Bangladesh and the OIC

Syed Muazzem Ali

The overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh are Muslims. It is natural that the country, after its independence, would be keen on establishing close relations with all other Muslim countries, particularly the countries in the Middle East. Most of the Middle Eastern countries, however, had initially viewed the emergence of Bangladesh as a “break-up” of Pakistan. At that time, Pakistan was the largest Muslim country and they had thought that its “dismemberment” would weaken the Muslim world's unity and solidarity.

Bangladesh sought to remove the nagging misconception in the Arab world by sending high-level emissaries to explain her independence struggle in its proper perspective. Dhaka also took a firm and principled stand on the core issue of Palestine and Jerusalem, expressed its full support for, and solidarity with, the Palestinian and Arab people, and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all occupied territories. Soon thereafter, some Arab countries namely Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya recognized Bangladesh. The non-Arab Asian Muslim countries, like Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey had recognized Bangladesh soon after its independence and established diplomatic relations with her.

When the Arab-Israel war broke out in 1973, Bangladesh not only supported the Arab and Palestinian cause, but also sent a medical team and relief supply. This was deeply appreciated by Arab countries and there was a significant change in their attitude towards Bangladesh. This in turn, helped her to gain membership of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) at the Algiers Summit in 1973. Since almost all the Muslim countries were members of the NAM, this automatically paved the way for Bangladesh's recognition by those countries.

A dramatic breakthrough took place at the Second Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore, which began its deliberations on 21 February 1974. It had been earlier agreed, in principle, that Bangladesh would be formally admitted to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) at the Summit. Bangabandhu, however, took the principled position that unless Pakistan formally extends its recognition, Bangladesh would not be able to attend the Lahore Summit. The Muslim leaders pressurized Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto to recognize Bangladesh. A high OIC Ministerial level delegation, headed by Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, who was also a brother of the Emir, came to Dhaka to escort Bangabandhu to the Summit. This was a major diplomatic gain for Bangladesh, and fully consolidated her position in the Muslim world.

War-ravaged Bangladesh surely needed substantial economic aid and other forms of assistance from oil-rich Arab countries. Bangladesh skillfully played her active role in the multilateral arena to promote bilateral cooperation with these countries. Within a few months of joining the OIC, Bangladesh was admitted as a member of the United Nations (UN) and started playing a highly active role in all its deliberations. Within a period of four years, Bangladesh was elected a member of the UN Security Council in 1978.

During Bangladesh's two-year tenure (1979-80) at the Security Council, she extended her steadfast support for the Arab and the Palestinian cause on the question of Middle East. In appreciation, she was included as a member of the OIC Al Quds Committee.

Bangladesh also firmly opposed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and called for an emergency meeting of the OIC for taking a collective action on the issue. When war broke out between Iran and Iraq, Bangladesh as a Council member exercised its moderating influence on both sides, and urged them to peacefully resolve all bilateral disputes. This helped her in becoming a member of the OIC Peace Committee. Likewise, Bangladesh played a pro-active role in protecting rights of Muslim minorities in Cyprus and the Philippines.

On economic and social issues Bangladesh, as the coordinator of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) at the UN and at the Group of 77, played a pioneering role in those forums as well as at the OIC, for special assistance to the LDCs. At the OIC, she also proposed formation of an Islamic Common Market to facilitate greater trade and economic ties among Muslim countries. Bangladesh also coordinated emergency assistance to OIC countries affected by natural disasters.

OIC building, Jeddha

As a founding member of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), Bangladesh received currency support, short term trade financing, disaster relief, grants and loans from the bank. She also took the initiative for the setting up of the Islamic University of Technology in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi nationals have also served in high positions in OIC and IDB Secretariats in Jeddah

This highly multilateral role helped Bangladesh forge close bilateral ties with all the Muslim countries, particularly with the oil-rich Arab countries. Bangladesh sought and received substantial bilateral aid from these countries in various nation-building projects during the critical initial years of her nationhood. Bangladesh was also able to establish trade ties with these countries.

The surge of oil prices in 1974 gave a new impetus to the oil-rich Arab countries to intensify their development process. They needed huge manpower in their modernization drive. Bangladesh took advantage of the situation, and a large number of our skilled and semi-skilled manpower was exported to these countries. The figure has steadily grown over the period of years, and it is estimated that currently about two and half million Bangladeshis are working in the Middle East. Consequently, remittances sent by expatriates have emerged as the leading foreign exchange earner for Bangladesh. From Saudi Arabia alone, Bangladeshi nationals, numbering about 1.4 million, have remitted about US$ 3.5 billion last year.

