The Fire Has Not Been Extinguished Yet

On the morning of August 21, 1969, smoke began to rise from the Qibli Mosque located within the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The fire, which was intervened shortly after its start but could not be extinguished for three hours, started on the southeast facade of the mosque and later spread to the central part. Despite all efforts, the flames could not be prevented from turning the historic pulpit brought to Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 into ashes. The damage to the structure was so extensive that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan could only complete the extensive restoration process, which would last for years, with a expenditure of 9 million dollars.

Following the fire, as expected, intensive protest demonstrations were organized both within and outside of Palestine. Israel found itself facing a major popular uprising in East Jerusalem, which it had occupied just a year earlier. All roads to Al-Aqsa were closed, the old city was filled with thousands of police officers, and strict measures were taken to prevent protests from escalating.

The first question Palestinians asked was, “Why did the fire break out?” The initial response from the Israeli occupation authorities was that the problem stemmed from an electrical fault. However, Palestinians did not believe this explanation, and rumors spread that the Israeli firefighters who arrived at the scene poured gas instead of water on Al-Aqsa. Shortly after, it emerged that the arsonist was an Australian named Dennis Michael Rohan. Two days after the incident, on August 23, Rohan was arrested by Israeli security forces.

According to initial findings, Rohan was affiliated with a Christian movement called “Church of God.” The reason he set the mosque on fire was to expedite the process of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon in the area, thereby hastening the coming of the Messiah. Israeli police noted after his initial interrogation that Rohan was psychologically disturbed, and it was announced that he had been placed in a clinic. At the request of his family, Rohan was deported from Israel to Australia on May 14, 1974, and it was announced that he died in 1995 while undergoing treatment.

The Arab public never believed that Dennis Michael Rohan was a Christian or suffered from psychological illness. Allegations that Rohan was a Zionist, had connections with Israel, and was even tasked by Israel to set fire to Al-Aqsa are still loudly voiced.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), established under the leadership of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, following this tragic fire, held its inaugural summit in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, from September 22 to 25, 1969, with the participation of heads of state or government of Islamic countries. The organization, whose establishment was decided at the extraordinary summit, held the following year its first meeting of foreign ministers. During this meeting, it was decided that the OIC’s headquarters would be in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, “until Jerusalem is liberated.” According to the charter, once Jerusalem is liberated, the OIC’s headquarters would automatically move to Jerusalem.

The summit in Rabat was extraordinary not only because it was the first time since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 that the Muslim world had gathered around the same table but also because it marked the unity of the Muslim world in the emotional aftermath of the burning of Al-Aqsa. After wandering in different directions and facing various challenges for the past 45 years, the Islamic countries had finally united, set common goals for themselves, and demonstrated the will to solve their problems by discussing and consulting among themselves.

Following the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, – as seen in many issues in the Middle East – the OIC also quickly turned into a cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus, abandoning its ‘grand’ goals. Although it became the largest international organization in the world after the United Nations, the effectiveness and scope of the OIC’s activities were relegated to the backseat of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and became subservient to it. In parallel with the lesson the assassination of King Faisal taught to the leaders of oil-rich Arab countries, the OIC was also passivized in a way that it could not achieve its founding goals.

The first person to hold the position of Secretary-General in the structured OIC was a Malaysian: Tunku Abdul Rahman (1972-1973). He was succeeded by Hasan Tuhami from Egypt (1974-1975). The subsequent Secretaries-General, their nationalities, and their terms of office were as follows: Amadou Karim Gaye (Senegal, 1975-1979), Habib Chatty (Tunisia, 1979-1984), Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada (Pakistan, 1985-1988), Hamid Algabid (Niger, 1989-1996), Azeddine Laraki (Morocco, 1997-2000), Abdelouahed Belkeziz (2001-2004), Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (Turkey, 2005-2013), Iyad Madani (Saudi Arabia, 2014-2016), Yousef Al-Othaimeen (Saudi Arabia, 2016-…)

Two noteworthy things in the list: 1) Most of the Secretaries-General had military backgrounds or held high positions in dictatorships, 2) The selected foreign figures had strong connections with Saudi Arabia.

The saga of the OIC organization brings to mind the following reality: While the resources of the Islamic world are sacrificed to daily politics, conflicts, and ambitions, the fire in Jerusalem has yet to be extinguished.

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