Seminar participants stress importance of tolerance,
understanding, education in countering islamophobia
Secretary-General Says Re-Establishing Trust
Among Peoples of Different Faiths, Cultures Must Be of Highest Priority
“The weight of history and the fallout of recent events have left many Muslims around the world feeling aggrieved and misunderstood, concerned about the erosion of their rights, and even fearing for their physical safety”, affirmed United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today during a seminar on “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding”.
The day long event, moderated by Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, was the second in a Department of Public Information series entitled “Unlearning Intolerance”. Open to delegations of the United Nations Member States, United Nations-affiliated non-governmental organizations, the media and members of the public, the three panel discussions organized for the day addressed the themes of “Perspectives on Islamophobia Today”, “Education for Tolerance and Understanding” and “Confronting Islamophobia”.
In introductory remarks, Mr. Annan highlighted eight factors that must have a place in any strategy to combat Islamophobia: laws and norms, education, limiting the power and influence of hate media, leadership, two-way integration of cultures and peoples, dialogue -- and particularly interfaith dialogue, understanding of policy context, and combating terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam -- or any religion.
Re-establishing trust among peoples of different faiths and cultures must be of the highest priority, he stressed, or discrimination would continue to taint innocent lives and make moving ahead with the ambitious international agenda of peace, security and development impossible. “We live in one world”, said the Secretary-General. “We need to understand and respect each other, live peacefully together and live up to the best of our respective traditions. That is not as easy as we might like it to be. But that is all the more reason to try harder, with all our tools and all our will.”
Elaborating on the root causes of Islamophobia, the seminar’s keynote speaker, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, noted that the modern phenomenon echoed the historic rise and spread of Islam to cover territories from France to China within one century. The Christian West had feared Islam both religiously and politically. Today, the paradox of Islamophobia remained that many people afraid of Islam knew very little about it. They felt a great need to see “the other” as the enemy.
Combating Islamophobia, he stressed, would require taking into account not only the role of extremism in Islam, but also the role of extremism among Christians and Jews. Muslims must understand and take advantage of the role of the media, as well as of education. Three important groups could foster efforts to overcome Islamophobia -- well-intentioned Westerners, who knew that hatred bred hatred; honest Western scholars, whose voices must be heard; and Muslims themselves, who must try to bridge the gap between Islam and the West.
Participants in today’s three panel discussions -- which included prominent scholars, writers, experts, religious and community leaders from several countries -- presented various perspectives on Islamophobia today, discussed the role of education in promoting tolerance and understanding and pondered on the means of confronting all forms of bias, including Islamophobia. Among other proposals, the formation of a group of scholars, under the aegis of the United Nations, to prepare a paper on religions’ commonality and diversity was suggested.
Other issues highlighted during the debates included the role of the media in fostering Islamophobia, the need to ensure a more balanced approach to Islam and the importance of making Muslim voices heard. Speakers touched upon the relationship between Islam and terrorism, with several participants agreeing that Islam should not be judged by the acts of extremists. The role to be played by the Muslim community, including the need to highlight the positive aspects of Islamic faith and to appoint interlocutors to interact with representatives of other religions, was also emphasized.
It was remarkable that a religion whose holy book -- as well as the majority of its history -- had established acceptance of others now needed to be defended, one panellist noted. Terrorism had drawn unwelcome attention to Muslims, stressed another. In the United States, it had elicited intolerance and hatred, just as the terrorists intended. Patriotism in the United States required not a “soft tolerance”, or condescension towards people cast as “the other”, but willingness to recognize differences and risk honest self-criticism.
Closing today’s programme, Mr. Tharoor noted that, just as there had always been prejudice in the world, there had also always been cross-fertilization and cooperation between cultures, religions and peoples. “Every one of us has many identities,” he affirmed; “Sometimes religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities.”
Any fundamentalism –- and Islamic fundamentalism was no exception -- did so because it embodied a passion for pure belonging, he noted. Yet, if one could accept the truth that each individual had multiple identities –- that one could be a good Muslim, good Jordanian, good Arab and a good human being all at once -- and that each of these identities could live in harmony with the others, then intolerance might be resisted more effectively.
