The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in the final communiqué of its 13th summit meeting last week, put its weight behind the Islamic anti-terrorism coalition designed and led by Saudi Arabia. The alliance was announced last December and includes countries like the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia, Chad, and Mali. Its stated aim is to combat the emerging global threats posed by violent non-state actors. The nature of its composition and work, however, raises some questions: Why does the coalition contain only Sunni Muslim states? Why has there been virtually no progress since its inception and why is its strategy so vague? And finally, is this alliance against terrorism really safeguarding the image of the Islamic world?

The Riyadh-led Islamic military alliance is a step by the Muslim world to protect Islam from being used by extremist organizations for their murky objectives and propaganda. It is a collective step to do what is needed, including potentially conducting joint military operations, to confront violent ideologies and prevent the funding and training of terrorists. Mohammad Bin Salman Al-Saud, Saudi deputy crown prince and Defense Minister, said in a news conference that “the new alliance emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which affected the Islamic world first, before the international community as a whole.” Through this alliance, the Muslim world aims to safeguard the image of Islam as well as ensure human security and safety.

Theoretically, this type of military alliance fits within the collective defense model, in which a group of nations perceives a common threat to their security. Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, member states will be providing different support systems to secure themselves against any terrorist threat. However, this alliance is afflicted by a few challenges. It is economically and militarily-strong states that bear the brunt of contributions to an alliance. But this alliance contains a number of small states too, such as Somalia and Chad, raising concerns of a potential free rider problem. Oral support alone is insufficient for a truly collaborative alliance; thus the precise roles of these weaker states must be established.

The coalition’s membership also raises some red flags. Iran and Iraq are not included. One possible explanation for this is the Shia-Sunni divide in the region. Their exclusion has the potential to inflame sectarian tensions, which non-state actors can use to drive a wedge between countries in the region and further harm already tense relations. This divide could be perceived as the alliance’s intent to protect the ideas of one sect (Sunni) and not the other (Shia). Broadly, communication—both to states and the public—about inclusion in the alliance has not been transparent. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry claimed that he learnt of Pakistan’s inclusion in the alliance from news reports. It is still not clear whether Pakistan has joined the alliance or what kind of role it is likely to play. Indonesia was also not consulted before it was included, and has since declined joining.

Another problem lies in the lack of clarity on the alliance’s strategy. Precious little is known about what the alliance plans to do and how to do it, with Saudi officials having failed to provide clear communication on planning and further action. A vague strategy and the controversy over membership calls into question the alliance’s credibility, and may dissuade other states from joining. Furthermore, it raises concerns over the alliance’s overall effectiveness.

Outlining the steps it plans to undertake and establishing the role of different member states would provide clarity on the alliance’s strategy. The anti-terrorism coalition’s membership should be kept open to all states that wish to join. Since a few states with non-Muslim majority populations are part of the alliance, why not better incorporate the Shiite community? In this way, concerns of the ummah and the broader international community would be more holistically addressed and the alliance would better able to fight terrorism. Pakistan is in a unique position to facilitate more cordial relations between Riyadh and Tehran, so that the Shia-Sunni divide does not hamper the coalition. If the Muslim world really wants to safeguard the image of Islam, which has been appropriated and maligned by certain non-state actors, these issues must be resolved.


Image: Fayez Nureldine-AFP, Getty

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