The world has a secret weapon against ISIS. It’s so dull, however, that I am confident that even in revealing it, I do no harm. It’s the Istanbul Process, and don’t worry: I hadn’t heard of it, either.
I spent the summer after college interning with the Organization of Islamic Conference, which seemed a fitting coda to what I assumed was an exceptional academic year, which started with the September 11 attacks but which, I presumed, would revert to a Clintonian normal, that brief window of a decade that may have been the length of America’s unipolar moment. For we never went back.
Fourteen years later, we have more uncertainty, worse extremism and endemic misunderstanding. What seemed a brief war against a marginal extremist group has turned into the longest war in American history. No end is in sight.
So when the since reminted Organization of Islamic Cooperation — the acronym’s the same, however — asked me to be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in June, to write about a two-day meeting of the Istanbul Process, it seemed the right and fulfilling thing to do. They’d pay my airfare. In exchange, I’d publish my uncensored responses to what I saw and heard. A few weeks after both sides accepted the deal, however, an uncle asked, “Where are you traveling to next?”
Family has learned to ask me this in lieu of “When are you getting a real job?”
“Saudi Arabia,” I volunteered, and immediately regretted it. My mother warned me: Don’t tell people about anything you want to happen until it’s happened. Though I had an itinerary and had begun my preparatory research, my visa mysteriously failed to arrive. (Perhaps attacking Saudi aggression against Yemen had not been a good idea.) Though it was too bad. Because I wanted to go. The more I learned, the more I had to know if this Istanbul Process business could achieve any kind of resolution. What if it didn’t?
When I was young, there was neither a full-on invasion of Iraq nor anything approaching ISIS. But many of the sentiments driving extremism were already there and they have largely gone unaddressed. Hence the proliferation of radical Islam: It’s what happens when you head-butt the causes and ignore the effects. Critical to any etiology is the question of perceived impotence. Then and now, many Muslims believe the deck is stacked against them (us). Extremism begins with the answer you choose for whom to blame all this on, not whether it exists in the first place.
The OIC is an apt example. Yes, the OIC is the world’s second-largest intergovernmental organization (the U.N. is No.1), but when I was interning for the OIC, I found that many U.N. staffers had simply never heard of it. That’s 57 countries whose association didn’t register among people who make it their business to know about other countries and their concerns. Or look at the U.N. Security Council for more. The U.K. and France count as much as China, but no Muslim country is represented. Sure, by 2050, France and Russia will have substantial Muslim minorities, but we hardly think of France or Russia as countries eager to represent Muslim concerns.
While the OIC is often mocked for its ineffectiveness, it can only represent a Muslim world that has largely underperformed. Debate all you want on the causes, but the condition is undeniable. I certainly hope no one believes this is the best the Muslim world can do.
As an American Muslim, I know I’m a minority among Americans, and a minority among Muslims. And sometimes being on several sidelines all at once has multiple advantages, in insights and expectations. Even I can see, for example, that this global imbalance is unfair and unlikely to last very long. Muslims are rarely counted, except as threats to be managed, suppressed or demonized. Religious Muslims feel even more marginalized and persecuted, especially after the Arab Spring’s vicious authoritarian crackdown: By telling Islamists that they have no place at the table, the democratically minded among them have been sidelined and the radical among them empowered.
Part of the blame has to do with foreign invasions and interference. Part of the blame goes to domestic authoritarianism, which has tortured and persecuted its opponents for so long, it’s not hard to see why they’ve become what they now represent: A threat to the world. Regardless of the causes, to fight what is a global menace, we need the Muslim world, and the West, to cooperate.
Can a more unlikely alliance be imagined?
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Enemy
Some people believe Islamophobia’s made up. It’s a ruse to deny criticism of Islam, an excuse to avoid reckoning with dangerous extremism. Meanwhile some believe Islamic extremism is an exaggerated threat, or even a wholly Western ploy by which to justify conquest and control. Except two different, even apparently contradictory things, can be true. One can be victim and victimizer at the same time. The world is a complicated place.
For many Muslims, Islamophobia isn’t the abstract criticism of Islam. And never has been. It’s just the latest iteration of a longstanding Eurocentric and white supremacist discourse, which frequently targets those who are different, mocks, derides and subjugates them, and apportions to them a Western dar-al Harb. Emphasis on harb (war). Early European explorers condemned Native Americans for wearing too little; today Muslims are condemned for wearing too much. The effect is the same. This is not to say we haven’t made tremendous moral progress. But it’s hard to undo historical memory, and harder still when contemporary practice appears to confirm past prejudice.
