Can a historian of science breathe new life into Islam's international forum?by / 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.
Once or twice, a powerful country has tried to shake things up a bit. Now Turkey under the liberal Muslim government of Tayyip Erdogan is keen to make its mark. Turkey chose its candidate well. The 60-year-old Ihsanoglu, in addition to having good links to western research institutions, is also a veteran OIC insider with deep roots in the Arabic-speaking world. He was born in Egypt to Turkish parents – his father was keeper of Ottoman archives at the royal palace. Ihsanoglu studied chemistry before switching to history and became IRCICA’s first director general in 1980. In that post he has had to deal with six OIC secretary generals, as well as a succession of princes, presidents and prime ministers. Ihsanoglu is also president of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, the main organisation representing the world’s historians of science. His own expertise is in technology transfer between the west and the Ottoman empire. His latest book, Science, Technology and Learning in the Ottoman Empire, describes how the Ottomans looked to Europe as they set up new institutions devoted to astronomy and aviation.
Ihsanoglu had suggested that I join him in Istanbul for Friday prayers at his local mosque, after which we would go for lunch. The Hamidiye mosque, it turns out, was part of Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s Yildiz Palace, his home and seat of government until deposed in 1909. But our interview has to be postponed because, after prayers, Ihsanoglu must attend to business. He suggests that I join him for Sunday lunch in his flat on the island of Buyukada. This is one of the Prince’s Islands, an archipelago six miles south of Istanbul, surrounded by the Marmara sea, and an old summer retreat for the rich of Istanbul.
Two days later, Ihsanoglu, smiling in a polo shirt and slacks, meets me off the ferry. “The OIC has to be reformed,” he says, as we finally settle down for the interview. “Even the most conservative among us agree.” He says that his appointment is a rare opportunity to breathe life into the organisation. He promises an end to decisions made behind closed doors and says he wants the OIC to work more closely with the UN. There will be space for the media to observe what goes on and for civil society organisations to participate. It all sounds too good to be true. “Do you really mean it?” I ask, in semi-disbelief. “The world has changed and the OIC needs to change too,” he replies.
Everyone wants the OIC to reform, but there is debate among Muslims over what a reformed Islamic conference might look like. Islamists would like it to move closer to the idea of umma, a single nation of Muslim states, free of borders, with a constitution, common currency and foreign policy. But Ihsanoglu shakes his head when I ask him if he shares this view. “The idea of an Islamic economic union is not realistic for the foreseeable future given that we have countries with the world’s highest GDP, as well as the lowest.”
I ask him what the OIC can do to build confidence between Muslim countries and the west. He says he is determined to build closer ties to the EU and the UN, “because I don’t think the mistrust is inherent, or irreversible.” But he says that a lasting answer lies more with the west than it does with the OIC. Justice for the Palestinians would remove the biggest obstacle to greater trust between Muslims and the west, he says, while rejection of Turkey’s EU application would make matters far worse.
Turkey will know in December if the EU thinks the country is ready for accession talks. Rejection, says Ekmeleddin, will signal to the world’s Muslims that Europe is not prepared to lower the drawbridge to a liberal Muslim country. “The Muslim world is under the influence of minority radical groups who hate the west. They are few in number, but carry influence, and will regard a decision to reject Turkey as proof that the west was never interested in a partnership with Muslims,” he says. “In the west you have separatist and racist groups who think civilisation starts and ends with Europe. They, too, are few but will see rejection for Turkey as a victory.”
I ask him, finally, what lessons he will take from his understanding of the past when he moves to his new job. He says he will go to Jeddah with the knowledge that Islam’s best years were characterised by an openness to new knowledge and a willingness to experiment with new ways of thinking. “Muslim rulers were always in favour of science, and religious authorities were, mostly, not against it.” That openness prevailed both in the early centuries when Muslim countries were major producers of knowledge, as well as in the later period, when the Ottomans borrowed from Europe. What does that mean for today’s Muslim states? He replies without hesitation that it means they must spend a minimum of 1 per cent of GDP on research and development.
He looks at his watch. The ferry back to Istanbul is due to depart in 15 minutes. Ihsanoglu slips out and reappears wearing a jacket and holding a briefcase. “I will join you on the ferry,” he says. I picture his new life on a conveyor-belt of meetings and speeches during the day, and dinners at night. The OIC building has a lift reserved for the secretary general 24 hours a day. “How on earth will you cope,” I ask. “I will need a treadmill,” he smiles.