GUYANA, IRAN AND THE OIC

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by Raymond Chickrie
© Copyright September 2003
rchickrie@hotmail.com

Posted September 2003

The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran marked a new beginning of Guyana/Iranian relationship. During the regime of the Reza Shah Phalavi of Iran, the two countries did not establish diplomatic relationship. But after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Guyana and Iran established diplomatic relationship in the 80's and, through various multilateral organizations such as the UN, the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the OIC, has cooperated on various issues. Iran appoints a non-resident ambassador to Guyana, who is based in Caracas.

Guyana's special envoy to the OIC, Dr. Odeen Ishmael, who deals with Iran says, "The relationship is very good. We do have diplomatic relations and consult regularly at the UN and within the OIC. Iran was one of the sponsors of Guyana to become a full member of the OIC." The Ambassador reveal that trade is beginning to take shape between the two countries, transportation is a major factor in not being able to sell Guyanese rice to Iran. The cost of transportation has made it unfeasible, however the Iranians have been purchasing Guyanese jewellery for their markets according to the Washington based Ambassador. "Politically, relations are good. Iran has never attempted to enforce its religious ideas on us. Iran has given also given us much support on debt relief issues at the UN and in the OIC as well. Ambassador Ishmael continues, "We have also received strong support regarding our territorial integrity from Iran." Finally the Ambassador Ishmael revealed, "Iran also is very supportive at the UN of the proposal for a New Global Human Order and was a co-sponsor of the UN resolution on the NGHO."

With the Islamic Republic severing ties with Israel and South Africa in 1979, relationship with Guyana improved tremendously. Reza Shah's close relationship with Israel and South Africa severely damaged its relationship with developing nations. Iran was also isolated by Arab Governments across the Middle East; however, relationship with Iran took a quantum leap after the 1979 Revolution. Guyana and Iran among other developing nations fought against the "racist" regimes in Israel and South Africa. Guyana like Iran at the UN, voted for the famous General Assembly Resolution branding "Zionism as racism."

Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Ali Akbar Velayati held a bilateral meeting in Colombia on 18th of October 1995, during the Non- Aligned Summit. Jagan said, "The Islamic Republic of Iran has made significant gains in many areas and we are interested in having close cooperation with Iran at international forums." (Iranian News Agency). Dr. Jagan extended an invitation to the Iranian Foreign Minister to visit Georgetown.

In July of 1997, special envoy and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Mr. Mahmood Vaezi visited Guyana. In meeting with the Guyanese President, Samuel Hinds, Mr. Vaezi handed him a written message from Iran's President Mr. Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani inviting him to take part in the OIC Summit in Tehran in December 1997. The envoy expressed Iran's willingness to expand relations between the two countries. Guyana in December of 1997 attended the OIC heads of government summit in Teheran, and in July of 2000 an Iranian trade fair and exhibition was held in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. The exhibition was meant to acquaint Guyanese with Iranian goods, while the Iranians examined local items for export, and it was intended to encourage Iranian-Guyanese joint ventures.

It was also in 1996 that Guyana officially became a permanent observer in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). This further strengthened Guyana's ties with the Middle East, coupled with its traditional support for a Palestinian homeland. In 1997, during the 8th Summit of the OIC in Teheran, Iran, Dr Mohammed Ali Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's Ambassador to Washington represented Guyana. With strong support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, Guyana's application for permanent membership in the OIC was accepted in 1998 and Guyana became the 56th member state of the OIC that year. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Clement Rohee was head of the Guyanese delegation to the OIC heads of government summit in Doha, Qatar in 2000.

Dr. Ishmael was a member of the Doha delegation as well. The Ambassador has attended all OIC Heads of States Summit and Foreign Minister Conferences since Guyana's membership. In June of 1999 Ambassador Odeen Ishmael led Guyana's delegation to the twenty-sixth session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. Dr. Odeen Ishmael was also head of the Guyanese delegation in June of 2000 at the 27th session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Most recently, in June of 2001, the Washington based diplomat was once again head of the delegation of Guyana to the 28th Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Bamako, Mali. He is indeed the unofficial ambassador of Guyana to the OIC. Naturally, Guyana's participation in the OIC has strengthened ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their strong support for the Palestinian causes has drawn these two countries closer. Dr. Odeen Ishmael also attended the OIC Foreign Ministers Summit in Tehran in May of 2003.

