By Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
23 June 2015
IT was 2002, and I was with a number of international journalists attending the Organization of Islamic Conference (now renamed Organization of Islamic Cooperation) Summit in Malaysia.
We were given an audience with the legendary Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. I can't remember everything he said, but would never forget how enthusiastic he was about Islamic unity.
Here's a summary of what he said: (Jerusalem is not just an Arab cause. The Palestinian are Arabs but Palestine is the land of Islam.
Arabs made a great mistake when they called the Israeli occupation of Islam third holy city an Arab affair. In doing so, they lost the rest of the Muslim world strength and support.
With usual Arab disagreements and infighting, they couldn't face Israel and the superpowers behind it. Then came Saudi leaders with their wise call for Islamic unity and the creation of Islamic institutions such as this Islamic conference.
Instead of 22 countries and 150 million Arabs, the Zionist entity faced 57 nations and 1,600 million Muslims.
Still, much needs to be achieved before we reach the level of unity that could liberate Jerusalem. The Arabs should also stop treating us as outsiders when it comes to Palestine.
We have as much stake in this holy land as Arabs. Therefore, we should be included in any negotiations regarding its future.)
I believe Mahathir was absolutely right. We, the Arabs, have no right in speaking on behalf of all Muslims when it comes to Palestine.
Taking exclusive charge of the issue led us from one failure to another. Since Britain promised in 1919 the Jews of the world a homeland in Palestine, we fought many political and military wars with the Zionist state and its supporters.
We lost most of them because we were never solidly united, sophisticated or developed, while fighting the invaders like native tribes fought European colonizers — backward, divided and weak.
Our Arab leaders couldn't agree on less important issues, or cooperate on basic developmental strategies. Palestine was more of a rallying cause than a real concern for most.
When King Abdulaziz Al-Saud called for Islamic unity and invited Muslim leaders to the first conference of its kind in Makkah, 1926, most Muslim lands were occupied.
The initiative was carried over by his son King Saud, who established the Muslim World League in 1962. King Faisal took it to higher grounds with the establishment of the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1969.
Other institutions, including the Islamic Development Bank, Islamic International News Agency, Islamic Broadcasting Union, International Islamic Relief Organization, World Association of Muslim Youth, International Islamic Fiqh Academy, and the Centre for Sectarian Dialogue came out to further strengthen functionality.
The ultimate objective was to unite the Muslim Ummah and to strengthen the cooperation among Muslim nations. This includes political, economic, social, educational and cultural collaboration.
Other ambitious projects included common market similar to that of the European Union. However, while Europe managed to unite after World War II, overcoming its warring history, the Muslim Union dreams ended where it started.
Bureaucratic institutions ran in circles. Except for the Islamic Bank and some political solidarity on common issues such as Palestine, we were unable to do more than hold endless conferences with few solid achievements to show.
Common market, central bank, Islamic dinar, peace force, open borders, Supreme Court, and other dreams have not been realized, or even in the pipeline.
Therefore, I have a proposal to make. Projects with common sponsors usually fail. They need ownership. Countries that would sponsor each project and take the credit for success or failure.
Say we start an Islamic banking association to organize, regulate and supervise the thriving Islamic banking industry. If we were to put it under one of the existing economic or political institutions it will die a dignified death.
But if we give the whole project to a country with experience in the field like Malaysia or Bahrain, chances are it would succeed.
Similarly, we could assign the establishment of a central bank to Turkey, the common market to Emirates, the sectarian dialogue center to Egypt, and the peace force to Pakistan.
Projects may include family planning, agriculture technology, food security, sustainable development, renewable energy and scientific research.
We could also enhance collaboration among non-governmental organizations and civic societies. The United Nations did similarly by locating some of its agencies in different counties.
While the headquarters is based in New York City, the UNESCO is in Paris, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.
Following the same way, and giving more autonomy and sponsorship to base countries would give extra energy, creativity, flexibility and competitiveness to the mangers of similar Islamic agencies.
I hope and pray that this Ramadan would be a blessing to such grand dreams and carry a new start for Islamic unity and institutions, and that our leaders would do more to strengthen our ties and cooperation.
Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah.