To a distinct degree, the fierce response to the Shia religious challenges reflected and anticipated a hardening of official attitudes towards all forms of free thought. The printing press was forbidden because it might disseminate dangerous opinions” (p. 12).
Nonetheless, the present threatening outlook for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries is probably the reason behind the call for the emergency session.
Speaking at the December GCC Summit, King Abdullah while proposing a Gulf union had commented: “History and experience have taught us not to stop and watch the status quo as whoever follows such a behavior will find himself at the end of the queue facing loss and weakness….”
Unfortunately, preserving the status quo is exactly what the special session may strive for. And, in this sense, it hardly represents a break from the past.