Terrorism and bigotry both emerged from blind hatred of an “other”, which was, in turn, the product of three factors: fear, rage and incomprehension. “We will have to know each other better, learn to see ourselves as others see us, learn to recognize hatred and deal with its causes, learn to dispel fear, and above all just learn about each other,” he concluded.
The Department of Public Information’s series on “Unlearning Intolerance” continued today with a day long programme devoted to “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding”.
The second in a series of programmes aimed at examining manifestations of intolerance and exploring ways to promote respect and understanding among peoples, today’s seminar will focus on different perspectives on Islamophobia today; the role of education in fostering tolerance and understanding; and ideas for confronting Islamophobia more effectively.
The event will include statements, panel presentations and an open discussion segment, and will be open to delegations of United Nations Member States, United Nations-affiliated non-governmental organizations, the media and members of the public having registered in advance.
SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, welcomed participants to the second in a series of seminars, organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI), entitled “Unlearning Intolerance”. The series intended to create occasions to discuss openly how intolerance could be unlearned. No one was born intolerant, he said, only taught to be so. The series also sought to provide the opportunity to ask how all could work to promote mutual respect and understanding among different cultures.
Statement by Secretary-General
Welcoming the participants of the seminar, KOFI ANNAN, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that when the world was compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that was a sad and troubling development. Such was the case with Islamophobia. While the word seemed to have emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the phenomenon dated back centuries. Today, the weight of history and the fallout of recent developments had left many Muslims around the world feeling aggrieved and misunderstood, concerned about the erosion of their rights and even fearing for their physical safety.
There was a need to unlearn the stereotypes that had become so entrenched in so many minds and in so much of the media, he continued. Islam was often seen as a monolith, when it was as diverse as any other tradition, with followers running the gamut from modernizers to traditionalists. Some commentators talked as if the world of Islam was more or less identical with the Arab world, whereas in fact a majority of Muslims were not native Arabic speakers. Islam’s tenets were frequently distorted and taken out of context, with particular acts or practices taken to represent or to symbolize a rich and complex faith. Some claimed that Islam was incompatible with democracy, or irrevocably hostile to modernity and the rights of women. And in too many circles, disparaging remarks about Muslims were allowed to pass without censure, with the result that prejudice acquired a veneer of acceptability.
Stereotypes also depicted Muslims as opposed to the West, despite a history not only of conflict but also of commerce and cooperation, and of influencing and enriching each other’s art and science, he said. European civilization would not have advanced to the extent it had, had Christian scholars not benefited from the learning and literature of Islam since the Middle Ages.
There was also a need to unlearn the habit of xenophobia, he said. People were not hard-wired for prejudice. In some cases they were taught to hate. Others were manipulated into it, by leaders who exploited fear, ignorance or feelings of weakness. The pressures of living together with people of cultures and beliefs different from one’s own were real, especially in a world of intense economic competition, in which there had been sudden influxes of immigrants, as had happened in Europe over the last generation or two. But that could not justify demonization, or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes. That only deepened the spiral of suspicion and alienation.
Unlearning intolerance was in part a matter of legal protection, he continued. The right to freedom of religion –- and freedom from discrimination based on religion –- had been long enshrined in international law, from the United Nations Charter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other instruments. Such standards had been incorporated into laws of many countries. United Nations special rapporteurs continued to monitor the exercise and infringements of that right, and to recommend ways to combat Islamophobia and other forms of racism and intolerance. But laws and norms were just a starting point.
He stressed that any strategy to combat Islamophobia must depend heavily on education -– not just about Islam, but about all religions and traditions, so that myths and lies could be seen for what they were. It was important to prevent the media and Internet from being used to spread hatred, while safeguarding freedom of opinion and expression. There was also a crucial need for leadership. Public authorities should not only condemn Islamophobia, but ensure that law enforcement and other practices followed through on pledges of non-discrimination.