At the Bamako Conference Guyana made a call for international observers in Palestine. The Palestinian delegation in Mali was very pleased with Guyana's call for international observers, and actually the Guyanese delegation was the only delegation that made this demand. In his speech, Odeen Ishmael said, "In this regard, effective mechanisms must be identified to implement the relevant proposals aimed at achieving a lasting settlement to the situation. Guyana supported the call for international observers to be positioned in Palestinian territory to monitor the situation" (www.guyana.org) according to Ambassador Odeen Ishmael.

The ambassador has represented Guyana's interest in this organization and has shaped his country's strong ties with member states and the politics of the organization. At the OIC and at the UN Guyana continue to champion the fight for a Palestinian homeland. Guyana also supports UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and has called on Israel to implement them. At the Doha Summit, Chairman Arafat held discussion with Ambassador Odeen Ishmael. The Chairman acknowledged Guyana's continued support towards the Palestinian cause and promise to pay an official visit to thank Guyana.

Sunnism and Shism

As in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the process of sunnification in Guyana took place under political competition between Hindus and Muslims. This process of Islamization or the revivalist movement, whose impact has been felt since the 1979 Iranian-Islamic revolution, is an expression of a need for a separate identity. In many of these countries Hindus and Muslims have had cordial relationship.

The revivalist movement is an expression of political dominance. Muslims refused to be dominated by Christians or Hindus in Guyana. Some Muslims in Guyana have entertained the idea of forming a Muslim political party for some time. This indeed happened in the 1970s with the formation of the Guyana United Muslim Party (GUMP) by Ghanie. The party founder was hoping to capture five seats in the Parliament. But he was unsuccessful in rallying the Muslim vote. Guyana's two main political parties have always courted the Muslims. Nevertheless, most Guyanese Muslims today believe that aligning themselves with political parties does them no good.

The tendency toward orthodoxy seems to have affected local religious practices, as seen in the gradual disappearance of the observance of Muharram, which is associated with the Shia Muslim tradition. The tazia or the tadjah (a procession of mourners marking the anniversary of the assassination of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet) was an annual event in which Muslims as well as non-Muslims participated. This practice began with the coming of South Asian Muslims to Guyana from the Subcontinent. Obviously there were shia among the immigrants, but their number was insignificant. However, orthodox Muslims in Guyana began to see the celebration of tazia as un-Islamic.

Some agreed that it was just a time to congregate for the sake of socializing. Hindus, it seems, also participated in this festival which later came under heavy criticism from pious Muslims of the Hanafi madhab. Muharram became a resistance movement that brought together Africans, Hindus and Muslims against the colonial authorities. There was harmony between the people. According to Basdeo Mangru, there was hardly any evidence of conflict between the Hindus and Muslims to suggest a lack of social cohesion which had prevailed between the Africans and the Creoles under slavery.(n28) However, pressures increased from many sources to end this practice, and the British who saw it as "trouble" did not hesitate to support the Sunnis. Muslims wanted the state authorities to recognize the more orthodox holidays such as the two Eids and Youman-Nabi.

By 1966, when Guyana achieved independence, the taziya was history. Today Muslim leaders are constantly stressing orthodoxy. Religious personalities both in Guyana and those returning from overseas preach strongly against what are considered un-Islamic practices. There are many disputes between orthodox and traditionalists in which the former accuse the latter of pagan practices.

This is in contrast to the earlier period when, as one scholar notes, `Guyana did not experience any major juristic problems within the period 1838-1920s. At no time were there more than 750 Shia and by 1950 they seemed to have been absorbed into the Sunni Muslim group'.(n29) However, after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and with the coming to power of Imam Khomeini in Iran, there was a sudden upsurge of Shiism across the world. Soon thereafter following the arrival of a Shia missionary in Guyana, two groups were established, one in Linden, Demerara and another in Canje, Berbice. During Muharram in 1994 a Shia organization, the Bilal Muslim Mission of North America sent a couple of people to visit Guyana. Shia Muslims feel resented by the main Muslim body merely because of what they perceive as "Wahhabis propaganda".

