Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- During his visit to Washington, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Conference [OIC], stressed the importance of building relations between the Islamic World and the United States based on mutual respect and mutual interest. But, at the same time, he drew attention to the need for the administration of US President Barack Obama to fulfill its promises and commitments. The Palestinian issue was at the top of the issues Ihsanoglu raised in his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several American officials and thinkers. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ihsanoglu said that the Islamic World must also shoulder its responsibilities and act to rescue Noble Jerusalem from Israeli actions and not to use the peace process as an excuse.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is your second visit to Washington within three months. What is the purpose of the two visits? What has developed since the last visit?
[Ihsanoglu] The new US Administration has expressed its desire to establish new relations based on two main pillars: mutual respect and mutual interest, and this was the essence of the letter that I sent to President Obama on 20 January when he assumed office. When I was invited to listen to President Obama’s speech in Cairo, I had a brief but practical meeting with Mrs. Hillary Clinton. She invited me to visit her in Washington. Coincidently, during my visit to Washington to meet with her and several other officials to discuss ways to cooperate with the new US Administration, she regrettably fell and broke her elbow. But I had a long telephone conversation with her and we agreed that I would make another visit during the UN General Assembly session. When we finished with the General Assembly meetings and the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the organization, we came to Washington for this meeting.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mentioned in one of the forums in Washington that time is getting short for the implementation of the principles that the US President talked about in his Cairo speech. Why do you expect that? What is your assessment of what the US Administration has done so far toward the Islamic World?
[Ihsanoglu]First, we must admit that President Obama has expressed good intentions and sentiments toward the Islamic World that no other former US president, at least in our generation, had expressed. We know that before our generation, these matters were not the focus of US attention. President Obama expressed these good intentions and sentiments in his speeches during the election campaign, his inauguration, and after his inauguration. He also expressed them on several occasions and summed all this up in his Cairo speech. This speech and prior speeches created big expectations in the Islamic World. His Cairo speech referred to several fundamental issues that, in themselves, are acceptable in the Islamic World. These issues are the Palestinian problem, the relationship between the United States and the Islamic World, and how this relationship should be built based on the two pillars to which we referred in the statement–that is, mutual interests and respect. Following President Obama’s speech, I explained to the press and to American officials that these good intentions must be translated into policies, and these policies must be transformed into programs and projects. Now we see that the US President had appointed Senator George Mitchell to play the role of mediator in the peace process. Mitchell exerted much effort and undertook several shuttle tours. In the three-party meeting in New York among President Obama, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, attempts were made to resume the negotiations. Contacts are taking place among the countries concerned. We, naturally, want these negotiations to resume from the point at which they were suspended. We want the parties to build on the understandings they reached during the long history of negotiations. The Islamic World now expects the US President to adopt a firm position on this basic issue–the Palestinian issue and the Jerusalem issue. President Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly offered hope that the President was still maintaining his principled position. We hope that these negotiations would take place in this spirit.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the Palestinian issue the fundamental issue for proving the good intentions and changing the course of the relations between the Islamic World and the United States?
[Ihsanoglu] I have no doubt that it is the primary issue. The relations between the Islamic World and the West cannot improve while this serious injustice is continuing. This grave injustice has been going on for 60 years against people who, throughout their history, have been good to the followers of the three main religions and have been good neighbors. They are paying the price for a crime committed by another people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can the atmosphere of optimism that prevailed following the inauguration of President Obama and his address to the Islamic World continue for long in the current situation?
[Ihsanoglu] We cannot speed up these matters. A timetable must be prepared, because peace negotiations have been going on since the Madrid Conference in 1991 and until now–that is 18 years. Generations have been born since that time. This period of negotiations is almost one third of the age of the Palestinian issue. It must not continue indefinitely. There is a strong feeling, particularly as the Israeli actions in Jerusalem are assuming a major hostile nature and the no voice in the US Administration has talked about these matters, which are taking place while negotiations are continuing. This is causing increasing concern among the public in the Islamic World and to us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your meetings in Washington, did you offer proposals for a role by the OIC in protecting Noble Jerusalem and pushing toward peace?
