Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Prof. Ekmelettin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on the current divide between Islamic scholars, the OIC’s planned conference on Darfur, and Israel’s designs regarding Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The following is the full text of the Interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us begin with the current controversy between the Sunni and Shiite ulema. What are your views?
[Ihsanoglu] We are working to heal the breach. The differences among the sects are a historical reality that has been accepted since the early days of Islam. These disagreements or rather differences of view should not turn into political disputes and later into bloody conflicts as in Iraq. Any difference of view should end before it reaches that point. Through the OIC’s Jurisprudence Council we have tried since 2006 to bring together senior Islamic figures, both Sunni and Shiite, to unite their views. They met at God’s Inviolate House and agreed over 10 points which we urge everyone to read. This was in a document that was backed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ayatollah Al-Sistani; the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar; Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Guide of the Iranian Revolution; and all the other Islamic leaders who attended the meeting.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Shouldn’t debate be perceived as a healthy phenomenon, rather than silent resentment?
[Ihsanoglu] We believe that debate should be calm and remain confined to matters of jurisprudence. It should not turn into political rhetoric. We are seeking through the OIC to hold a plenary meeting of all the nation’s ulema.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in September. Ban Ki-Moon noted during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia that he plans to cooperate with the OIC on various issues. Describe to us your meeting with him. [Ihsanoglu] My meeting with the UN secretary general was of course basic and important. Since I became OIC secretary general I have taken care to revive such meetings not only during the General Assembly’s sessions but on many other occasions. I sensed in Mr. Ban Ki-Moon a willingness to cooperate with us. He was very welcoming. I realized that he has a great understanding of the OIC’s role and its historical vocation. He understands the OIC’s new spirit of cooperation with the world community and its organizations. We are cooperating on many issues that interest the bodies belonging to both organizations. We will hold periodic meetings to further this cooperation and expand it into the political, economic, and humanitarian spheres.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What issues were discussed during this meeting?
[Ihsanoglu] We discussed many issues especially the OIC’s chief cause, namely, the Palestinian issue, and the latest developments of the Annapolis process, which is about to be concluded without any new results. We also discussed ways of furthering the constructive cooperation between our two organizations on the issues of Somalia and Darfur. There is much understanding between us and the UN secretary general on the Darfur issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Concerning the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, did you have a vision on how to establish a Palestinian state by the date agreed upon in during the Annapolis meeting, or will this issue be delayed until a new US president takes office?
[Ihsanoglu] Unfortunately, the answer is in the second part of your question. The OIC, however, explained to the UN secretary general that what has so far been achieved in the negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli governments under US patronage should constitute the beginning of new negotiations in the future. The new US administration and the incoming Israeli government should continue the negotiations from the point where they stopped to ensure that the gains so far made in the peace process are not lost, but will have significance for the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you sense that the UN secretary general was willing to provide guarantees that the negotiations will not go back to square one?
[Ihsanoglu] As I already mentioned, we have an understanding with Mr. Ban Ki-Moon in this area. During my meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice I conveyed to her the OIC’s view on the matter. She agreed and said: “We are working for the same thing,” meaning that the Americans wish to preserve the gains that have been made.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your meeting with Condoleezza Rice did you discuss the US State Department’s criticism of the OIC’s attempts to criminalize insults to religion, especially offensive portrayals of Prophet Muhammad, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him?
