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Ambassador to Islam?

Paul Marshall

On February 13, President Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain, deputy associate White House counsel, as U.S. special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Unusually, Obama is continuing a practice initiated by George W. Bush: It was a bad precedent for Bush to set, and it is worse for Obama to continue.

Appointing an American envoy to the OIC gives that organization a legitimacy it does not deserve. The OIC’s defining features should be rejected as a matter of principle: Ostensibly a grouping of nations, it has explicitly religious goals, its structure is highly discriminatory, and it promotes a reactionary agenda of delegitimizing Israel and leading international attacks on free speech and free exercise of religion.
Headquartered in Saudi Arabia, the OIC claims to include 57 member states, though one of these is the “State of Palestine.” Among its official observer states it lists the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” a “state” recognized only by Turkey. For America to have official relations with the OIC lends diplomatic cover to both these claims of statehood.

The OIC describes itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world” and has a department of Dawa, “Islamic propagation,” which is devoted to the spread of Islam. This raises the question why the United States should send an envoy to an explicitly religious grouping. (Ambassadors to the Vatican relate not to the Church as such but to a temporal sovereign jurisdiction called the Holy See.)

This strange asymmetry produces the preposterous expression “U.S.-Muslim relations.” Since the United States is a state and Muslims are a varied body of believers, they cannot have political relations. What would be the meaning of, for example, “U.S.-Christian relations”? In any case, the United States does not stand apart from Muslims: America is home to millions of Muslim citizens, who help elect its government. In fact the United States has more Muslims than at least 16 OIC members—Albania, Bahrain, Benin, Brunei, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kuwait, Lebanon, Maldives, Qatar, Suriname, and Togo. According to higher estimates of the U.S. Muslim population, it also has more Muslims than 12 others—Cameroon, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritania, Mozambique, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the United Arab Emirates. This means that the United States may well have more Muslims than half the countries in the OIC.

The OIC is not only a religious body, but a highly discriminatory one. Although all of its member countries have non-Muslim citizens, it espouses only “causes close to the hearts of over 1.5 billion Muslims” and safeguards “the true values of Islam and the Muslims.” This partiality is particularly egregious since in several OIC countries Muslims are not even the majority. They are less than a quarter of the population of Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Guyana, Mozambique, Suriname, Togo, and Uganda. In Nigeria, they are about half. Even in “Muslim” Chad, Malaysia, and Sudan, about a third of the populations are not Muslim. Hence, through their governments’ membership in the OIC, hundreds of millions of non-Muslims are corralled into an organization committed to, in the OIC’s words, “protect the vital interests of the Muslims” and “galvanize the Umma [worldwide Muslim community] into a unified body.” Through the OIC, the United States is relating to these non-Muslims not as members of religiously plural societies but as part of a privileged “Muslim world.”

The “supreme authority” of the OIC is the “Islamic Summit, composed of Kings and Heads of State and Governments of Member States.” This presents further problems, since some of these heads of state are not Muslim, which means that, while visiting the OIC permanent secretariat in Jeddah, they cannot legally practice their religion. Indeed, in December 2005, when the OIC convened in Mecca, where only Muslims may go, the non-Muslim presidents of Albania, Nigeria, and Uganda could not even attend the meeting.

Since Muslims are very diverse, many of them also suffer from discrimination by the OIC. All initiatives that pretend to relate “to Muslims,” or to any other religious group, inevitably privilege some Muslims over others. At the OIC, the United States will relate principally to rulers who proclaim Islam as their core political identity. But for most Muslims, this is simply not the case.

Only 15 of the Muslim-majority members have constitutions that provide for Islamic law or principles as a source for general legislation. Most of the world’s Muslims live in states that declare themselves secular or do not otherwise give political status to Islam. So, if the United States addresses the “Muslim world,” whatever that might be, through the OIC, it affirms that Muslims should be addressed politically as Muslims rather than, say, as Egyptians or Indonesians, or Kurds or Berbers—or liberals or democrats. U.S. recognition of the OIC thus strengthens political Islam against other forms of Islam.

President Obama mentioned possible cooperation with the OIC in education, entrepreneurship, science, technology, health, and opposition to violent extremism—but not in human rights, political freedom, or democracy. The OIC, however, would profit from robust challenges on human rights. It has its very own exclusive human rights charter, the 1990 “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam,” which it claims is complementary to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights but which in fact undermines it.

The OIC declaration’s introduction modestly lauds “the civilizing ... role of the Islamic Umma which God made the best nation.” It mirrors the universal declaration in structure and language, but after each item says that the right is subject to sharia law, which is not defined. The guarantee of free expression, for instance, reads: “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Sharia.” Article 24 summarizes the document, stating, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia,” and Article 25 avers that “the Islamic Sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.” The OIC wants the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt this declaration, which would be a backward step even for that corrupt organization.

The OIC has many other problems. Following the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the OIC invited Bashir to its November 2009 meeting. It suspended Egypt’s membership for five years after that country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. It insists that the international community distinguish between terrorism and what it calls “a legitimate fight for self-determination.” It also takes the lead in attacking Western press freedom over such issues as the Danish cartoons, calling for international and national legislation to outlaw “defamation of religion.” OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu claimed that Muslims have “taken the place of Jews during World War II.”

If America wants to dispute these positions, it will have to engage in religious debate. One of the OIC’s “Subsidiary Organs,” of which all member states are automatically members, is the “International Islamic Fiqh [Jurisprudence] Academy.” The academy’s purpose is to help conform human life “to the principles of the Islamic Sharia at the individual, social as well as international levels” and find “solutions in conformity with the Sharia.” Its official fatwas stipulate that religious freedom requires forbidding anything that might undercut Islam, and call for the judicial punishment of apostasy. Other fatwas defend polygamy, husbands preventing their wives from traveling alone, mild beating of spouses, and criminalization of homosexuality.

On what basis could the U.S. government dispute these declarations by OIC-approved jurists about what Islam teaches? Would it try to tell Muslims that they should reject Islamic teachings, a strategy not likely to get very far, or instead argue that these are wrong interpretations of Islam? If the latter, which department of the U.S. government would challenge fiqh? Would it be the new envoy, Rashad Hussain, a bright young man who has memorized the Koran but is not a recognized Islamic scholar? Would it be the State Department, which has already attempted to do some amateur theologizing? It is to such conundrums that legitimizing the OIC leads.

Clearly, we must acknowledge that all politics is shaped by religion: Tocque-ville even described religion in early America as “the first of their political institutions,” but he added that religion “takes no direct part in the government of society.” Equally clearly, our diplomacy must recognize the reality that in much of the Muslim world, religion and politics are closely intertwined.

But an official relationship with the OIC goes far beyond this. It means that our government relates to Muslims on the basis of religion, not citizenship; that it treats varied, multi-ethnic, and multireligious countries as if they were simply and monolithically Muslim; and that it legitimates the notion that these states exist to propagate Islam. Certainly, America needs to talk to the countries of the OIC—as we already do so, through our existing diplomatic relations and through the U.N. and through regional organizations. We should simply continue to do so.

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