The Case for Enhancing U.S. Engagement with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

By: Peter Mandaville

May 24, 2022

Amidst a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, American diplomacy needs to explore creative tools and outlets for building relationships and exerting influence. While frequently overlooked as an intergovernmental forum, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is likely in the near future to take on renewed salience as a multilateral broker across the increasingly strategic and interconnected regions of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The United States needs to be at that table, and fully engaged—not just to build positive relations with Muslim-majority countries, but to make sure that a proper OIC strategy is part of how Washington addresses growing Chinese and Russian influence across these regions. Having promised on the campaign trail to appoint a special envoy to the OIC (SEOIC), the need for U.S. President Joe Biden to deliver on this commitment is becoming increasingly urgent in the current strategic environment. This week’s Strategic Dialogue between the U.S. Department of State and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation represents a perfect opportunity to upgrade American engagement with the OIC.

It's worth noting at the outset that the value of U.S. engagement with the OIC has enjoyed a bipartisan consensus over the past two decades. The SEOIC position was initially established by the George W. Bush administration and first held by businessman Sada Cumber, operating out of the State Department’s Office of International Organization Affairs. U.S. diplomatic investment in the OIC continued under Barack Obama, with Rashad Hussain (currently serving as Biden’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom) and then Arsalan Suleman filling the SEOIC seat in succession. When the Donald Trump administration neglected to appoint an SEOIC, the State Department assigned OIC representational duties to the U.S. consul general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the city in which the organization has its headquarters. While fine as a stopgap solution, expecting a dual-hatted diplomat (who already has another full-time leadership role) at a post reporting up through the State Department’s Middle East bureau to be able to cover the full global, intergovernmental mandate of the OIC is untenable going forward.

Another important reason for broadening the geography of U.S. engagement with the OIC has to do with the regional demography of the Muslim world. While the OIC tends to get associated in many peoples’ minds with the Middle East, 60% of the world’s Muslims actually live in Asia. The future of Islam is also increasingly Asian, with the Pew Research Center projecting that by 2030 the four countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world will all be in Asia (Pakistan, Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh). If U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy are in the midst of a “pivot to Asia,” increased engagement with the OIC needs to be part of the plan. 

Working with and through the OIC provides advantages across a wide range of U.S. interests and issues. For example, international Islamic organizations like the OIC represent useful platforms for engaging developments in Afghanistan in ways that can yield greater influence and impact (not to mention less risk) compared to direct American diplomatic efforts. When it comes to the provision of humanitarian relief, it is sometimes possible for U.S. assistance to reach previously inaccessible communities when services are provided in partnership with an entity such as the OIC (as was the case for delivering aid to certain parts of the Central African Republic during acute periods of food insecurity over the past decade). The same goes for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The OIC offers creative angles of engagement on other Biden administration priorities, including climate change, Iran, democracy, and human rights.

Moreover, if the United States fails to re-establish a more fulsome presence at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, its primary geopolitical rivals will be more than happy to fill the vacuum. Russia has a full-time permanent observer mission to the OIC, and the Kremlin has been maneuvering in recent years to exert greater soft power in the Muslim world via an emphasis on traditional religious values. China recently appointed a representative to the OIC alongside financial support for various OIC projects. Notably, the 2019 OIC Ministerial was attended by an 18-member Chinese delegation that lobbied successfully to prevent OIC condemnation of the atrocities committed by Beijing against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Absent dedicated, full-time U.S. representation to the OIC, it risks becoming an unwitting tool of America’s chief competitors.

The ongoing reconfiguration of regional and global politics means that previously neglected international forums are taking on new relevance. The geographic and political space encompassed by the OIC—from Southeast Asia, across the Asian and Eurasian heartland, and into the Middle East, Africa, and the Sahel—is vitally important to the future of American strategic interests. One tangible way to support U.S. global and multilateral equities is to re-establish a dedicated OIC special envoy position. Ongoing day-to-day interfacing with the OIC secretariat via the U.S. consulate in Jeddah is important and should continue, but only a full-time U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be able to oversee the kind of global and multifaceted OIC strategy America needs.

Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Brookings Institution supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.

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