Desperate people often do desperate things. This is perhaps the only way to explain the visit to Jerusalem by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary General, Iyad Madani. Although it was not the first ever undertaken by a serving OIC official this was viewed as a regrettable setback.
Following a brief meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Madani and his entourage had to endure a humiliating delay of two hours, courtesy of Israeli occupation forces, before they were allowed to enter the holy city and Al-Aqsa Mosque. With an evident sense of triumphalism, the visiting Saudi-born official declared that it was his right and the right of every Muslim to pray in Al-Aqsa, the third most sacred mosque in Islam. No one can question this. However, the controversy over the visit was not about his right to pray there but whether or not he should have gone there at all in coordination with the Israeli occupation authorities.
Not surprisingly, the Islamic movement in Israel has roundly condemned the visit because it appeared to convey some degree of legitimacy upon Israel as an occupying power. In a press release, the movement reaffirmed its stance that it will be the first to welcome Muslim and Arab visitors to Jerusalem when the city becomes the "capital of liberation and not the capital of tourism."
That position, though contrary to the official stance of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, is understandable, especially given the fact that Palestinians, even from within the Old City itself, are barred from worshipping in Al-Aqsa. Indeed, there seems to be very little to celebrate when millions of Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, are denied access to Jerusalem by Israel's apartheid wall and racist policies.
Opposition to visits to Jerusalem is not confined to the Islamic movement in Palestine or the International Union of Muslim Scholars. The latter has a long-standing fatwa – edict – prohibiting visits under the shadow of Israel's military occupation. The same can be said of Al-Azhar University and the Coptic Church in Egypt. Both rejected an invitation to send senior delegates to join the OIC visit. The late Coptic Pope Shenouda III famously confronted Anwar Sadat over his visit to Jerusalem. He remained steadfast until his death to the view that, "From the Arabic national point we should not abandon our Palestinian brothers and our Arabic brothers by normalising our relations with the Jews… From the church point of view, Copts who go to Jerusalem betray their church in the case of 'Al-Sultan Monastery' that Israel refuses to give to the Copts."
As such, Copts who visit Jerusalem face excommunication because such visits will bring harm to the Christian and Muslim people of the region.
At the heart of the debate about Madani's visit is the OIC's seeming trajectory towards the normalisation of relations with Israel. As early as last May the organisation called for the Jordanian, Palestinian and Saudi ministries of tourism to coordinate efforts to encourage Muslims to visit Jerusalem.
The underlying fear in the region is that this initiative will pave the way for normalisation and recognition of the Israeli occupation, albeit in the guise of religious tourism. Is tourism the best that the OIC can offer to end the occupation? Let us not forget that the OIC was established in 1969 "as a result of criminal arson of Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem." Almost fifty years on the organisation and its 52 member countries have made little progress towards doing something about such attacks on the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa.
There is clearly a political context to Madani's visit to Jerusalem; this was made clear within days with the PA's attempt to get the UN Security Council to fix a deadline for an end to Israel's occupation. Although the vote against the PA's draft resolution is seen widely as a failure of Palestinian diplomacy, others must bear some responsibility, namely the Arab League and the OIC. After all, both have always professed that Palestine is the heart of the Islamic world and Jerusalem is the heart of Palestine.
The fact is that the days of gesture politics are long gone. What matters today in the face of Israeli intransigence and western complicity is that the OIC utilises all the levers of power at its disposal. There is no shortage of economic options that can be adopted by its members.
Instead of engaging in photo visits and opening-up back channels for the distribution of Israeli products, the OIC would serve Jerusalem much better by activating a total boycott of Israel. This has already been written in OIC summit resolutions but not implemented.
If only it has the political will to do so, the OIC is well positioned to ensure Israel's international isolation. It does not need the UN to do this even though it would help if the Islamic organisation mobilised its members to secure a General Assembly resolution to this effect. The truth of the matter is that the OIC is ineffective and in disarray. It must put its house in order, for if it cannot even get its members like Nigeria to support its position on Palestine, what sort of future does it have?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.