In many countries of Christian tradition, large Muslim communities were a relatively new phenomenon, he said. Integration was a two-way street. Hosts and immigrants needed to understand each other’s expectations and responsibilities. They also needed to be able, where necessary, to act against such common threats as extremism. Interfaith dialogue could be useful, but problems were not caused by the similarities among religions that were typically celebrated in such dialogue. They were caused by the propensity of human beings to favour their own groups, beliefs and cultures at the expense of others. Inter-faith activities could take a more practical direction, building on the examples, in which different peoples came together regularly in professional associations, or on the sporting field, or in other social settings. Such day-to-day contacts carried less of the artificiality of established dialogue, and could be especially useful in demystifying the “other”.
An honest look at Islamophobia must also acknowledge the policy context, he continued. The historical experience of Muslims included colonialism and domination by the West, either direct or indirect. Resentment was fed by the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, by the situation in Chechnya, and by atrocities committed against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. The reaction to such events could be visceral, bringing an almost personal sense of affront. “But we should remember that these are political reactions -- disagreements with specific policies. All too often, they are mistaken for an Islamic reaction against Western values, sparking an anti-Islamic backlash”, he said.
Efforts to combat Islamophobia must also contend with the question of terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam, he added. Islam should not be judged by the acts of extremists who deliberately targeted and killed civilians. The few gave a bad name to the many, and that was unfair. “All of us must condemn those who carry out such morally reprehensible acts, which no cause can justify”, he said.
Muslims themselves, especially, should speak out, as so many had following the 11 September attacks on the United States, and show a commitment to isolate those who preached or practiced violence and to make it clear that those were unacceptable distortions of Islam. Indeed, it was essential that solutions came from within Islam itself –- perhaps in the Muslim tradition of “ijtihad”, or free interpretation. Such open inquiry, such openness to what was good and bad in their cultures and others, could well offer a very useful path.
Islamophobia was at once a deeply personal issue for Muslims, a matter of great importance for anyone concerned about upholding universal values, and a question with implications for international harmony and peace, he said in conclusion. One should not underestimate the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world’s great religions, cultures and civilizations. Reestablishment of trust among people of different faiths and cultures must become the highest priority. Otherwise, discrimination would continue to taint many innocent lives, and distrust could make it impossible to move ahead with an ambitious international agenda of peace, security and development.
“We live in one world. We need to understand and respect each other, live peacefully together and live up to the best of our respective traditions”, he said. “That is not as easy as we might like it to be. But that is all the more reason to try harder, with all our tools and all our will.”
Statement by Keynote Speaker
Today’s keynote speaker, SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR, Professor of Islamic Studies, GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, said that it was very easy to learn intolerance and unlearn tolerance. However, it was difficult, to unlearn intolerance. The phenomenon of Islamophobia was relatively new from one point of view and old from another. As for the term itself, he addressed the reason why it contained the word “phobia”. Why “phobia” when the non-Islamic world today was so powerful from the economic, military, financial and other points of view? That word was there, because historically, when Islam had risen and within a century, covered land from France to China, the Christian West had fear of Islam that was both religious and political. The unfortunate thing was that now that reservoir of historical consciousness had become resurrected. Unfortunately, Islamophobia was not only a question of fear, but also a matter of hatred.
Another question was “why now?” –- he said. One of the reasons was the lack of understanding that Islam wanted to be itself, trying to overcome all curtailments of its activities in the colonial and post-colonial periods. That was a response of a civilization that did not want to die and wanted to remain true to itself. Muslims were not trying to be aggressive –- they were trying to be themselves. However, in many areas that also led to fanaticism. The paradox was that many people afraid of Islam knew very little about it. There was a great need to see “the other” as the enemy. The basis of that were mistakes made by Muslims -– there would be no Islamophobia without mistakes made by Muslims. The festering wound of Palestine was a serious problem. The issues of Kashmir and Chechnya were also of great importance. Fanaticism of people on both sides fed the fanaticism on the other side.
