Turkey and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation: Part 1

Current geopolitical realities show that the Islamic factor has a considerable impact on international relations and on the elaboration of universal political principles. The problem receives a particularly great importance when Islamic countries try to impose their rules on the platform of the international relations and the conflicts between them often threaten the global security. Being fully aware of this, today, the Republic of Turkey tries to assume the functions of the Islamic world leader, to solve current conflicts and deal with the world’s main figures as an Islamic superpower. The Organization of Islamic Conference, which includes most of the Islamic countries, is one of the implements Turkey uses in order to achieve this goal.

This analysis aims at presenting the political path Turkey has had in the Organization of Islamic Conference and to find out the reason for veering its political course to the East.

The second and the third parts of the analysis will reveal the current interests and goals of Turkey within the scope of that organization, as well as the discussions of April’s four-day war within the framework of 13th Islamic Summit Conference.

The Motive for the OIC Establishment and Its Goals

The 1960s of the 20th century were marked by an unprecedented revival of Islam, which is called “Islamic Boom” or “Rebirth of Islam”. This was a period when Islam became a strong socio-political power. A number of countries started to include Islam in the official ideology and in the work of political institutions of their regimes. The beginning of this religious revival is considered to be the Arabic-Israeli six-day war in 1967, during which Israel occupied a number of Arabic territories invading Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The capture of Jerusalem, as well as the arson of Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the three main Islamic sanctuaries, was a heavy blow for the Islamic world. Thereafter the struggle for the unity of Muslims in the name of liberation of Doghs (Jerusalem) has been the main foreign political problem of Islamic countries. The aforementioned developments also paved the way for the establishment of an international organization with Islamic standards.

The constitutive conference of the Organization of Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) was held on September 25, 1969 in Rabat (Morocco) during the conference of the leaders of Islamic countries. 24 countries out of 35 invited participated in the conference. Among the founding members was Turkey whose participation was important in terms of consolidating the Islamic world.

Before introducing Turkey’s activities in the OIC, let us throw light upon the main issues and goals of the Organization of Islamic Conference (hereinafter OIC). According to the charter passed in 1972 the following problems are numbered among OIC purposes:

  • To strengthen the Islamic cooperation between member-countries. Studying the developments in the Middle East within the last decades, we can state that the organization did not manage to totally implement its primary goal. Islamic countries are still in antagonism against each other (for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran). As a result of civil wars and revolutions the Islamic population remains disrupted (Libya, Egypt, Syria). Disagreements between Islamic countries have not been resolved yet, which is proved by the fact that during the Arab Spring OIC member states could not create mechanisms to protect other member countries from assaults.
  • To stimulate the cooperation of member states in economic, social, cultural, scientific and other fields, to hold meetings between member-states. In these terms OIC has succeeded numerous times by establishing specialized committees in the above-mentioned fields (COMIAC, COMSTECH, COMCEC), whose effective activities are manifested in everyday lives of the member states.
  • To coordinate the struggle of all Muslim nations for observance of dignity, independence and national rights. In the process of implementing this purpose the most evident proof of the OIC’s failure has been its improper response to the American occupation of Iraq.
  • To take measures to secure the safety of sanctuaries. However, it is not a secret that Muslims’ sacred places (especially Jerusalem) are still occupied and many member states of the OIC (including Turkey) recognize the state of Israel, which contradicts the religious spirit of the organization.
  • To support the struggle of Palestinian people and to help them restore their rights and to liberate the occupied territories. This is arguable as well, since from the very beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian antagonism, neither of Muslim countries has included Palestine as a side of the conflict during the conciliatory negotiations, which states the theory that Islamic countries prioritize not the religion but their state interests as well.

However, this organization drew the attention of all Islamic countries, which started to join the OIC one after another. By this the Islamic countries made certain that they belong to the Islamic world and showed their common aspiration for a politically, economically, culturally independent life. We consider that the OIC reputation also rose due to the dissidence in the League of Arab States in that period, which resulted from the fact that the League had been established by England as its pillar in the Middle East.

Moreover, the LAS had only political purposes, meanwhile the newly established Organization of Islamic Conference gave the members an opportunity to solve not only foreign and inner political problems, but also economic ones and, which is the most important, the problem of Islamic (not only Arabic) unity. It should be mentioned that nowadays almost all Islamic countries in the world, i.e. 57 countries with population of 1,2 billion, are members of this organization. The OIC has three main bodies: Islamic Summit, Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers and Secretary General. More influential countries in the political, religious and economic fields are Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey and Iran. Due to budgetary investments Kuwait, the UAE and Libya have a significant impact too.

