Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu: Navigating Islam's Decade Of Change

CAIRO – From the popular upheaval of the Arab Spring to bloody wars to expanding global trade relations, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu faced no shortage of challenges in his 10 years at the helm of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that ended last month.

On the most basic bureaucratic level, Ihsanoglu can point to the rebranding of the OIC, dropping “Conference” for “Cooperation” in the organization’s title and adding a new logo, as important changes for the world’s largest international organization besides the United Nations.

But the changes launched under his tenure as Secretary General were more than just cosmetic. Ihsanoglu has also helped significantly increase trade between Muslim nations and helped the organization achieve grudging recognition in world affairs. Founded in 1969, the OIC includes 57 member countries and calls itself the "collective voice of the Muslim world," seeking to foster good relations among Islamic-majority countries, and with the world at large.

Even when hunched over drafts of an OIC resolution, the moustachioed 70-year-old Ihsanoglu carries the air of a contemplative professor, rather than a grandstanding politicians or cautious a diplomat. In November, he openly admitted to getting “emotional” during a visit to the Rohingya, a group of Burmese Muslims who have recently been the victims of ethnic violence in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma.

His low-key approach to the position has been a one of his key assets in dealing with an organization that includes a wide array of member-states that includes the world’s richest country per capita (Qatar) to the third poorest (Somalia). The diplomats in the organization quip that only in Mecca can one find such a diversity of Muslims, including representatives from Kosovo, Mozambique and Kazakhstan, walking — and praying — side-by-side.

Ihsanoglu's own life experience reflects the organization’s range. Born in Cairo to a Turkish family and a graduate of Cairo’s Ain Shams University he is fluent in both English and Arabic, two of the OIC’s working languages, along with French.

Taking a moment from February’s Islamic Summit in Cairo, Ihsanoglu sits down in a in a quiet back room of the Cairo hotel hosting the event to flip through an album of photos from his tenure. One shows him meeting with President Barrack Obama and another with then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. In another photo he is making a historic visit to China and meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao whose policy towards the Muslim population of Eastern Turkestan has angered many in the Muslim world.

“If firsts are achievements then we have achieved quite a bit,” Ihsanoglu says.

Yet, it isn’t just the historic visits and new name that have marked his nearly 10-year tenure, the longest for a head of the organization. Ihsanoglu has turned an organization once hampered by its obsessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to an organization that aims to engage with all the needs of the world’s Muslims.

His administration has overseen the development of a “Trade Preference System” for OIC member states which has pushed up the volume of trade between OIC states to as high as $687 billion in 2011. An improvement on just $ 05 billion in inter-OIC trade in 2004.

He has also placed a special emphasis on the development of science within the Islamic world. The average spending of OIC Member States on Research and Development has quadrupled from 0.2% of the GDP in 2005 to 0.81% of the GDP in 2012. The number of scientific publications from OIC Member States has increased five folds from 18,391 in 2000 to 92,503 in 2011.

While clearly more comfortable in the academic realm, Ihsanoglu’s boldest actions have been political. Syria’s membership in the organization was suspended over human rights abuses, depriving the Assad regime of a valuable forum for legitamcy. Ihsanoglu’s tenure also saw the OIC vision of human rights fall closer in step with international standards. He even he hired the first woman ever to be employed at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s headquarters in Jeddah.

The historic nature of his term in office has not been missed by leading OIC diplomats. Iranian diplomat Hamid Binejiad noted that Ihsanoglu “Has over seen a period where the OIC has evolved on all issues from Palestine to financing development projects. Today, the OIC has a more global perspective, a more humanitarian perspective and one that has expanded relations with non OIC member states.”

Taking over as Secretary General is Saudi Arabia’s Iyad bin Amin Madani. The Arizona State University educated Madani and a former Minister of Culture and Information will become the first Saudi to hold the post. Will Madani’s tenure mark a shift back to the bureaucratic conservatism of previous OIC Secretary Generals? What does Saudi Arabia’s recent rejection of a seat on the United Nations Security Council say about the Kingdom’s approach to global diplomacy? For the OIC itself, in any case, it’s hard to imagine a tenure more momentous than Ihsanoglu’s.

-Joseph Hammond @TheJosephH


(photo via Wikipedia)

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