The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is convening this month with a focus on combatting violent extremism. Russia and the United States plan on unveiling their strategies on countering ISIS. The strength of their respective plans will be strategies on ways in which Muslim governments will be involved in the implementation, not ownership. Without a strong voice and a strong role of Muslim communities, then the UNGA will be misconstrued as a convention working to serve only interests outside the Muslim world and not those of the Muslim peoples.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), comprising over 50 Muslim majority countries, can play a significant role in engaging civil society throughout the region. While no single Muslim country can be the voice alongside the US or Russia in counterterrorism policy, the conglomerate group can be a viable mechanism to partner with non-governmental organizations. Saudi Arabia and Iran and Turkey and Pakistan are entangled in geopolitical challenges and cannot lead on effective community-led initiatives to counter ISIS.
The Secretary General of the OIC made the following critique of Western government strategies that are fixated on military means without much concern to its impact on civilian populations:
"We must look beyond just the security paradigm in our efforts to combat terrorism and extremism. Sustainable long-term solutions require stronger civil society engagement, the need to utilize religiously sound counter-messaging and to address socio-economic challenges like unemployment that extremist recruiters exploit."
Herein lies the main problem with a US-led (and worse, Russia-led) initiative -- they are not based on the interests of indigenous peoples of the region and have no authenticity. Similar to the escapades of the war on drugs in Latin America, the war on terror in the Middle East has undermined governments of the region and has empowered extremists to take central stage in speaking for the interests of the people.
The OIC has focused its strategy on working with non-governmental actors who are integral parts of positive social change for the region. The OIC's aim is to empower leaders within civil society.
The message of ISIS is simple -- the West is at war with Islam and will never share power with any Muslim country, nor will it ever accept Muslims in the West as equal citizens. The effective counter to this is not more war and military strategies. Rather, the focus of the UNGA is to provide a platform for groups like the OIC to develop civil society as the counter to the extremist narrative. That will require reform within Muslim countries, a necessary factor in changing the status quo within the region. Reform coming from within is more suitable than emanating from foreign governments.
We heard from President Obama about the respect he and the United States have for Islam. That will fall on deaf ears in the Middle East, as the latest round of refugees is a reminder that the West has turned its back on the people. Nearly 95% of refugees are living in Jordan, Lebanon or another Muslim country. Those who have the financial means to reach the West are met with resistance and suspicion. Also, if the US and Russia are seen as giving Bashar Al-Assad any concession, then that will embolden ISIS.
We need to partner with Muslim voices. The OIC is one body that has the means to find those authentic leaders within civil society.