Can a historian of science breathe new life into Islam's international forum?by Ehsan Masood / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
“I just met General Musharraf.” The voice on the other end of the phone is friendly but tired. “What did he say?” I ask. The reply gives nothing away: “We had a good discussion.”
It is the first week in July; 14 days since Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, diplomat, historian and academic expert on science in the Ottoman empire, was elected secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The OIC represents the 57 states with mainly Muslim populations. After days of trying, I have reached Ihsanoglu in his Istanbul office at the OIC’s International Centre for Research in Islamic, History, Art and Culture (IRCICA).
In less than six months, Ihsanoglu will move from there to an air-conditioned tower block in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will run the world’s second largest intergovernmental organisation after the UN. Like the UN, the OIC comprises a web of organisations and agencies from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah to the Islamic Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation in Rabat, Morocco. The OIC even has a network of universities and a news agency.
At the top sits the secretary general, appointed by member states for a four-year term. The OIC election rarely attracts headlines. That may be because it is usually not an election: never before has a secretary general been chosen by ballot box. The normal practice is a closed-door decision of the OIC’s big players, including Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and, most influential of all, Saudi Arabia.
It was Turkey that suggested a ballot when members failed to agree on a candidate. Ihsanoglu won comfortably, and his election was widely reported in the west. The appointment broke new ground in other ways, too – he will be the first professional intellectual in the post, and the first secretary general from Turkey.
But Ihsanoglu will have his work cut out. The OIC is a politically weak body that is long on rhetoric and short on good ideas. Its decision-making is opaque and it has failed to have any influence on the major global conflicts involving Muslims. The Jeddah secretariat is also a boys’ club, with all the top jobs held by men – something Ihsanoglu says he will change at once.