‘What Is Taking Place in Iraq Is Very Heartbreaking’
JEDDAH, December 6, 2006 — Sixty-three-year-old Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s largest organization of Muslim countries and now represents 57 nations. Its mandate is to increase political, economic and social cooperation among Muslim nations. Since its establishment in September 1969 after the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it has been the butt of jokes in the Muslim and Arab street because, although a useful forum for discussion, it is seen as lacking the means to implement its resolutions.
Professor Ihsanoglu has given the OIC a new direction in the two years that he has been its head. A Turkish national, he is a historian and a scholar who speaks both Arabic and English. His facility with Arabic has helped him play a key part in negotiations on Middle Eastern issues. He also has a working knowledge of French and Persian. He has written numerous books, articles and papers on science, Islamic culture, Turkish culture, relations between the Muslim world and the Western world and Turkish-Arab relations.
Professor Ihsanoglu is media savvy. He loves fielding questions and is a treat at press conferences. He is articulate and suave and his select group of political aides is always more than willing to provide essential quotes to breaking stories which affect the Muslim world. The secretary-general understands the challenges that he faces. Prominently displayed on his desk is a neatly framed political cartoon taking a dig at the OIC. The cartoon features a turtle on its back; it is being helped to its feet by a number of people. The turtle of course represents the OIC and, “one of the men is me,” chuckled Professor Ihsanoglu. He would not be drawn on what he has accomplished at the OIC, but all realize that in the last two years he has managed to put the organization back on its feet through a series of initiatives. Some of them are the historic Extraordinary Islamic Summit in Makkah and the bringing together of the religious leaders from Iraq in Saudi Arabia to sign a reconciliation document.
In an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah on Dec. 5, 2006, Professor Ihsanoglu talked at length about the crises in the Middle East and his views. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Jordan’s King Abdallah recently said that the Middle East is facing three civil wars — in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. What is the OIC going to do or is doing about the current state of affairs?
A: I don’t think they are civil wars. I see them as big problems. What is going on in Palestine is not a civil war. It is a war against aggression and against occupation; it is the struggle of a people against occupiers and a struggle of those people to get their legitimate rights and their own independent state. It is the struggle of a people to live with honor and dignity in a way they are entitled to. What is going on in Lebanon is really a very sad story. The political leadership there should do more. They should have more dialogue, more understanding and the political wisdom to go through constitutional means rather than confrontational means. During the Israeli war last July, the Lebanese proved that they are a coherent society. The country’s leadership showed great wisdom. We expect them to show the same wisdom now. As for Iraq, it looks as if the situation were out of control. We, in the OIC, tried hard and we are still trying hard to contribute to the solution of the crisis. It is really sad. There is the danger of a civil war. No doubt. I don’t want to say that it is civil war but I think that it is very near to that. The situation is being aggravated every day. We hope that reason and wisdom will prevail. The narrow-minded political interests or political supremacy of one party over another will not continue in the same way. Because if it does, it will end with what we are all afraid of. This would not be in the interest of anybody or any side or any component within Iraqi society or any country outside Iraq.
Q: You think the three issues are inter-related?
A: Yes. Of course all three issues are related to each other because all three issues are the outcome of external influences. That has been the unfortunate fate of the Middle East since the beginning of World War I.
Q: What is your top priority: Iraq, Palestine or Lebanon?
A: Well, logically speaking, the Palestinian issue is at the root of Middle Eastern instability and conflict. We cannot think of the Lebanese issue without thinking of the Palestinian issue. What is happening in Iraq is also related to the stability of the region.
Q: You said you still would not call what is going on in Iraq a civil war. As an academic and as a historian, can you please define civil war?
A: I don’t want to indulge in semantics here. I don’t want to go for academic definitions. What is taking place in Iraq is very serious, very heartbreaking and we all feel sad. We don’t want to call it civil war because that would be an attempt to close our eyes to the sad reality of the killings every day. We want to call everybody to acknowledge the true way, the wise way of solving the problem. If we accept it as a civil war, we are closing our eyes to a political solution, a negotiable solution and a peaceful solution. That is why we leave the definition, semantics aside, and we try our best to deal with the situation there. Defining or characterizing the situation is not a solution to the problem. We know what is going on there and that is why we are worried. Very worried.
Q: You brought prominent Sunni and Shiite scholars to Makkah and got them to agree to a reconciliation agreement. Then they went home and the sectarian killings continued. It must be quite frustrating for you. Do you see a real Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq or do you think the occupation is creating these problems?