Accession of Turkey to the Organization

The OIC officially proclaimed the ideology of “Islamic Nation” in 1981, the ultimate goal of which is announced the change in the correlation of forces throughout the world in favor of Islam, or at least the maintenance of such a situation in a global or territorial sense, that former colonial or dependent countries become equally rightful associates of modern international relations. Ideologists of this theory strive to establish a closed cooperation based on religious principles, to turn the Islamic world into an independent international region. In case it is realized the Islamic world will contradict the rest of the world. This is a plan for the implementation of the goal of “Muslim unity” which is underlined by the slogan “all Muslims are brothers”. Muslims from all over the world regardless of their ethnic, racial and other differences are the same and make up a single united community, “ummah”. Their ideology can be defined as Pan-Islamism, which propagates the idea of unification of all Muslims throughout the world either under one united state or a federation of different states. It is necessary to mention that Pan-Islamism as a political doctrine was introduced into the political conception of the Ottoman Empire by means of the press in the beginning of the 1860s. The main purpose of Pan-Islamism was to strengthen the authority of the Ottoman Empire and Sultan as the ecclesiastic and political leader of Muslim people not only in the scope of Turkic people but within a Pan-Muslim Empire. This is why much importance was attached to the role of Turkey in Islamic cooperation and unity movement before the OIC establishment. The Ottoman Empire was symbolizing the idea of the theocratic Muslim state, Caliphate and the Sultan was regarded as the Sunni caliph. Therefore the elimination of the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic caliphate, caused a wave of discontent among supporters of Pan-Islamism and radical Islam. Principles of nationalism (Turkism) and laicism were once and for all fixed in the state ideology of Turkey. Religion was separated from the state, the institutions of Sheikh ul-Islam and vakfı were abolished, Islam ceased being the state religion and ideology. We should notice that all this had a great impact on Islamic unity and considerably disrupted the activities of the cooperation and unification movement.

The Muslim world unified once more only after experiencing the consequence of that disruption on itself and the OIC was established in 1969. The question of the participation of Turkey, the important military-political ally of the West, in the conference is noteworthy: the authorities were faced with the political dilemma. Along with inner disagreements Turkey, anyway, participated in the summit of Rabat, and the Prime-Minister Süleyman Demirel defined the meeting not as religious but political, where Turkey was going to discuss only the issues of Al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem. During the summit the Prime-Minister mentioned that his purpose is to find new allies in the Islamic world, to establish good-neighborly relations, however the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy would not be altered. At the same time Demirel noticed that the membership of Turkey should not oppose the secular basis of the state order.

The main reason of Turkey’s evasive stance was the fact that the tight cooperation with the Islamic world was opposing to the principles of the secular state fixed by Kemal Ataturk. However, ignoring the activities of the organization would also worsen the relations between Turkey and the Islamic world, which would isolate Turkey from the Middle East to a certain extent. This dilemma existed in Turkey’s social life until the groupings and parties under the Islamic ideology again started to function actively within the state politics.

Until the mid-1970’s Turkey was represented in the OIC summits by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and in the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers by the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, the government of Turkey was discussing the issue of participation expediency in the Muslim forums.

Thereafter, with some weakening of its pro-Western (especially pro-American) relations there was a significant rapprochement with the Middle East countries. Particularly at the beginning of the 70s-80s Turkey’s relations with the USA deteriorated as a result of the Cyprus invasion by Turkish troops in 1974, which was followed by Washington’s embargo on arms supply to Turkey in 1975. After capturing the island Turkey sought to legalize the issue diplomatically. Turkey took advantage of the moment realizing that the OIC which had provided support towards the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, could be a defender of Muslim nations’ interests. Since then Ankara has always put the Cyprus issue on the political agenda at the OIC meetings. In fact, one of the reasons for Turkey’s pleasing policy towards that organization and the development of relations with Palestine was the Cyprus issue. As a result, the representative office of Palestine Liberation Organization was opened in Ankara in 1978, and Turkey recognized the independence of Palestine in 1988.

Though the OIC avoids to explicitly recognize the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, not ignoring the UN resolutions, in the context of the resolutions on Cyprus one can understand that the organization openly expresses sympathy for the “TRNC” independence. Let us also notice that since 1979 till nowadays the Turkish Cypriot community has participated in the OIC activities as an observer expecting one day to become a member of the organization.

Another aspect that played an important role in the development of Turkey’s relations with the OIC member countries was the economic factor. The power and the influence of organization is driven by member states’ huge reserves of natural resources (particularly of oil and gas), as well as human and financial means at their disposal. The expansion and strengthening of trade and economic relations between Turkey and Muslim countries contributed to the convergence of the positions of Ankara and those countries on a number of issues. Thus, during the OIC conference convened in Morocco on the issue of Jerusalem (in September 1980), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, I. Turkmen, supported all the OIC resolutions against Tel Aviv’s activities. Moreover, the Turkish government reduced the level of diplomatic relations with Israel, reducing the rank of Turkish ambassador to Israel to the Second Secretary. The search for a new market of consumption for Turkish products and its appropriation became an important part of the country’s foreign economic policy. Turkey’s path of expanding and deepening relations with the OIC to some extent contradicted the traditional orientation of the country towards the West, however, in terms of its economic interests it was appropriate and justified. At the same time Turkey plays a decisive role in the foreign commercial, financial and industrial-trade initiatives оf the OIC. In this regard it should be noted that since 1981 the president of Turkey has been the head of the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation (COMCEC).

Turkey in some way ensures the political cooperation within the organization as well. Thus, the 5th OIC extraordinary session, whose agenda was the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was convened in 1992 by efforts of Turkey. The OIC expressed its support for the local Muslim population, which was being subjected to violence by Serbian forces. Two months later Turkey addressed to the UN to convene an extraordinary session of the Security Council, which would consider the issue on measures aimed at putting an end to the “ethnic cleansing”.

As we can see, the Organization of Islamic Conference was not of prior importance for Turkey, however, the latter has not ignored its importance either. In the course of time Turkish diplomacy has tried to find methods to exploit this organization for its own political interests. If till the 21th century Turkey was restricting its activity in the OIC, based on the concept of the secular state, then it has started to subsequently change its policy.

In the second part of the analysis we will touch upon the factors causing these changes, reveal Turkey’s active involvement in the OIC and also present our assessment of the results of the 13th Islamic Summit.


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Author: Armine Muradyan: © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Tamara Sargsyan