The concept of the ‘Muslim World’ is a myth and has no utility in the political sphere, as was forcefully demonstrated yet again at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the first week of March in Abu Dhabi.
Syria’s absence from the conclave and the Iranian walkout from the concluding session of the conference were just some of the indicators that the so-called Muslim world doesn’t function as one homogenous entity.
The OIC may want to paper over it, but the reality is that there is tremendous discord among states with Muslim majorities. The 57 countries that comprise the OIC, act on the basis of regime and state interests rather than shared religious faith.
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Discord among Muslims majority countries
Most of these countries, especially in West Asia but also elsewhere, are contiguous to each other, have colonially crafted boundaries that do not conform to ethnic identities, and suffer from high degrees of regime insecurity. Consequently, they are constantly in conflict with their Muslim neighbours over territories and populations claimed by more than one state.
Malaysia and Indonesia almost went to war in the 1960s over Sarawak and Borneo. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 because the Saddam Hussein regime felt threatened by the impact of the Iranian revolution on its people. Afghanistan cast the only negative vote in the UN in 1947 against Pakistan’s membership of the organisation because it refused to accept the legitimacy of the British-imposed Durand Line dividing the two countries.
Today, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in proxy wars throughout West Asia from Syria to Yemen in order to demonstrate their primacy in the region. Although ostensibly sectarian, their hostility is primarily the result of competition for power and influence in the Gulf and the broader West Asian region. Saudi Arabia is at loggerheads with tiny Qatar because the latter refuses to accept its dictates in matters of foreign policy, especially its relations with neighbouring Iran. Arabs, Turks and Iranians do not shrink from brutally suppressing their Muslim Kurdish populations when the latter demand autonomy for the regions in which they have demographic preponderance.
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The idea of the Muslim world
The concept of a supposedly unified ‘Muslim World’, which the OIC attempts to portray in a rather farcical manner, did not exist before the 19thth century. The fragmented nature of Muslim lands was taken for granted by Muslim populations with Muslim potentates engaged in wars for control over territory and resources. The Ottoman and Safavid Empires fought innumerable wars for control of the fertile Euphrates valley demonstrating the veracity of this conclusion. But, they were not the only ones engaged in intra-Muslim conflict. Muslim invaders from Afghanistan, epitomised by Nadir Shah, ravaged northern India during the waning years of Mughal rule and butchered Hindus and Muslims alike.
The term ‘Muslim World’ was a Western invention at a time when European powers were in the process of subjugating the vast majority of Muslim-populated lands. There were several reasons why the Europeans popularised the term. First, given the hostility in Europe against Islam and Muslims going back to the Crusades, using the term ‘Muslim World’ to characterise the occupied lands acted as a justification for subjugating them and crushing anti-colonial revolts with brute force. Second, a monolithic depiction of Muslim-populated countries in Asia and Africa augmented the European sense of civilisational superiority over “barbarian” Muslims and condemned the latter to a position of perpetual religious and political inferiority.
Anti-colonial movements in the occupied Muslim lands in many cases mirrored the European imagery. Many uprisings against colonial rule, from Algeria to Sudan to northwestern India, were launched using the terminology of ‘jihad’ in order to garner popular support. Pan-Islamism, with ideologue and activist Jamaluddin Afghani as its primary advocate, became a major rallying cry against European depredation. Pan-Islamism, and therefore the concept of a unified Muslim world, also became a tool for the Ottoman Empire from the late 19th century onward to ward off European annexation of Ottoman territories. The Ottomans invoked the Sultan’s honorific title of Caliph of Islam, which had lain in abeyance until European encroachment gathered pace, in an attempt to rally Muslims all over the world to come to its defence by rising in revolt against their European masters.
However, the heyday of the concept of the ‘Muslim World’ passed quickly with the decolonisation of Muslim lands and the emergence of independent states, several of them in West Asia carved out of former Ottoman territories. The Khilafat movement in India, which incidentally was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, was in effect the last gasp of the Pan-Islamic ideology. The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk in 1924 acted as the requiem for the concept of the ‘Muslim World’.
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OIC as the fig leaf
The formation of the OIC in 1969 that revived the concept of the ‘Muslim World’ was an attempt by insecure Muslim regimes to bolster their legitimacy as well as to use the organisation as a multilateral forum to advance their foreign policy objectives by rallying support from the so-called umma (community of believers) against their rivals, who in most cases were also Muslim. This was particularly true of conservative Arab monarchies that were engaged in a power struggle with republican dictators who used Arab nationalism to mobilise support against monarchical regimes.
The OIC acted as a fig leaf to hide widespread divisions among Muslim countries. These ranged from cold wars to armed conflict, the Iran-Iraq war that raged for eight years being the prime but not the only example of the latter. The recent OIC meet falls within the same paradigm as the Iranian walkout and the dissension between Pakistan and the UAE over the invitation to the Indian external affairs minister demonstrated. This is why neither the international community nor its own members take the OIC seriously. The sooner the OIC is disbanded and the concept of the ‘Muslim World’ is given a decent burial the easier it will be for analysts and practitioners alike to understand the real dynamics that drive individual Muslim-majority states and their regimes in their actions in both the international and domestic arenas.
The author is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC. His books include The Many Faces of Political Islam (University of Michigan Press, 2008, second edition 2020).
Very good analysis Ayoob sahab.
Muslims should treat the non Muslims as they want to be treated by the others.
Speaking as an Indian, India should not be within a thousand miles of the OIC, or its periodic meetings. Much better to nurture the several productive bilateral relationships India has with several Muslim countries.
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