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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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. 

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