The Magazine

Ambassador to Islam?

The United States shouldn’t legitimize the OIC.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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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. 

Ambassador to Islam?

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. 

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