One of the most embarrassing incidents in India’s foreign policy occurred in 1969, when New Delhi sought membership in a Summit meeting of the leaders of Islamic countries and was denied entry. It was at this meeting that the ‘Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’ was formed. The 57 member-countries, with a population of 1.3 billion, have Muslim majorities. The OIC claims it represents the ‘collective voice of the Muslim world’. It also pledges to ‘safeguard and protect the interest of the Muslim world’, for ‘promoting international peace and harmony’. While the prime target of the OIC was Israel, Pakistan used this forum to get resolutions passed against India, on Jammu and Kashmir, which were strongly endorsed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Given the vulnerabilities of international groupings based exclusively on religion, the OIC has now reduced itself to a farce. The organisation is today tearing itself apart—sectarian and civilisational differences are eroding all pretensions of religious unity. The historic rivalries and disputes between the Turks, Persians (Iranians) and Arabs, accompanied by sectarian Shia-Sunni differences, now transcend all talk of the unity of the Muslim ‘Ummah’.
The latest instance of this phenomenon was manifested, when the Trump Administration moved its Embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine. While lip service was paid to solidarity with their Palestinian brethren, the OIC members did precious little collectively, to mobilise international opinion for the Palestinian cause.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened a Summit meeting of the OIC to express Muslim outrage at the American move, averring: “Israel is an occupying State and a terror State.” Despite all the rhetoric, only 20 Heads of State of the 57 OIC countries attended the Summit. Notable absentees included rulers of Saudi Arabia, which hosts the OIC Headquarters, and Egypt. There is little that emerged from the Summit to mobilise support for the Palestinian call for a ‘two State solution’.
While Saudi Arabia and its allies such as Egypt and the UAE chose to downplay the Summit, there was high-level participation from their rivals Iran and Sudan. Turkey has joined the fray in West Asian rivalries by backing Qatar in its disputes with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis are also planning to build a canal along their borders with Qatar, undermining Qatar’s maritime links.
Shia-dominated Iraq has, however, played a balancing role in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. But, the melting pot in India’s neighbourhood is Yemen, with escalating tensions between the Sunni-dominated, Saudi-backed government, and its Sunni opponents and Shia Houthi rebels, backed by Iran. Thousands have perished in this bloody conflict. Over three million people have been displaced and 18 million need humanitarian assistance. The Yemeni opposition has retaliated with missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have handled these developments skillfully. While imaginative diplomacy has enabled India to seek and obtain assurances of substantial Saudi and UAE investment, New Delhi has made it clear that it will not yield to American pressures on its relations with Iran. Israel has welcomed the first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the Jewish State. PM Modi has also visited Ramallah for discussions, voicing solidarity with the Palestinian people. India should continue to skillfully engage all influential players in the Islamic world. firstname.lastname@example.org