Since then BMMA has been paying regular visits to Trinidad and Guyana. BMMA sent hundreds of copies of Quran translated by S.V. Mir Ahmad Ali and other literature. BMMA also supplied the small community in Trinidad and Guyana with TV, VCR, computer, printer and fax machines. BMMA also financially supports the running of Madressah in Guyana and dispatches reading material and other literature on regular basis. However, the impact of Shiism in Guyana is yet to be determined.

For the first time in recent history an Islamic Scholar from Iran visited Guyana during Ramadhan of 2002. Dr. Mohammad Namazi an Iranian Islamic scholar visited Guyana. The 32 years old scholar is a Quari and Hafiz of the Holy Quran who has been sent by the Organisation of Culture and Islamic Relations, an NGO in the Islamic Republic of Iran with branches in the United States, Canada, France, Norway, India and other countries. According to the local press, his visit was the result of an invitation from the Guyana Islamic Forum (GIF) for education, peace and religious solidarity, in association with the International College for Advanced Studies and the Muslim Youth League of Guyana. Namazi was born in Qum, Iran and studied for seventeen years at Qum theological seminaries, specialising in natural sciences and was awarded the PhD in Islamic studies. Guyana is now linked to Qum, Iran. Many inquires have been made by those who want to expand cultural relationship between the Muslims of Guyana and Qum.

During July 2003 two graduate students from Qum are set to establish an education center in the capital Georgetown. This will build on the work that they have been carrying out in the region and Guyana for a number of years. Currently there are a few Iranians in Guyana. According to the Iranians, the education centre will function as a resource center to be accessed by teachers and lectures alike. A large section of the center will be given over to the sciences and mathematics resources.

There has been a purchase of 12 computers for the center and to this date 1000 books on various topics relating to Islam have been either bought or donated. An extensive audio visual collection has been put together with over 800 different titles, and the centre will work in close conjunction with local schools and colleges allowing the youth of Georgetown to benefit from the center regardless of their faith. It is hoped that through actions rather than words the center will be able to set an example of Islamic behavior that can only bode well for the present and future generations of Guyanese Muslims according to Iranians.

According to the founders, the center is in desperate need of financial or other aid that can be given, by the "believers." The running cost of the center is estimated at five hundred English pounds (500) a month, including payment of all utility bills. One of the centre's main objectives is to establish links with other Shia communities in the region, such as in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, Aruba and Suriname.

Trade and Culture

In June 2002 President Bharrrat Jagdeo invited the newly-accredited Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Guyana, Mr. Ahmad Sobhani for his country to participate in the Guy Expo. The President extended the invitation to the Ambassador during an accreditation ceremony at the Office of the President earlier today, noting that the "participation by Iran will certainly encourage the possibilities for trade between the two countries."

Iran had exhibited many products at various venues in Guyana, and the President said that this exercise should be preserved to strengthen economic relations between the two countries, as their relationship is reflective of the countries desire to work together. "In the past groups of businessmen from Iran have held trade fairs in Guyana to showcase your country's products. These exhibitions should be continued in the interest of developing economic relations," the President said. The Iranian Ambassador was also encouraged to explore possibilities of investment for his country locally, as Guyana has potential for investment in several areas including agriculture, mining, manufacturing and information technology which is now evolving.

President Bharrat Jagdeo noted that Iran and Guyana have had multilateral engagements in the past and have worked together closely on issues of global peace and development. Some of the forums at which they have been engaged are the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77 and the United Nations. In accepting the Letters of Recall from Mr. Sobhani that accredits him as the Ambassador of Iran to Guyana, President Jagdeo extended good wishes to his homeland and his predecessor.

Ambassador Sobhani said that there are common grounds on which the two countries could work. Examples he cited are the issues of security and international relations. He urged that efforts to strengthen relations between Iran and Guyana be strengthened, especially in the area of trade. At present, Iran is involved in commerce and culture in Guyana. "I hope we can establish the foundation for bilateral ties and promoting mutual knowledge about the two countries."

