Ufuk Gokcen, the permanent representative for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to the United Nations, seems to spend an equal amount of time promoting the group’s work and dispelling what he views as misconceptions about the organization.
The amiable Turkish career diplomat, who has held posts at Ankara’s embassies in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Syria, views the OIC as a forceful voice for moderation in an often tumultuous — and sometimes violent and extreme — Muslim world. Critics contend the OIC is an obstinate advocate for Islamic interests around the world. Still others say the OIC is a well-meaning but toothless cheerleader for peace and social stability.
In a Washington Diplomat interview, Gokcen, who assumed his post in 2010, explained that the 57-member OIC is essentially an extension of the United Nations in Muslim-majority countries, representing a population of some 1.5 billion people from Azerbaijan to Djibouti to Yemen. In recent months, the OIC has been active in trying to calm unrest in Myanmar (Burma), suspended Syria’s membership in an attempt to isolate the government, and also waded into international disputes over the definition of terrorism and the appropriate responses to religious hate speech.
“Our work scope and agenda items are almost exactly in line with what the United Nations is doing,” Gokcen said.
According to its own website, the OIC is “the collective voice of the Muslim world” and aims to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people.”
The group was established in Morocco in 1969 following the intentional burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. From its inception as a response to an incident of religious hatred (an Australian evangelical Christian was convicted of starting the blaze, reportedly to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ), Gokcen said the OIC’s mission has grown to include humanitarian assistance, conflict resolution, mediation, human rights and good governance advocacy, as well as combating poverty and disease.
“We have quite a robust agenda,” Gokcen said.
To date, 11 Islamic summits and 38 gatherings of foreign ministers have been held. The 11th Islamic Summit Conference in Dakar elected Senegal as the current chairman of the organization. The OIC secretary-general, Turkish professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, was also re-elected for a new term at the closing meeting of that summit.
In a 2010 report, the Council on Foreign Relations said that under Turkish leadership, the OIC has moderated and modernized itself.
“Turkey, which joined the OIC in 1995, has grown in influence and has taken an active role in attempting to make the conference more relevant and moderate,” wrote Toni Johnson of CFR, noting that İhsanoğlu, who has served as the secretary-general of OIC since January 2005, has increased Turkey’s profile among Arab nations.
The report also quoted Ozan Örmeci of Caspian Weekly, who wrote that, “Under the leadership of Turkey, OIC can function as a bridge between West and East, and negate the ‘clash of civilizations’ discourse which claims to explain the recent developments in global politics especially after 9/11.”
The group in fact adopted a 10-year plan in 2005 to address post-9/11 issues such as terrorism, Islamophobia, poor governance and economic disparities. “Poverty, illiteracy, epidemics, corruption, and the lack of equal opportunity and equal distribution of wealth force people to look for answers in different places,” said İhsanoğlu in a prescient speech six years before the Arab Spring uprisings. “When these issues are not addressed properly by legitimate means, they are used as an excuse to push for extremist agendas.”
Yet, as the Council of Foreign Relations noted, “critics question whether [Western] engagement with the group is appropriate considering some of the positions it has taken on issues such as Islamic radical movements, Israel/Palestine, and the human rights records of its members.”
Moreover, its impact on the ground remains questionable. Its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the more recent Arab Spring has been negligible, and the group is rife with long-standing sectarian divisions among member states — notably between Sunni-majority members such as Saudi Arabia, where the OIC’s headquarters is located, and Shiite states such as Iran and Syria. Other member states disagree on whether the group should push a political agenda to unite disparate Islamic factions or stick to one focused on dialogue and cultural moderation.
But Gokcen disputes claims of the group’s irrelevance and fractured nature. As the OIC’s permanent observer to the United Nations since 2010, he has helped to keep the organization’s finger on the pulse of rapid change in the Arab world as well as oversee a continual fine-tuning of the OIC’s mission and agenda.
“It has been quite fascinating in terms of modern diplomacy and also witnessing firsthand a fascinating transformation of the organization,” he said. “Since 1994, I was based in the Middle East and I’ve been able to observe the dynamics of reform in the Muslim world…. The OIC has become a focal point of this transformation by assuming increased responsibilities in terms of socioeconomic development and promoting human rights and good governance.”
Gokcen first came to the OIC in 2005 as political advisor to the secretary-general in Jeddah. Shortly thereafter, the Muslim community in Europe exploded with rage after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoon pictures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Such depictions are considered highly blasphemous among followers of Islam.
Muslim groups in Denmark complained and the issue eventually sparked protests across the Muslim world — mirroring similar protests that have erupted in recent years in response to perceived desecration of the Koran (in one instance by U.S. soldiers who burned copies of the holy book in Afghanistan) as well as to an American-made video trashing Islam that caused widespread upheaval in September.
After their initial run in Denmark, the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than 50 other countries, escalating the controversy. Demonstrations in early 2006 across the Islamic world devolved into violence, with instances of police firing on crowds of protesters, resulting in more than 100 reported deaths, as well as attacks on the Danish Embassy in nations like Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Denmark’s prime minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, described it as the country’s worst international crisis since World War II.
The uproar presented a challenge and an opportunity for the OIC, according to Gokcen.
“This incident gave OIC extra responsibility to educate, restrain and calm, but at the same time to raise the views of the Muslims concerned,” he said. “I was somehow involved in this entire process, promoting tolerance and working toward preventing discrimination and intolerance. It was quite educational for me personally.
