Should Ukraine Become a Member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?
In the context of the next wave of separatism in Donbas, some events concerning Crimea have occurred without much notice. Actually, some analysts believe that Russia has provoked the situation in eastern Ukraine specifically to draw attention away not only from the occupation of Crimea, but also from the huge economic and social problems, which have emerged on the peninsula.
In particular, last week the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine once again demonstrated a somewhat superficial understanding of the Crimean situation and, for political reasons, has not been able to provide the Crimean Tatar people with the indigenous status. The respective bill was submitted for revision. Hopefully, it will become law, and soon. But at the same time, one of the leaders of the Crimean Tatar people and MP of Ukraine Mustafa Dzhemilev continues his attempts to activate the international community to protect the interests of the Crimean Tatars. Visits of the informal leader of the Mejlis (now this representative body is headed by Refat Chubarov) to Brussels and New York are quite known – the Ukrainian press covered these events rather closely.
Less visible, but in terms of real support, no less important was Mustafa Dzhemilev’s recent visit to the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIS) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and his meeting with Secretary General Iyad Madani. The meeting was held April 10 at the initiative of the Iyad Madani and was attended by heads of structural units of the organization. Last month the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars sent to the Secretariat of the OIS a letter asking for support for the rights of the Crimean Tatar people. In response Iyad Madani proposed to assist Ukraine in entering the OIS. The OIS, which has existed since 1969 (until 2011 is was called the Organization of the Islamic Conference), now unites 57 countries, mainly those where Islam is recognized as the state religion. A state with a significant Muslim minority, Russia is part of the OIS as an observer.
Can Ukraine apply for observer status or become a full-fledged member? Definitely yes. Keep in mind that, despite the rather cautious and neutral rhetoric caused by the tensions among members, the OIS’s course is usually directed by the most powerful players in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although recently there has been some tension between these two "brotherly" countries, their foreign policy goals are quite similar. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia supported the decision of the UN General Assembly to condemn the illegal annexation of the Crimea, and Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh was perceived by many analysts as an attempt to agree on lowering oil prices in order to weaken Russia’s influence. And although the Gulf countries have their own interests in relations with Russia and China, their main foreign partner remains the United States. Thus, the present position of the OIS (despite such countries as Sudan and Syria supporting Russia’s actions) in general supports Ukraine. In order to become an observer in the organization, Ukraine must submit a formal application and, given the current political situation, this application can be fully realized. Finally, in addition to yet another signal of Ukraine’s disagreement with the annexation of Crimea, this would contribute to the development of cooperation between Ukraine and Muslim countries, first of all with the powerful players in the Middle East. Secretary General Iyad Madani, as the press service of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis reports, said that the OIS is ready to support educational and cultural projects aimed at preserving and developing the Islamic heritage of the Crimean Tatars. Since many Crimean Tatars are now leaving Crimea and settling on the mainland of Ukraine, this support could play a very important role. According to official figures alone, the number of such persons has reached several thousand. In fact, Ukraine could become a base for the protection of rights of the Crimean Muslims who, unfortunately, were divided by an illegally established border.
The Islamic Development Bank (IDB), which at one time was created at the initiative of OIS, is also ready to support the Crimean Tatars. This was announced in Jeddah at a meeting between Mustafa Dzhemilev and IDB Vice President Ahmet Tiktik. Since the cooperation with the Crimean authorities seems impossible, receiving financial assistance for Crimean Tatars can only be mediated by the Ukrainian state. Ukraine's membership in the OIS would become a considerable step in the development of such projects.
Of course, Middle East policy requires long consultation and sensibility and cooperation does not take place as fast as it does in other international organizations. But today the OIS is giving quite clear signals to Ukrainian leadership that it is open to cooperation. And so the events in Crimea, where almost half of all Muslims in Ukraine live, should be regulated by involving the international Islamic community. It is necessary to encourage Ukrainian Muslims to make more contacts with foreign Muslims, and for Islamic leaders to visit Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is one of the few states in the former Soviet Union where freedom of religion is real, not just declarative. This, among other things, will facilitate Ukraine's relations with the leading countries of the Middle East – and this can lead to long-term political and economic benefits.