“The summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will certainly dedicate attention to examine ways to promote rapprochement among the sects of Islam; followers of all Muslim sects have so much in common and it makes absolutely no sense that they engage in futile debates,” said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the outgoing secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation.
Turkish Ihsanoglu spoke to Ahram Online ahead of Tuesday's inauguration of the OIC summit in Cairo under the new Egyptian presidency and against a backdrop of a Sunni-Shia verbal clash, following the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Sunni institution Al-Azhar.
“Back in 2005, the OIC adopted a ten-year plan to improve relations among its 57 member states and a key matter to this plan is indeed the elimination of tension among the followers of the different Muslim sects,” the OIC secretary-general said.
He added that “some avenues” have already been explored in this respect but that there is still much work that needs to be done.
According to Ihsanoglu, the initiative proposed by Saudi King Abdullah last summer to establish a centre for rapprochement between different Muslim sects should help in this respect.
“At the end of the day, I am convinced that all Muslim states are aware that it serves the interest of nobody,” he said.
In his opening statement to the summit, President Mohamed Morsi, who took over the two-year delayed presidency from his Senegalese counterpart, underlined the need to give a good push to the works of the inter-sects centre and to “exert all possible efforts to overcome inter-Muslim disputes”.
According to the secretary-general of the OIC “it is often the scheme of some to taint their political differences with a sectarian coat; this is something we need to work against,” he said.
Ihsanoglu stressed that he is “convinced that the disputes we see in Iraq are not essentially sectorial; I am not saying that there is a perfect understanding among the followers of the different sects but I am certainly saying that these differences have been blown way out of proportion since the US (invasion) of Iraq,” he argued.
For the secretary-general of the OIC, the conflict in Syria is not either a sectorial conflict “although some tries to make it look so.”
“If you take a close look at the conflicting sides in Syria you would certainly find that followers of the different sects are there on both sides; it is ultimately a political matter.”
A researcher in Islamic history who has lived and worked across the Muslim world, the outgoing secretary-general of the OIC has never tired of reminding that the long history of co-existence of Sunnis and Shias in no other than Baghdad throughout several centuries remains clear testimony of the inevitable inter-sect rapprochement.
According to Ihsanoglu, a good way to help better understanding among the member states of the Muslim organisation is to promote better cooperation amongst these countries.
“We need to work on better bringing these countries together; we have already done some work to promote the expansion of inter-trade and economic cooperation, but of course much more work still needs to be done,” he said.
The OIC secretary-general expects this week’s two-day summit in Cairo to adopt a firm resolution on the matter.
Meanwhile, Ihsanoglu argued the need for a wider societal cohesion throughout the Muslim world. This, he said, should “certainly” include a more sensitive approach towards the growing concerns of minorities – especially, but not only, Christians.
“Throughout 14 centuries Muslim countries were never strictly for Muslim populations and in principle of course Islam is a religion of inter-faith tolerance; we should never overlook these very key facts,” Ihsanoglu said.
Women, Ihsanoglu added, are yet another "minority" to which Muslim countries should give more attention.
“The empowerment of women in Muslim countries is for sure an issue that has been put on the agenda of the OIC, but then again we cannot be blind to the fact that different societies are governed by different norms and that the concept of empowerment varies from one context to the other,” he said.
“The coercion of women that we see in Muslim society is not an Islamic choice but rather a political and a societal choice and we need to be realistic about the length and hardships of the path toward eliminating this coercion,” added the secretary-general, who has overseen the establishment of a centre dedicated to the empowerment of women.
This week’s OIC summit will determine the mechanism of operation for the new centre which will be based in Cairo.