A: The main purpose of the OIC initiative, as it materialized very successfully in the Makkah Document, was to identify one of Iraq’s very complex problems. By doing so, by getting 15 scholars from each side to agree on the 10-point reconciliation declaration and by getting their complete approval and then the consensus of all the top Sunni and Shiite religious leaders such as (Ali) Sistani and (Abdul Aziz) Al-Hakim and (Harith) Al-Dhari and others, we saw that the real problem is not religious or one of “madhab.” (I am not using the English word “sect” for “madhab.” It is usually translated in English as sect but by “madhab” here, I mean the school of jurisprudence.) So it is not the difference of jurisprudence that is motivating these people. It is not a religious fight per se. That was a major step in identifying and understanding the problem. Nobody inside or outside Iraq can now say or claim that this is a “religious” fight or that it is based on a “madhab.” The leaders of the two “madhahib” agree on this point. And according to all of us, there is nothing which justifies the killings. The religious leaders say they have asked their people not to kill each other and they have made it clear that whoever does so is not a Muslim. That was the major contribution of the Makkah conference. Now, is that all we aimed for in Makkah? No, we aimed for the religious leaders to ask their people to follow the provisions of this document because these are religious commands. Actually this began to happen, but in the end, political factors and political struggles overcame everybody. Now we must intensify our efforts. And we are trying to bring people back to the spirit of the Makkah Document. Of course, this is no one-dimensional solution because it is not a one-dimensional problem. The crisis is very complicated but we all have to try our best.
Q: There has been a suggestion for an international conference on Iraq. The idea has already been rejected by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim. What is your opinion?
A: Well, my personal view is that there is a need for such a conference. Already there exists a mechanism for a conference. It was in place well before the occupation of Iraq. All countries neighboring Iraq should be involved in the solution of the Iraq problem. We have to admit that without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors and without the cooperation of some international powers, we cannot reach a comprehensive and peaceful solution in Iraq. The crisis will be prolonged. The suffering of the Iraqi people will be prolonged. Every day you have hundreds of people being killed, the militias are doing as they wish — kidnapping people, slaughtering people, torturing people and all of this is meaningless. We have to get the Iraqi people out of this cycle of killing. And this needs cooperation from within Iraq as well as from those outside Iraq. The only way to do this in my opinion is through international cooperation.
Q: Is the OIC in talks with the Iraqi leadership on the conference proposal?
A: No. Not on this but this is what we think would be one of the best ways. Other options have been exhausted.
Q: There is also talk of some kind of an international peacekeeping force composed of soldiers from countries that did not participate in the occupation. Is that viable?
A: Officially we have not received such a request from anybody. We know that one possible way of ending the occupation in Iraq is to have peacekeeping forces. The modalities of this option have not yet been thought through. But I am sure that some OIC countries would be interested in helping the Iraqis out of their difficulties. Of course, they would be countries which are acceptable to both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, as is the case in Lebanon now. But all this is early talk.
Q: Washington says that if it withdraws, there will be more bloodshed. Do you agree?
A: Well, if the American forces withdraw before Iraqi forces take over security and if the government is not in full command of all forces, and if security is left to the militias, I think there will be more bloodshed. We are not justifying the presence of any foreign forces there, but we have to look at it in a right context. The only aim should be safeguarding the people. And preventing the killings. If the killings are happening in the presence of all the foreign forces, I think if they leave, then it will become a civil war and then what we all are afraid of would happen. If civil war happens in Iraq, I don’t think it will stop in Iraq. Civil war would be an invitation for others to intervene. We should all be careful not to allow things to deteriorate to that extent.
Q: Meaning the US should not leave unless and until there is a mechanism in place to take over?
A: Of course, there should be an agreed-upon mechanism; otherwise one cannot imagine what could happen there. Nobody would have thought this would happen in Iraq. Never in the 14 centuries of Islamic history, let alone in the history of Iraq, has this ever happened. This is for the first time and, I, as a secretary-general and also as a scholar who knows the history of this region and religion, feel it is very difficult to understand why these things are happening.
Q: What is the OIC view on the US-Iran standoff?
A: We think that Iran has full rights to develop its nuclear capacities in a peaceful way in agreement with international conventions and covenants and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocols and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT). Every country has the same right. What we see in how the Iranian nuclear issue is treated is another manifestation of double standard. Of course, we are all against using nuclear power for military purposes. We believe that the Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone. We had a very good example in which a group of OIC countries — the Central Asian group composed of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — all agreed to make Central Asia a nuclear-free zone. That was done recently and we are happy with the agreement and the experience. We commend them. And we hope the best solution to end this (Iran nuclear) controversy is not resorting to sanctions or doing this and doing that but to be honest. To have the same yardstick for everybody. We need to work to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. I think if we do that, it would be a solution for this problem and it would also be a prelude to many other solutions which would contribute to peace and security in the Middle East. If we make a breakthrough here, we can make a breakthrough in other areas too.
Q: Earlier the talk was that the road to peace in the Middle East began in Baghdad. This was the neocon and Zionist view, of course. Now there is talk of reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process. Would the OIC take the initiative to bring Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s peace plan to the forefront?
A: What happened in Baghdad unfortunately showed how wrong all those ideas were that were put forth as justification for operations in Iraq. Using power does not solve any problem. It aggravates and exacerbates them; it makes things worse, it makes them more complicated and leads to more bloodshed, more killing and more destruction. So what happened and what is happening in Baghdad should be a good lesson for those who would really like to contribute to peace and cooperation in the Middle East. I think King Abdullah’s peace initiative is an excellent point to start from. If we can make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and then start peace talks based on King Abdullah’s plan, I think that would be two great steps to solving the problems in the Middle East. In the long run, such steps could turn the Middle East into a place of peace, security and prosperity as it was historically before the foreign interventions of the 20th century.