The high point of Bangladesh's relations with the oil-rich Gulf countries was reached during the Gulf War when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, Bangladesh firmly and categorically asked for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and also participated in the multinational forces, which liberated Kuwait. This had a dramatic impact on our bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries. Bangladesh was no longer a fellow Muslim country but an ally in the war to protect their sovergnity and territorial integrity.

After the Gulf war, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia offered generous economic assistance to Bangladesh, and there was a substantial rise in the recruitment of skilled and semi-skilled manpower from Bangladesh to the Gulf countries. Bangladesh's exports to the Gulf countries have grown and she received concessional terms on import of oil from them. As regards bilateral economic assistance, Saudi Arabia alone has so far given US $ 907.91 million to Bangladesh during the past three decades. Out of this, US$ 588.00 million was grant and US$ 319.91 million was loan. From Kuwait, Bangladesh has so far received US$ 380 million. Likewise, Bangladesh has established substantial trade and economic ties with United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Bahrain.

Bangladesh also maintains friendly and cooperative ties with other major non-Arab Muslim countries in the Middle East. Iran has substantial trade and economic ties with Bangladesh and is a large market for her jute goods and tea. Bangladesh's participation in the UN Peacekeeping operations on the Iran-Iraq border also created goodwill at government and public levels. During Rafsanjani's State visit in 1995, first ever by an Iranian President to Bangladesh, a number of agreements were signed for the setting up of an oil refinery as well as establishment of joint venture projects in power and agro-based industries. A tripartite agreement was also signed between Iran, Turkmenistan and Bangladesh to facilitate transit of Bangladesh's exports to Central Asia.

Bangladesh-Turkish relations have always been friendly and cooperative. Bangladesh has been one of the few Muslim countries which has consistently supported the rights of Turkish minorities in Cyprus at the UN and all other multilateral forums. Bangladesh's exports to Turkey have steadily grown and she all along had balance of trade in her favor. Bangladesh also supported Turkey in the launching of D-8 initiative among the eight most populous Muslim countries.

What are the challenges before the Muslim World in this post 9/11 era? The biggest challenge before them is to restore the image of Islam and to control the Islamic militants. It is true that the West, for its own reasons, had promoted contemporary Islamic militancy during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Osama Bin Laden and other Mujahideen fighters from different Muslim countries had received equipment and training from them. At that time, they had fought valiantly for nine years and had liberated Afghanistan from foreign intervention. But once the Soviets withdrew, the West lost interest in them.

It is also true that after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Islamic World was made the new ideological target for the West, and Muslims came under renewed persecution not only in Palestine and in other occupied Arab territories but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Kosovo and other parts of the world. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been a virulent Islam-phobia campaign in the West. The US-led attack, the continuing devastating war in Iraq, and the spiraling cycles of violence in the occupied Arab territories, have created new fury in the Muslim World.

The mainstream Muslims, who are moderates and peace-loving, looked on helplessly as extremist elements went ahead and killed innocent people in various parts of the world as well as in their own countries. One can understand, even if one does not support, suicide bombings by militants to liberate their own countries from foreign occupation. However, the killing of innocent people in New York, London, or Madrid has not in any way promoted the cause of suppressed Muslims under foreign occupation. Instead, it has given a bad image to the great religion of Islam, which stands for peace, and also jeopardized lives of millions of Muslims in various parts of the world. What is worse, the terrorist attacks have led to death of innocent people in the Muslim world itself.

Against this backdrop, the third extra-ordinary Summit of the OIC was held in the Holy city of Makkah in December 2005. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, in his inaugural address, urged all Muslim countries to exercise moderation and to restore the image of Islam by collectively combating all forms of terrorism and extremism. He said; “it is heartbreaking for us to see how our glorious civilization slipped from the exalted graces of dignity to the ravines of frailty. How painful it is that the ideology sprouted forth by criminal minds has unleashed wanton evil and corruption on earth, and that the ranks of our Ummah united in the lofty heights of its glory have turned into helplessness.”

The two-day Summit has categorically rejected “extremism” and urged member states “to fight terrorism in every possible manner”. The Summit also pledged to develop an educational curriculum to promote tolerance, understanding, dialogue and diversity and reform the Islamic jurisprudence to counter extremist ideologies and thoughts. The Summit also adopted “The Makkah declaration which underscored “the true principles and common vision of a moderate Islam” and a ten-year program of action to enhance the effectiveness of the OIC.

The absence of democratic institutions is also one of the main sources of terrorism. It is necessary to firmly establish democratic institutions and practices in the Muslim countries so that their dissidents could freely air their voices. Otherwise, they would continue to fall victims to extremists and fanatics and resort to violent and counter-productive actions. In the final analysis, a dialogue between the Muslim world and the West would be meaningful only when the Muslim countries reform and democratize themselves.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.

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