Iran held a trade fair and exhibition in July 2002 in Guyana. The event was opened by Guyana's Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry Geoffrey Da Silva. The exhibition was meant to acquaint Guyanese with Iranian goods, while the Iranians examined local items for export, and it was intended to encourage Iranian-Guyanese joint ventures. This trade link between Guyana and Iran was established through a joint venture agreement with the Iranian firm of Sadr Export House Company and local businesses. Research and Marketing Manager of the Iranian company, Mr. Mehdi Souri was in Guyana with other Iranians on a promotion tour complete with goods for sale at the Muslim Youth Organisation (MYO) complex, in Georgetown the capital of Guyana. Mr. Mehdi Souri of Sadr Export House Company coordinated the event. Among the offerings were carpets, plastic utensils, ceramic vases, and table lamps.

The Iranian businessman disclosed that a branch will be established locally to respond to the needs of Guyanese and to explore other areas of development. "(We want) to have a mutual relationship", he said. "I think we can use your lumber and have our experts come here and make furniture", Souri said. He said the idea of the exhibition is to get acquainted with Guyanese traders and to get to know their needs. "We want to help to produce what they need, and to make them self-sufficient." Souri in 2002 held discussions with Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry, Mr. Geoffrey Da Silva. Mr. Mohamed Khan of MFK Trading in Georgetown also signaled an intention to enter a joint venture agreement with Sadr Export House Company.

The OIC

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is an international organization grouping fifty seven States which have decided to pool their resources together, combine their efforts and speak with one voice to safeguard the interests and secure the progress and well-being of their peoples and of all Muslims in the world.

The Organization was established in Rabat, Kingdom of Morocco, on 12 Rajab 1389H (25 September 1969) when the First meeting of the leaders of the Islamic world was held in the wake of the criminal Zionist attempt to burn down the Blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque on 21 August 1969 in the occupied city of Al-Quds.

Six months after that historic event, i.e. in Muharram 1390H (March 1970), the First Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers was held in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during which the OIC General Secretariat was established to ensure coordination among Member States. The Conference appointed a Secretary General for the Organization and chose Jeddah as the city to house its temporary Headquarters pending the liberation of Al-Quds Al-Sharif to which the General Secretariat will then be transferred, as the Permanent seat of the Organization.

Under the Charter, the Organization aims to:

1. Strengthen:

a) Islamic solidarity among Member States:

b) Cooperation in the political, economic, social, cultural and scientific fields:

c) The struggle of all Muslim people to safeguard their dignity, independence and nantional rights.

2. Coordinate action to:

a) Safeguard the Holy Places;

b) Support the struggle of the Palestinian people and assist them in recovering their rights and liberating their occupied territories.

3. Work to:

a) Eliminate racial discrimination and all forms of colonialism;

b) Create a favourable atmosphere for the promotion of cooperation and understanding between Member States and other countries.

The Charter also enumerates the principles governing OIC activities, namely:

1. Full equality among Member States;

2. Observation of the right to self-determination and non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States;

3. Observation of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each State;

4. The settlement of any dispute that might arise among Member States by peaceful means such as negotiations, mediation, conciliation and arbitration;

5. A pledge to refrain, in relations among Member States, from resorting to force or threatening to resort to the use of force against the unity and territorial integrity or the political independence of any one of them;

In order to coordinate and boost its action, align its stands, and achieve concrete results in various fields of cooperation, political, economic, cultural, social, spiritual and scientific among Member States, the OIC Summit and Ministerial Conferences have created different committees including:

-- The Al-Quds Committee,

-- The Standing Committee for Information and Cultural Affairs (COMIAC),

-- The Standing Committee for Economic and Trade Cooperation (COMCEC),

-- The Standing Committee for Scientific and Technical Cooperation (COMSTECH),

-- The Islamic Commission on Economic, Cultural and Social Affairs.

The secondary organs and institutions working toward the achievement of the OIC objectives, cover cultural, scientific, economic, legal, financial, sports, technological, educational, media, vocational, social and humanitarian areas. Depending on their degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the parent organization, they are classified as subsidiary organs , specialized institutions and affiliated institutions. (http://www.oic-un.org/about/over.htm)