“I got to know the underlying currents, or dynamics, of this kind of misunderstanding between nations or groups of nations, and this work very much emphasized a kind of interaction between freedom of speech and religion and promotion of religion.”
In 2008, after a Danish court rejected a lawsuit stemming from the cartoons, the OIC said the ruling could encourage Islamophobia, something the organization said already existed in the West.
“The Danish ruling came as a surprise to the OIC at a time when almost all Western governments including the U.S.A. had made categorical statements rejecting any linkage between Islam and terrorism,” an OIC statement said.
Gokcen said he was gratified that the U.N. Human Rights Council (itself a magnet for criticism for allowing perpetual human rights abusers to serve as members) eventually took a stand against religious denigration with the passage of a high-profile resolution in 2011. The resolution, as stated, aims to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”
The initiative had been championed by the Obama administration and some human rights advocacy groups as a landmark achievement that sought to balance freedom of religion with freedom of expression. But others, especially conservative U.S. media outlets, denounced the resolution as an attack on free speech and First Amendment rights.
“I have a personal interest in promoting the interfaith dialogue in terms of peacemaking in various parts of the world where there are direct conflicts,” Gokcen said. “The most important thing is that there was a need to create a kind of mutual understanding among the grassroots…. People in the Muslim countries have certain concerns, as do people in the West.
“The debate over expression and passions was created on the part of some of those who think the First Amendment is under attack,” he added. “There are different cultural ideas behind this. Europe has its own understanding, the U.S. has its own understanding, OIC countries also have theirs.”
However, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, writing in a 2011 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, blasted both the Obama administration and the resolution for containing a “disturbing agenda to establish international standards for, among other things, criminalizing ‘intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of … religion and belief.'”
“The unstated enemy of religion in this conference is free speech, and the Obama administration is facilitating efforts by Muslim countries to ‘deter’ some speech in the name of human rights,” Turley wrote. “Although the resolution also speaks to combating incitement to violence, the core purpose behind this and previous measures has been to justify those who speak against religion. The members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, have been pushing for years to gain international legitimacy of their domestic criminal prosecutions of antireligious speech.”
Gokcen, in an op-ed published by the Huffington Post earlier this year, argued that the OIC’s motivations with respect to the resolutions are consistently misrepresented. He also noted that the OIC condemned violence perpetrated by protestors of the Danish cartoons.
“Although instigated by a small minority, the OIC condemned the violence and upheld freedom of speech while still expressing an understanding of the deep hurt and widespread indignation felt in the Muslim World,” Gokcen wrote. “While this statement denounces the use of freedom to communicate hate and inspire violent action, it does not deny freedom of speech. In fact, it communicates something that most of us have been taught since we were children: just because we can do something, does not mean that we should. Freedom of speech is and must remain a fundamental human right, but each one of us must remember that rights evolve from responsibilities.
“Condemnation of hate speech should be seen as part and parcel to freedom of speech,” he added. “Is it not a contradiction to oppose condemnation of hate speech on the grounds of freedom of speech?”
Gokcen has also been vocal about condemning religious fanaticism, including the Taliban gunmen who, motivated by their fundamentalist view of Islam, shot Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani schoolgirl, in the head in early October. Her crime? Speaking up for girls’ right to an education.
“As the world reels in the face of such senseless brutality, it is easy to generalize the underlying ignorance and intolerance that motivated this attack to the rest of the Muslim world,” Gokcen wrote in a Nov. 13 op-ed. “The small group of extremists, in contrast to 1.5 billion mainstream Muslims, can not represent any Islamic tradition. However, there is a danger. If not challenged, these inhuman terror methods could be emulated elsewhere, such as West Africa and Sahel.”
To that end, he urged OIC member states to be more pro-active in condemning such acts at the grassroots level, including civil society groups, NGOs and clergy.
Gokcen also noted that the OIC has long advocated for women’s rights, establishing the OIC Department of Family Affairs and an Islamic Network of Women Scientists to encourage greater involvement of women in scientific and technological fields.
“The OIC has also partnered with the United States Departments of State and Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, civil society, and other international organizations to reduce the mortality rate of women during childbirth and to ensure children’s health,” he added.
Yet the OIC has also tussled with the United States and other U.N. member nations over the definition of terrorism. Since 9/11, the United Nations has struggled to reach a consensus on what constitutes terrorism. The OIC has opposed some blanket definitions that have been proffered, arguing that there is a difference between terrorism and the struggle for the rights of self-determination by people under foreign occupation, an obvious reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has colored the Arab world’s engagement with the United States for decades.
The debate still hasn’t been decided.
In a 2010 speech, OIC Secretary-General İhsanoğlu said OIC member states supported the U.N.’s global counterterrorism strategy, but stressed “that the strategy must address the root causes of terrorism, including the unlawful use of force, aggression, foreign occupation, prolonged conflict of peoples and denial of the rights to self-determination living under foreign occupation.”
Gokcen said the secretary-general “has taken a very principled position” on the matter — one that takes into account Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
“In very clear terms, the secretary-general has taken a position against any terrorist activity,” Gokcen said. “He has said there cannot be any justification for violence and terrorism, especially when it is committed in the name of religion. There are no ifs or buts that any terrorist activity is a terrorist activity.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.