[Ihsanoglu] Yes, we spoke about this issue and prior to that I discussed the same matter with my colleagues within the OIC. We underlined the OIC’s position that we do not want anyone to insult our prophet, religion, or values but to show respect for them. We want nothing more than this. At any rate, we are not against any other religion. We recognize the Jewish and Christian religious symbols. We pray in the name of our Lord Moses and our Lord Jesus just as we pray in the name of our prophet Muhammad, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him. This is at the heart of our creed. We explain to everyone that the OIC’s resolutions and positions find acceptance by the UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. We explained that these resolutions are not directed against anyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] For over a year now, the OIC follow-up committees have been issuing occasional warnings and denunciations that the Israeli Government’s excavations in Jerusalem might lead to Al-Aqsa Mosque’s collapse. How would you describe the current situation in the mosque now? [Ihsanoglu] A follow-up of the technical report we have received from circles that we trust shows that the Israeli excavations have been far from the mosque’s foundations until recently. The problem is not here. The problem is that Israel is attempting to seize the sacred rock inside the Dome of the Rock Mosque and is trying to erect new installations on the premises. We have also learned that Israel has other ideas to build installations that will distort the holy and historical character of Jerusalem. We urge the international community to act to stop what is happening and we will continue our efforts to stop these attempts with the help of UNESCO, which is the organization primarily responsible for protecting human heritage. Our member countries are all UNESCO members. We will also make these efforts through the International Quartet because it has special responsibility for the Palestinian issue, through the United Nations, and the UN secretary general.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you get any US praise for opening an OIC diplomatic office in Baghdad? [Ihsanoglu] Actually we regard opening an OIC diplomatic office in Baghdad as an important strategic step which has encouraged many of our member countries to open embassies and conduct extensive diplomatic activity in Iraq. I think that this step is appreciated by the International community.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The OIC has announced that it plans to hold an international conference in Jeddah at the beginning of 2009 for the support of the Darfur region. What preparations are being made for this conference and when exactly will it meet? [Ihsanoglu] The date for the meeting has been set for the end of January, 2009. It will be held at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah. A higher committee has been established for the conference. It includes, in addition to the OIC, the Islamic Development Bank, the Saudi Foreign Ministry, and the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A similar committee is currently operating inside Sudan. It is a national Sudanese committee chaired by the Sudanese minister of state for foreign affairs. Its tasks include preparing the basic information on Darfur so that the conference can focus on development work in that region. It will discuss short-term and medium-term projects and in this way it will be different from the other conferences that focus only on extending temporary relief aid.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this conference be limited to the Islamic countries?
[Ihsanoglu] The conference will have three partners, first, the OIC member states and secondly, civil society organizations within these states. The third partner will consist of several major donor countries likeGermany, Britain, and France, which participated in similar conferences in the past. After the conference’s higher committee meets with the Sudanese National Committee, probably in late October, the donor countries and organizations will be invited to discuss and adopt the final form of the projects that the Darfur region needs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this conference be attended by heads of state, ministers of economy and finance, or ambassadors representing their countries? What financial ceiling is specified to implement projects in the Darfur region?
[Ihsanoglu] I expect that high-level representatives will attend the conference, perhaps foreign ministers, economy ministers, or investors from the participating countries. Regarding the expected financial appropriation for these projects, it is going to be $1.3 billion. We have set this sum as the ceiling. Darfur needs this level of support to end the harsh conditions in which its inhabitants live.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us go back to the extraordinary OIC summit in Mecca in 2005. Its resolutions included a 10-point plan for various political, economic and social projects. In July your deputy Atta al-Mannan Bakhit revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that more than 30 percent of the resolutions had been implemented. What were the most prominent resolutions?
[Ihsanoglu] The most important thing that was achieved was the charter. I mean the OIC Charter was amended. Actually it was not a mere amendment. A wholly new charter was adopted in a period that was less than two and a half years after the Mecca summit adopted a resolution to change the charter. I believe this was an achievement completed in record time. Additionally the member countries approved it unanimously. This was an unprecedented achievement in OIC history or the history of any other international organization. This proves that the political leaders in our Islamic countries properly understand the OIC’s role in serving their countries in a global context. The second achievement was the reformation of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council. This has been completed on a new and integrated system, giving it an international character. The third resolution among the Mecca summit’s resolutions that was implemented was the establishment of the Islamic News Agency, which will appear in its new form at the end of 2008. I should not forget to mention that we completed setting up the OIC anti-poverty fund. It has begun to operate in Africa. We also set up an observation center to monitor “Islamophobia.” We received many positive signs in its first report but they were offset by negatives signs from the haters of Islam. This perhaps annoys us, but we are doing our duty in responding to these negative signs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us about the increase of mutual trade among the Islamic countries from 12 percent to 20 percent according to your 10-point plan. [Ihsanoglu] Mutual trade among the OIC members is currently at16 percent. Cooperation is excellent.