There were certain presumptions about Islamophobia, all of which were false, he said. The first was that Islam was a monolithic whole. There was total disregard of various schools of Islamic thought, whose variations were relegated to the margin by the media of the West. Another presumption was that Islam wanted to rule over the Western world. Islamic world was not anti-Western in itself. Take any group of adolescents in any Islamic country -- 70 per cent would say they wanted to study in the West. Even the extremists were not against the West because they wanted to curtail freedom of some Western woman wearing a bikini on a beach. It was their own daughters that they worried about. In fact, Islam was accepting of other religions. By and large, over the centuries, Islamic countries had accepted Jews fleeing from Spain, for example, as well as Christians fleeing persecution. It was also important to realize that Islam was not against modernity or democracy per se.
Islamophobia demonstrated itself in many ways in the West, he added. In combating Islamophobia, it was important to take into account not only the role of extremism in Islam, but also the role of extremism among Christians and Jews. It was important for Muslims to understand and take advantage of the role of the media. The role of education could not be underestimated. Three important groups could plan a participation in the efforts to overcome Islamophobia: well-intentioned Westerners who knew that hatred bred hatred; honest scholars in the West whose voices must be heard; and the Muslims themselves who should try to bridge the existing gap with the West.
Panel Discussion I
The seminar then continued with the first panel discussion, entitled “Perspectives on Islamophobia Today”, with the following participants: Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, Vice-President of the Egyptian Council for Human Rights and Professor of Public Law at Cairo University; Hany El-Banna, President of Islamic Relief, London; John L. Esposito, University Professor and founding director of the Georgetown University Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding; Asma Gull Hasan, author of “Why I Am a Muslim” and “American Muslims: The New Generation”; and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, President of the American Sufi Muslim Association.
Mr. ABOULMAGD began his statement by expressing reservations about the use of terminology such as “Islamophobia” and “tolerance”. Stressing that the term “anti-Semitism” focused on the agony of the victim, but that “Islamophobia” focused on the subjective state of mind of the individual who felt threatened, he said he would have preferred the use of the term “anti-Islamism”. Moreover, achievement of “tolerance” should not be the ultimate objective in countering Islamophobia; there was a need to join hands in a common effort to achieve something more than the minimalist objectives of “tolerance” and “coexistence”.
The irony and paradox of depicting Islam and Muslims as a threat to democracy and peace, he stressed, lay in forgetting the long history of cooperation, both in ages past and in the last half-century. During World War II, the Muslim countries had sided with Allied forces against Germany, while Islam had later helped the “free world” to curb the influence of communism. Among the basic facts about Islam that must be recognized, he cited that Islam was not a totally new religion -- in the eyes of all Muslims, Islam was the continuation in a series of prophet-hood. Moreover, narrowing Islam to Muslim faith and Sharia law did great harm; there was fallacy in depicting Muslims as doing nothing but worshipping in mosques and applying a rigid system. Thirdly, Islam contained an unequivocal condemnation of coercion to faith. Furthermore -- like all other faiths -- Islam had a mainstream, which should be the term of reference for analyzing and understanding religion. Finally, Muslim scholars were unanimous in agreeing that the only basis for legitimate government was the consent of those ruled -- the same basis as democracy.
Mr. EL-BANNA noted his publication on “positiveophobia”, available in the room, which stressed that the greatest danger of fearing everything that was positive and civilized was that acceptance of plurality would be the first and greatest casualty of the phenomenon. He had four messages to convey today, one to New York City, one to the United Nations, one to those not present today and the last to the future. Thus, to New York –- the city of freedom and diversity –- he wished to say that the events of 11 September 2001 must never be allowed to occur again. To the United Nations, he wished to note that the majority of the United Nations’ mandates were based upon principles contained in the Koran. Those who feared the principles that the United Nations sought to uphold were United Nations-phobic; to counter them, the United Nations should put justice in the hands of the world’s six billion inhabitants, instead of in the hands of the few. There must be a United Nations with no veto system, a United Nations in which all were equal.
To those not present today -– those afraid of God and phobic of his action -– he wished to stress that religion was the heaven of life, the dream of the future, the light on the path and the reality of existence. The aim of religion was to please God. To the future, he wished to emphasize that those who believed Islam would destroy them were misguided. Religion was diminished by those who despised it, and there was a real parallel to be seen between today’s Islamophobia and the McCarthy witch hunts of a half-century ago. Having pledged not to repeat such events, the world was now reliving the horror. However, like other scars such as apartheid, this too would pass. The way forward was to recognize that the true defenders of the faith were those who defended human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and the right of families, which constituted the true pillars of society. It was time to create a United Nations of hope so that future generations would not face the same difficulties as their forebears.
