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International Meetings and Organizations

Muslim intellectuals first proposed the idea of holding international Islamic congresses during late 1800s. They were looking for a way to unite Muslims in the fight against Western imperialism. Throughout the 1900s, Muslim leaders and activists convened meetings in an effort to obtain Islamic consensus for particular causes. Some of these congresses led to the formation of permanent international Islamic organizations that promoted interaction among Muslim peoples and states.

Vying for Support.

The Muslim reformist movement and its leading journal, Al-manar, began promoting an international congress in the late 1890s. Leaders of the Ottoman Empire opposed the idea, however, and prevented the meeting from taking place. The Ottoman sultan feared that such a large gathering of Muslims would undermine his own religious authority and lead to political unrest.

International Meetings and Organizations

The Organization of the Islamic Conference was established in 1971 as a way to promote unity among Muslim nations. Here members attend the opening session of the organization's 2003 meeting in Iran.



Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP Photo

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After World War I ended in 1918 and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a number of Muslim leaders and activists called for Islamic congresses. Some sought wider Muslim support against non-Muslim enemies. Others desired the title of caliph, which they hoped to secure through the approval of a Muslim assembly. Among the topics of discussion at meetings during the 1920s and 1930s were the problems associated with the abolition of the caliphate by Turkey, the Arab struggle against British rule, and Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine).

Each of the early congresses resolved to create a permanent organization and to convene additional meetings. Their resolutions failed, however, as a result of disagreements among competing Muslim groups or intervention by European powers. During the 1940s and 1950s, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim regions of India led attempts to establish an international Islamic organization, but they faced severe opposition from the secular governments of Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser led a popular movement for Arab nationalism aimed at the political reunification of all Arab-speaking states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. In the name of this movement, the Egyptian government suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Islamic fundamentalist organization. Egyptian authorities also launched a propaganda campaign that attacked Saudi Arabia's system of government.

In response to these events, Saudi Arabia organized a Pan-Islamic movement and sponsored the establishment of the Muslim World League in 1962 . The league, which was based in Mecca, assembled numerous congresses of Muslim activists and religious scholars from abroad, especially from among the Muslim Brotherhood. Not to be outdone, Egypt organized similar meetings in Cairo. The actions inspired a series of “dueling” congresses in Mecca and Cairo, each claiming the right to define Islam in a way that supported their country's policies.

Islamic Solidarity.

After Israeli forces defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and occupied large Arab territories in 1967 , the movement for Arab nationalism lost support. Instead, Muslim countries united to defend their shared interests. Toward that end, the first Islamic summit was held in Morocco in 1969 . In May 1971 , the participating states established a permanent association, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The organization's activities fall into three broad categories. First, the organization provides moral support to Muslim states and movements engaged in conflicts with non-Muslims. For example, it has endorsed Muslim resistance movements in Afghanistan and the Philippines. Second, the organization mediates disputes between its own members, although it lacks military forces for peacekeeping. Finally, the OIC sponsors a variety of institutions that promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation among Muslims worldwide. The most influential of these institutions is the Islamic Development Bank. Funded by the wealthier OIC states, it finances development projects in poor Muslim countries.

United or Divided?

As a major financial contributor of the OIC, Saudi Arabia has wielded considerable influence in the organization. For this reason, the OIC has not had unanimous support throughout the Muslim world. During the 1980s, for example, Iran virtually ignored the OIC and convened frequent congresses of its own, including the International Conference to Support the Islamic Revolution of the People of Palestine.

During the 1990s, a growing number of Islamic movements acquired legitimacy and power. Consequently, they launched their own congresses, such as the World Islamic Popular Gathering, which was held in Jordan in 1990 . The large number of organizations that convened Islamic conferences during the 1990s reflected the high degree of competition for authority among Islamic nations. All of these competing organizations and their congresses help to unite the Muslim world. It remains uncertain, however, whether they will bridge the differences among Muslims or serve only to widen them. See also Muslim Brotherhood; Nationalism; Youth Organizations.

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