For careful observers of international diplomacy, summit conferences are largely ceremonial events with considerable media hype and symbolism, and more often than not, little substance. There were those who assumed leading up to the 13th session of the Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul that this occasion would not be an exception to the rule. But still, at a critical juncture where Islamophobia, xenophobia and discrimination began to dominate mainstream political discourses in the West, the image of ordinary Muslims was being associated with that of a terrorist via publicized activities of murky organizations such as DAESH and al-Qaida. The tornado of sectarianism continues to play havoc in the Middle East and wider Islamic world and millions of Muslim refugees are fleeing war and attrition toward Europe. That is why this summit was truly special.This OIC summit was also special because Turkey was hosting the proceedings for the first time in the history of the institution despite the country's diplomatic and economic ascendance over the last decade-and-a-half. Furthermore, the diplomatic community in the Islamic world was perfectly aware of the frank and bold style of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who prefers to speak openly about major problems, weaknesses and sensitivities of the ummah, rather than delving into the usual ceremonial antics. Therefore, record levels of participation by presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary speakers of around 40 countries confirmed the close interest in the summit and the widespread expectation that concrete outcomes for conflict resolution and deeper cooperation might emerge out of the proceedings.
Erdoğan did not disappoint the pundits with his elaborate, challenging and critical speech in which he lamented sectarianism as a curse for the ummah looking right into the eyes of some of the leaders who have perpetrated it for years. He also stressed the need to take common responsibility for the millions of Muslim refugees struggling to get to Europe and to resolve conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. In his typical practical mentality, Erdoğan also brought concrete proposals to the table such as the establishment of an OIC Center for Police Cooperation and Coordination to fight terror and other international crimes, an OIC Red Crescent that would coordinate emergency aid and humanitarian assistance in member countries, a high level OIC Women's Council to pursue women's rights and an OIC Center for Arbitration that could resolve trade disputes among members rather than taking them to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He also spoke of the need to revive proposals for Muslim representation among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, citing his expression, "the world is bigger than five."
As known, the OIC is the second-largest international organization after the United Nations with 56 member states - Syria is suspended at the moment. But as such, it is an extremely difficult institution to govern as it includes a diverse set of countries with a diverse set of national interests, international alliances, colonial legacies and regional alignments. OIC members include members of regional groupings such as the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), African Union and Arab League. On top of that, it is no secret that there are serious diplomatic differences, border disputes, geopolitical turf wars and regional dominance struggles among some of its members, which make matching real interest configurations and the idealism of the ummah doubly difficult.
But as we enter the two-year period in which Turkey will hold the OIC term presidency, it would not be surprising to witness Erdoğan and the Turkish government pushing to materialize their concrete proposals for institutionalized cooperation. This approach is more viable in the medium term, as resolving bilateral problems among member states might prove more complicated than forming multilateral institutional bodies that represent deeper collaboration in thematic areas. Another highlight of Turkey's OIC term presidency will be mobilizing the energies of the civil forces across the Islamic world such as business communities, universities, civil society groups, youth and women to create synergies of common progress. As such, the first OIC Young Leaders Summit in Istanbul was a true success and similar initiatives are bound to flourish over the course of the next two years.