Even as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a young Muslim woman’s right to a headscarf in her employment , France and Belgium see schoolgirls penalized if their clothes appear too modest , a vague and clearly discriminatory standard if ever there was one. At one French amusement park, the New York Times reported a sign forbidding the entry  of dogs, drunks, and — wait for it — the visibly religious. Now, of course, none of that means attacks at Charlie Hebdo didn’t happen, or Garland, Texas, didn’t happen, or that extremism isn’t real.
But some Westerners see this extremism as the cause of the discrimination, and not the other way around. Wouldn’t a reasonable person practice some caution given the circumstance? Whereas many Muslims think the extremism is a product of Western policies, not the other way around. Is it surprising that people turn to violence in response to violence?
That this is a problem should be clear: Combating the proliferation of ISIS requires the world, as it is, talking to each other, when currently they seem to be talking past each other. ISIS exploits existing divides to stick its foot in the door, and then throw a grenade into the room while we’re all bickering. Which is what seems to be happening in the case of the Istanbul Process.
In 1999, the OIC introduced the first of many resolutions requesting the international community to penalize the “defamation of religion.” Western nations fairly feared this might be an attempt to internationalize theocratic policy, giving religion the same rights as people . After all, many OIC member states protect or elevate religion (specifically Islam) and penalize expressions  inconsistent with their preferred (and pliant) interpretation of Islam. And though most OIC member states aren’t theocracies, many Muslims in the Muslim world believe their religion is sacred, or religion generally is, and should be legally protected; religion for them enjoys the same aura the Bill of Rights does for us. In Tunisia, for example, Islam is the religion of state even though Tunisia is commonly defined as a secular democracy.
This indicates something of the nature of the challenge.
But can it not be the case that some Muslims genuinely care about Islamophobia, or desire protection of religious sentiment and belief without implying that they wish to enforce Shariah upon the world imperialistically, hegemonically and xenophobically? After all, I don’t believe the U.S. State Department’s interest in human rights is only and ever a means to extend and advance U.S. interests, although of course sometimes it is. It didn’t matter, anyway: There appeared to be a competition between exclusive values. Years of repeated attempts by the OIC to challenge “defamation of religion” had failed.
If at first you don’t succeed, right?
In 2011, the OIC joined with the United States and the European Union on a consensus resolution, presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Eschewing “defamation of religion,” the resolution dropped demands for abstract protection of religion for the more tangible rights of the religious. That April, the Human Rights Council passed what became known as Resolution 16/18. Eight months later, the General Assembly did as well. (A copy of the resolution can be found here .) Then OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu described the resolution as “a poster child of OIC-U.S.-EU cooperation.”
But while the resolution passed, implementation of the consensus resolution foundered, most of all on what it meant to “criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.” Not because there’s a huge gap between the OIC on the one hand and the West on the other, but because even Western nations disagreed on what “incitement to violence” means. Jeffrey Toobin noted in a piece for CNN that  while in Europe “it’s illegal, even in an academic paper, to deny that the Holocaust took place,” the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the prosecution of “specific, terroristic threats on social media” is illegal. Which is where my trip to Saudi Arabia was supposed to come in: Working out this clash of civilizations.
Rather than allow the valuable potential of future cooperation (on this and other issues) to founder, a meeting of experts was held in late 2011 in Washington, D.C. With the goal of implementing Resolution 16/18, participants agreed to pursue an ongoing dialogue  over points of difference, or the Istanbul Process. The fifth meeting, the one I was supposed to be at, took place June 3 and 4 . On the upside, there’ll be a chance to attend another: A sixth meeting has been scheduled for Chile. A good sign.
Desire to keep the conversation going . How is all this, you might wonder, a secret weapon against ISIS and Islamophobia? You might contrarily see this as a dangerous dialogue to even indulge: an attempt by Muslims to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world by subtler means (though such a perspective ignores any realistic sense of balance of power). Or you might see this as a dead end: How can politically irreconcilable values be reconciled? I take the realist’s view. One might be tempted to dismiss the participants altogether as well-intentioned but unimportant, or irrelevant and incapable, if only for this one fact: These are the only ones we have.
Consider what has happened: The world’s only intergovernmental Muslim organization presents its concerns to the wider international community, and got shot down. But then this same organization goes back to the drawing board and comes up with language agreeable to the General Assembly.
Indeed, every time disagreement has loomed, new language and new strategies  have been found to avoid the threat. We don’t know where we’re headed, but that’s not the point. It’s that we can stay in the same vehicle. In Jeddah’s meeting, for example, participants sidestepped the thorny question of governmental oversight. Instead of focusing on hate speech, which is hard to define and still more dangerous to criminalize, participants decided to “give priority” to empowering civil society leaders, religious scholars and thought leaders to address “the root causes of discrimination based on religion.” Faced with a substantive difference of opinion on the correct response to hate speech, participants made a very astute move : focus not on stopping the bad speech, but on encouraging the good speech.
