As Iraq Burns, Islamic Bloc Meeting to Focus on ‘Palestine,’ Central African Republic

By Patrick Goodenough | June 17, 2014 | 4:09 AM EDT

Shi’ite tribal fighters chant slogans against al-Qaida-inspired ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the southern city of Basra on Monday, June 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Nabil Al-Jurani)

(Update: The State Department said Tuesday that the administration’s special envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, will take part in the meeting in Jeddah, “address the gathering and meet with a number of ministers on the margins of the ministerial.”)

( – Just days before the start of Ramadan – a month dedicated to daytime fasting, Muslim unity and peace – foreign ministers from the bloc of Islamic nations will gather Wednesday at a time when sectarian strife is raging in Iraq and Syria.

The meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and Thursday, under the theme “Exploring areas of Islamic cooperation,” will bring together foreign ministers from most of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s 57 member states, as well as observers and affiliated bodies.

An OIC spokesperson, Maha Akeel, told a briefing last week that core issues to be discussed during the conference will include “Palestine and Al-Quds” (Jerusalem), where she charged that Israeli settlements had been increasing at “an alarming rate.”

There would also be a special session on the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Muslims have been “massively displaced and barbarically annihilated,” Akeel said. (Fighting between Christian and Muslim militias in CAR has killed thousands of people. A U.N. report earlier this month said there was “ample evidence” of war crimes by both sides in the conflict, which erupted in March 2013 when an Islamic rebel alliance toppled the Christian president.)

Also on the agenda, according to Akeel, would be the conflict in Syria, Boko Haram’s violent campaign in Nigeria, the situations in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and “Islamophobia.”

Akeel gave the briefing on Tuesday, the same day Sunni fighters led by the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

Despite expressions of global concern about the deepening crisis in Iraq and the potential for the conflict to spread further across the region, the OIC’s Jeddah-based secretariat has issued no statement on the matter.

The OIC’s membership comprises predominantly Muslim countries stretching from South America to South East Asia. The vast majority are Sunni, but Shi’ite-majority countries – Iran, Iraq and Bahrain – are also members.

The bloc’s secretariat has often had to walk a careful line on conflicts that divide its membership, such as during the 1991 Gulf War, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, and a 10-year conflict between Libya and Chad in the 1970s-80s.

But in recent years the rising tide of sectarian violence – primarily in Iraq, then in Syria as the civil war gathered pace – has posed arguably the biggest challenge yet to an organization whose stated goals include strengthening unity and solidarity in the worldwide Islamic ummah (community).

Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam and his closest allies are Shi’ite Iran and the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

The anti-Assad opposition is backed by leading Sunni countries, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and comprises both mainstream militia and jihadists, including ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliate Al Nusrah.

From the Gulf states to Egypt to Lebanon, some Sunni and Shi’ite clerics have stoked tensions, inciting their adherents to take up arms against followers of the other sect in Syria.

Sunni demonstrators chant pro-Islamic ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) slogans and wave al-Qaeda banners in Mosul on Monday, June 16, 2014. (AP Photo)

ISIS, the group formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, seeks a caliphate encompassing both Syria and Iraq. It controls large swathes of northeastern Syria and is currently focused on spreading its control in Iraq.

Its advances in Mosul, Tikrit and beyond, and the posting of photos appearing to show mass executions of its captives, have prompted Shi’ite clerics to call on Shi’ites to take up arms against the Sunni militias. Iran has reportedly sent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units to help secure Baghdad against the jihadists.

At the start of Ramadan last year, then-OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urged warring Muslims to set aside hostility during what he called “a month of purity, serenity and security.”

By the time the fasting month was over, however, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported well over 2,000 additional deaths in the fighting.

Ramadan 2014 begins next Saturday, June 28.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow