Last week, President Bush announced he will appoint a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, acted earlier: Russia was granted observer status in the OIC almost two years ago. When Messrs. Bush and Putin met Sunday, what was missing from the discussion was the adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia in the Muslim world.
The recently released Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that, although anti-Americanism remains fashionable and trust in other world powers is diminishing, Russia is doing better than America in Muslim countries. In key U.S. ally countries like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, America is seen favorably by 21 percent, 20 percent and 9 percent, respectively. By contrast, Russia's favorability scores are 46 percent, 48 percent and 17 percent.
OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said last year in an interview that "Russia takes the side of the Islamic world on its most sensitive issues." Those issues are primarily the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ongoing Iraqi chaos and the Iranian nuclear crisis. Mr. Putin cashed in on Russia's warm OIC welcome in his speech in Munich and his visit to Saudi Arabia. At a time when the Muslim world's perception of the United States is at a new low and the idea of spreading freedom and democracy is received less than favorably, many Muslims regard Russia as a counterbalance to U.S. power.
Now Mr. Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the organization that once condemned the Soviet Union for occupying Afghanistan, said, "Russia as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has good relations with the Islamic world, and as an OIC observer will be the organization's voice in the U.N. Security Council." Mr. Ihsanoglu, however, does not yet know who the U.S. envoy will be. Evidently, the OIC will draw conclusions about the seriousness of U.S. intentions by looking at the envoy's background and relationship with the president.
In a phone interview, he expressed full appreciation of the president's announcement and said the organization looks forward to dialogue with the United States to protect OIC member states' interests, as well as developing and improving understanding between the U.S. and OIC member states.
The Muslim world remains suspicious about whether America's real enemy is Islam. Recently, Brigitte Gabriel, author of "Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America," spoke at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va. "[I]f a Muslim who is a practicing Muslim, who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day — this practicing Muslim who believes in the teaching of the Koran cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States of America," she said. "[The P]entagon concluded a study last year where they said that the driving factor behind all the terrorist activities in the world is the Koran. Nobody has the guts to come forward and say that." By hosting Ms. Gabriel at the college, the U.S. military has made yet another strategic mistake: not understanding that it is creating the impression in the Muslim world that the military in this country endorses her ideas.
On the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center, Mr. Bush said, "This enemy falsely claims that America is at war with Muslims and the Muslim faith, when in fact it is these radicals who are Islam's true enemy." Mr. Ihsanoglu has expressed a desire for cooperation with the United States in dealing with common problems. Now the ball is in Mr. Bush's court. He made the right decision by officially opening a direct communication channel with the OIC.
The OIC, however, is not seen as an effective world body. It has controversial members ranging from dictatorships to state sponsors of terror, from countries ruled by Shariah law to secular democracies. Alas, its stand on issues related to Islamist ideology, which may or may not be limited to Hamas, Hezbollah and definitely the women's freedom and dignity, is problematic — to say the least. Yet Mr. Ihsanoglu believes that modernization must happen. As the first elected secretary-general, he wants to take the organization in that direction. He believes in evolution rather than revolution, and realizes that change takes time, so the most important investment is in social and economic projects.
There is a lot of room for cooperation between the OIC and America. If America uses this opportunity well, the power game between it and Russia over the Muslim world could change dramatically.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.