Now, of course, I’m under no illusions. This won’t make the headlines. Most people won’t know it’s happening. This process doesn’t change the reality of religious theocracy, nor Western support for odious regimes. But it does challenge one of the key narratives upon which extremism depends.
The appeal of a Caliphate, of an ideologically rigorous and expansionist Islamist state, even to a minority — harder to be dismissive of when we know what they’re capable of — is obviously coupled with frustration at the Muslim world’s condition. Muslims are either sheep led to the slaughter or ruled by leaders conniving with the wolves in the slaughter. The selectivity of the perception is part of the problem, but the institutional weakness of modern Islam is hard to deny. Muslims were more politically impactful and culturally influential when smaller in number; today’s Muslims often live in poor, marginal states.
Today Muslims struggle to make themselves heard. They form a disproportionate share of the world’s refugees and are barely represented on global platforms. (The Group of 20 is a welcome exception.) Is it any wonder some folks want to resurrect apparently outdated political forms when the current ones have failed them, and us, so badly? ISIS is not the cause of the problem. It is the effect of the problem. Something must be done to address the weaknesses of Muslim states, individually and collectively.
It is hard to think of anything more responsible than a dialogue of nations and intergovernmental organizations. The keys here being “responsible” and “dialogue.”
Muslims — especially in the Muslim world — need to know that Western governments and the wider international community can and do care about their opinions. The Muslim world, in turn, must understand that Western governments must be convinced its concern for anti-Muslim discrimination is not a means to protect, implement or advance a theocratic agenda, but instead to prevent the marginalization of a religious population — namely, Muslims — already often at the receiving end of violence.
In trying to make their case, Muslims must see that their own language and rhetoric often rebounds against them. Even countries and movements that fight against ISIS practice forms of discriminatory politics and exclude their minorities. Not in the way ISIS does, of course — there is a tremendous distance between these positions — but such discrimination cannot be overlooked. That takes away from, and in fact makes it harder to confront, very real anti-Muslim violence, not just in places where Muslims are victims of Islamic extremism. But in having these conversations, perhaps it is easier for all sides to begin to appreciate and respect the others’ concerns.
That too is a great achievement.
To You, Your Blasphemy and To Me, Mine
Like any Muslim, I am offended by caricatures of the Prophet, and doubly offended by offensive caricatures. Some might say, “It’s just a picture!” To whom I say: To you, your red lines and to me, mine. But when some Muslims argue, “Ban blasphemy,” well: To you, your red lines and to me, mine.
I believe in robust governmental protection for free speech, especially critical and challenging speech, which is an American value and reflects an American context. But I also hold my religion sacred, and am comfortable with this balance of public neutrality and private belief.
Some European nations, coming out of the horror of World War II and legitimately fearing any backsliding, have balanced free speech against the toxic consequences of anti-Semitism. While I wonder why such protections aren’t extended to the legacy of racist colonialism, I don’t begrudge the original protections themselves. I understand them, even as I understand they don’t apply to America. Free speech is not the only value in the world, and every society regularly reassesses the relationships of its values to its needs.
And if societies wish to deal with each other respectfully and cooperatively, they must be open to different concepts of the sacred, not just between themselves, but among themselves. In understanding how sacredness functions in different societies, we can better understand our own, and while we might not respect what others find sacred, we respect their human right to sacredness. That’s the only peaceful way forward for the world.
I offer an American analogy for why this is important, for why the Istanbul Process could mean so much more than it already does. Our constitution is an expression of beliefs we hold universal, even as it is an historic document of compromise between competing political visions. The analogy to international politics isn’t perfect, but it isn’t out of left field. To continue building an inclusive and peaceful planet, we have to balance protecting our dearest beliefs with the need to incorporate other points of view, even ones we find awkward or unreasonable. The wisdom of doing so shouldn’t be underestimated.
The challenge facing Muslim societies internally is inclusion. A good example of what we should like to see are the recent Turkish elections , which saw staunch nationalists, secularists, Islamists and Kurds enter parliament — and the same goes for the international community. Will Islam, the world’s fastest-growing religion, and the West find a modus vivendi? I don’t mean Western Muslims, of course. I mean the Muslim-majority world, much of which wouldn’t define itself as Western. The postwar world order is a valuable achievement, and it is in America’s interest to modify it rather than see it abandoned.
There’s the United States, European Union and OIC, and they’re the players we have. Whether they can find agreement on topics of substantive concern to one another matters hugely. Combating groups like ISIS will require years of sustained effort between groups that have a lot of significant things not in common. These disagreements are such that they may cause any potential alliance to crumble at the first sign of trouble. In the absence of such conversations, therefore, we’d likely have another Arab Spring, or rather I should say another Arab Winter, another lesson that participating in existing institutions will always fail you and that power, for Muslims, can only be found outside and against the system.
How do we think that’ll turn out?