[Ihsanoglu] First, with regard to what we expect from the Islamic states on the political and practical levels, I spoke about this in my speech at the coordination meeting of the foreign ministers of the OIC member states. I explained to the Arab public opinion that states, governments, and organizations must take quick action to save the Jerusalemites from expulsion, confiscation of property, and the crippling of educational and health institutions. I explained that they must devote attention to these issues, which are extremely important. It is possible to solve these issues at little cost, and some people and institutions can do this and must not wait for President Obama, the US Administration, the Quartet, the Security Council member states, or any state outside the Security Council to do something. This is a primary Islamic duty, and all governments, organizations, and individuals must do their duty. The OIC is ready to coordinate efforts in this respect. We must not fail. Resisting settlement activity must be matched by keenness to safeguard Palestinian property and land, particularly in East Jerusalem. I strongly emphasize this matter. This is the practical way to solve the issue–contribute financially and save the houses, hospitals, and schools. This must not depend on the will of the international community.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The new administration has not yet named an envoy to the OIC. Have you heard anything about the appointment of a new envoy?
[Ihsanoglu] Yes, we expect this appointment to take place soon. We have heard that the government is currently considering several candidates. We expect that the new envoy would be a highly qualified Muslim figure close to the President. This is what we expected from the previous administration and it fulfilled our expectation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The United States is going ahead with the war in Afghanistan. How do military operations there affect the relations with the Islamic World? Can the OIC playa role in calming the situation there?
[Ihsanoglu] We think that the military solution or solving the problem in Afghanistan by military means is the biggest mistake that the United States can make. There are historic examples and proofs that confirm this. Regrettably, those who make the war decisions view matters at the table of the military chiefs of staff and do not consider the political and demographic limits of the states they want to enter. They do not look at history and the composition of these peoples, their internal structures, and their relationship with the outside world. Military decisions are based on military calculations, and these open the door to hell. What happened in Iraq proves that decisions are based on pure military calculations away from any rational considerations or sound comprehensive view of the situation. A pure military logic leads to failure. This is not a war between armies, where chiefs of staff calculate the number of tanks, aircraft, and artillery firepower. This war is taking place in a country whose people are keen about their independence and are against foreign presence in it. This war derives no legitimacy from human principles. Therefore, it is not possible to end this predicament unless there is an understanding of the roots of the problem. It is enough to look at the experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. About15, 000 Soviet troops were killed and tens of thousands of were wounded. The Soviet occupation was the main reason for the collapse of the Soviet regime. The military presence in Afghanistan in the past seven years has not achieved its goals–on the contrary. Terrorism has not stopped, but increased. In addition to the victims of terrorism, there are victims of military operations, which are inflaming the feelings of hostility and hatred among the Afghan people. Terrorism has increased and the smuggling of narcotics has increased. Afghanistan has become the center of the narcotics trade. This proves that the military solution has not succeeded.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the solution, then?
[Ihsanoglu] The solution is to have a comprehensive view of the situation that takes into consideration, in addition to the security dimension, the political dimension and the demographic and religious composition of the Afghan people. This should be accompanied by a program to achieve social and economic progress and increase the per capita income. This is not easy. However, I must point out that if the billions of dollars spent on bombs and military operations were invested in promoting peace, they could achieve results in the no so distant future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have warned about repeating the mistakes in Iraq in Iran. Are you concerned about the possibility of a military strike against Iran?
[Ihsanoglu] I do not think that anyone wants a repetition of this unfortunate adventure in Iraq. I think that the recent statements of President Obama and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates were in this direction.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do not the Islamic states need to urge Iran to pursue a more transparent approach in dealing with its nuclear program?
[Ihsanoglu] Of course, this is a necessary condition. Iran must abide by the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the provisions of the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Full transparency must exist. Since Iran is saying that it does not want to produce nuclear weapons, it is in its interest and the interest of the Islamic World and the entire world to show total transparency. If this point is not clear, there will always be international suspicion. The Islamic World must be spared such hot confrontations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the role of the OIC in solving conflicts in many Islamic World countries, like Somalia, Afghanistan, and others?
[Ihsanoglu] The Islamic World must shoulder greater responsibility in solving these problems. We in the organization are trying hard to play a constructive role in bridging the gap in the views of the various conflicting parties. We already gained a considerable experience in this respect in Iraq. We are currently in the process of intensifying our efforts to play a role in Somalia. We are maintaining contacts with the Somali Government, and I met with President Sharif in New York. We are awaiting the outcome of the elections in Afghanistan to develop our role there. The recent OIC ministerial conference adopted a paper to develop and strengthen the role of the OIC in establishing peace and solving conflicts. We are in the process of completing a major report in this respect to submit to the next conference.