Interview with Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation

In this interview, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), discusses the violence in Syria and his organization’s role in high-level meetings, one of which resulted in drafting Kofi Annan as a special envoy for the Arab League. Other topics he discusses at length are OIC’s new human rights commission; the expanding role of women; and Western fears of Sharia law in Muslim countries.

Mr. İhsanoğlu also discusses the OIC’s recent name change to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In 2008, the OIC changed its charter “to be a reflection of core universal values,” he says, and listed human rights, good governance, supremacy of law, empowerment of women, and fighting corruption among them.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Warren Hoge (WH): I am here with His Excellency Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, known as the OIC. The OIC, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a membership of 57 member states and 5 observer states on 4 continents, is the collective voice of the Muslim world.

Secretary-General, on February 24, there was the meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunis. I know you were there representing the OIC. Can you tell us how you feel that situation is going? What is your prescription for halting the violence and resolving the Syrian impasse?

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (EI): First of all, I would like to say that OIC has been one of the first international organizations who have been supporting democratic transformation all over the Arab world. Not only the Arab world, all over the member countries, because we have to keep in mind Kyrgyzia was the first Muslim country member of the OIC to start the change. That was two years ago, before any Arab country.

Now, as for Syria—the bloodshed has been increasing, the killing of civilians has been increasing. Devastation and destruction of the country—of the places held by the opposition—has been going on. The international community became an impasse, because the Security Council couldn’t pass a resolution to stop the fighting and to impose sanctions or impose measures on Syria. Of course, the General Assembly’s resolution is having a moral value, but it has no power, no teeth as they say in the United Nations.

So, the meeting of the Friends of Syria was an added value to the General Assembly meeting, where the heads of international organizations—United Nations, European Union, OIC, Arab League, etc.—and many foreign ministers of different countries who are supporting the transformation in Syria and who are against the fighting in Syria, came together and sent a strong message to the regime in Syria to stop killing people.

Of course, the Tunisia meeting is the first meeting, and everybody expected more than that. Some of us were disappointed because it could not change the situation on the ground, but we should not forget that we are building up international consensus to put pressure on them. We have to say that before that meeting, we had a meeting with Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Baroness Ashton, and Mr. Nabil Arabi, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, and myself, in London, where we agreed on certain measures. And the appointment and selection of Mr. Kofi Annan as Special Envoy of UN and Arab League came out of that. We are supportive of this. Now we are doing a joint mission with the United Nations for humanitarian activities there.

We are progressing, but of course, we need to have more influence, and that needs to get the Russians on board. And I hope that Mr. Kofi Annan will succeed in getting the Russians on board to agree on the five points that he is proposing. We do support that.

WH: Secretary-General, I know that last year in Astana, Kazakhstan, the OIC established an independent human rights commission. I think you told me that the first interim chairperson was a woman. Can you talk a bit more about the significance of that choice, and also about the OIC and the role of women?

EI: Women’s position in the Muslim world is a position that really needs to be addressed properly and understood properly. The common belief, or common perception, is that women’s position in some OIC countries is that women are not given equal rights, share in society, persecuted or under privileged. This is a fact in some societies. We have to admit this fact and deal with it. But what is not true is that it emanates from Islam, the religion of Islam. Islam never undermined the position of women. When you look to the history of Islam, women emancipated, and women given a legal status in Islam first, before any other civilization, before any other religion, fifteen centuries ago. It has a right to inheritance, a right to do its own business, to own, to lead, be active in the society, to participate in social life, economic life, and official life as well, in the Prophet’s time and onwards.

Now when you look to some places in the Muslim world, you find that women are denied the right to education, right to share in the society, to have a say in their countries administration. We should not really attribute this to Islam. We should attribute this to wrong perception of Islam, first, and in reality, to tribal, or to pre-Islamic traditions which are still prevailing in some societies, where tribal setup has still not changed to urban life, modern life, etc. So we have to address this, we have to correct this understanding and we have to address it in a proper way, to empower women in its society.

We have developed a document. We have organized three ministerial meetings on women in Islam and Muslim countries. The first was in 2006 in Turkey; second was in Cairo; third was in Tehran. We have adopted a basic document on the empowerment of women in Muslim society. It became an official document approved by 57 countries, and then we had a decision to establish a special institution to work on this document implementation and to deal with women’s issues in the Muslim countries, and this to be established in Cairo.

Another major reform decision taken by OIC is the establishment of an independent, permanent, human-rights commission, composed of 18 members. It happened to be that 4 of these 18 persons are ladies. When I inaugurated the first meeting in Jakarta two weeks ago, after we finished the negotiations, the 18 members, the got together and they decided among themselves. And that decision pleased us very much that they have one of the four ladies to be the chairperson of the commission.

So that is another indication that the reform plans are going well, and we hope that in the decade to come, many major changes will happen in the Muslim world, in the positive direction.

WH: I know that one of the major missions of the OIC is to portray Islam to the outside world in a way that you feel it ought to be portrayed. Many people who are critics of Islam in the political sphere, or even fearful of Islam, cite the threat of Sharia law. Do you know why they think that, and what can the OIC do about it?

EI: I would not blame them, because the way Sharia law was presented in the last few decades, last three decades of the 20th century, was horrible. Has nothing to do with Islam, or with the word Sharia itself. Sharia means “way,” a way. It means canonical law, in a way. It does not mean chopping hands or heads of people, or stoning them. These measures were abrogated centuries back, and it has never been, except one or two cases in the whole history of Islam, that they were implemented.

Now, to bring this back to the fore and say that this is Sharia, or this is Islam, or this is Islamic law, was an attempt of a few dictators who came to power through military coup d’états. They wanted to enforce their dictatorial regimes by giving themselves an Islamic religious authority, and saying “this is the law of God. I am implementing the law of God. If you come against this, I will chop your head or cut your hand or I will stone those who have these kinds of relations.” I think that was a kind of fear mongering by dictators to use the law of God in their hands in a very wrong way. Islam has nothing to do with this, and we should really re-address the issue again, and we should not allow anybody to talk in the name of Islam in such an ugly way. I’m glad that there are no more dictators who claim they are applying Sharia law in the Muslim world.

WH: Finally, I wanted to ask you why you changed the name of the organization? You were known for 42 years as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference; what is the significance of that change?

EI: The name Organisation of the Islamic Conference has historical roots and background. It came after the first meeting, where the leaders of the Muslim world, around 25 countries, met for the first time in 1969. That was the first official Islamic conference in history.

Then, when they had the second meeting, third meeting, they decided to have an organization, a set up. So they tried to find a name that would be agreeable to all members. They couldn’t. So they said “let’s call it Organisation of the Islamic Conference,” because the first meeting was a conference, and it carried on until I came, and I put it to the heads of state in the Mecca Summit that we should change the name. “Conference” does not reflect the reality of the organization which in 40 years built big subsidiary organs; institutions; one of the biggest development banks in the world, Islamic Development Bank; many universities, research institutions; and different organizations dealing with different issues, of cooperation among the member countries.

We have changed the Charter, and the charter started to, in 2008, express, to be a reflection of core universal values, like human rights, like good governance, like supremacy of law, empowerment of women, fighting corruption, etc. But we could not agree on a name, where the 57 countries would agree. Then all of a sudden we discovered the word “cooperation” starts with the letter C, like conference. We proposed to them that we substitute, or change, the word “conference” to “cooperation” and keep the acronym as OIC–Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, instead of Conference—and it was agreed immediately. So I am really glad to be the one who have been through all these changes, the transformation, including the charter, name, and the emblem of course.

WH: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, thank you very much for talking to the Global Observatory.