JOHN L. ESPOSITO, Professor and founding director of the Georgetown University Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said “Islam is not an enemy -- religious extremism is”. A dangerous phenomenon, Islamophobia was a modern-day epidemic of an age-old phenomenon. What one would not dare say about Jews or Christians, could be said about Muslims today. Islamophobia in the United States had been framed by the Iranian revolution, when Islam became equated with fundamentalism and extremism. There was a perception that as the third largest religion in Europe and America, Islam presented a menace to the West.
The voices of mainstream leaders in Judaism and Christianity were not receiving as much attention in the press as did the voices of those who presented Muslims as terrorists and extremists who wanted to rule the world, he continued. That led to an increase in hate crimes, deterioration of civil liberties and indiscriminate accusations of Muslims. Islamophobia fed a perception that the United States was engaged not in a war against terrorism, but in a war against Islam. To counter Islamophobia, education in the Muslim world was as important as education in the United States. Too often, Islam was seen through the lens of Muslim extremism. While centuries old, like anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, Islamophobia could not be eradicated without the participation of religious and political leaders, the media and educators, and the private and public sectors. The United Nations should also play a part in building a modern notion of tolerance.
ASMA GULL HASAN, author of “Why I Am a Muslim” and “American Muslims: The New Generation”, said that having grown up as an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, she had experienced problems mainly with other Muslims. For example, she had encountered problems, because she did not wear head-cover. In her experience, Muslims spent much time attacking each other intellectually and did not support each other. They turned Islam into a religion of dos and don’ts, into a religion of rules. Young Muslims knew little about their religion. “We as Muslims need to start developing the spiritual side of Islam”, she said. There was a lack of education about Islam among Muslims, and she believed that some young people were scared to learn more about Islam. It was important to start practicing a real and true Islam.
Imam FEISAL ABDUL RAUF, President of the American Sufi Muslim Association, said “We are all responsible for the hatred others have towards us if our behaviour contributed to that. Unless we take responsibility for how others behave towards us, conflict will continue.” People had a tendency to dump their own problems “on some identity tag” within others. Unless people changed within themselves, that negative dynamic would continue. The group he represented had introduced a multi-faith initiative, which promoted an approach of celebrating, rather than tolerating, others. Each person had to take responsibility for what he had done to contribute to the conflict and promote a common vision. That could not be done unilaterally by Muslims – all groups needed to contribute.
In the ensuing discussion, several participants addressed the role of the media in furthering Islamophobia, asking what could be done to assist or educate the media in promoting a more balanced view of Islam. In response, Mr. ESPOSITO noted that the media sought out exciting stories and that mainstream Islam –- like other mainstream religion -– was seen as somewhat boring. The real issue was not the need to educate the media, but to encourage those who set the media’s agenda to adopt the right priorities.
He also noted that the key media outlets in the United States today had clear ideological bents. They would not provide balanced coverage. Moreover, there must be recognition that religious context was important to foreign affairs, as well as to domestic affairs. That had been starkly highlighted by the United States’ experience in Iraq, where the possibility of Shiite opposition had been underestimated.
For her part, Ms. HASAN stressed the need for more Muslim voices in media. Muslim children interested in becoming journalists should be encouraged, instead of being pushed toward medicine or the law –- traditionally the professional objectives for children of first generation immigrants.
The panellists also responded to observations regarding internal conflict and disagreement between different Islamic groups, with Mr. NASR affirming that sectarianism was no more characteristic of Islam than of Judaism or Christianity, which experienced the same sort of disagreement between various groups, although it might be kept quiet to present a united front externally. He also noted that the Islamic immigrant community in the United States was gradually integrating into a society in which cultural distinctions from countries of origin must be left behind. Such difference would gradually be overcome by the younger generation.
Imam RAUF noted that Islam had adapted to the various cultural, political and legal constructs of the societies to which it had spread over the years, which had led to a variety of opinions among legal and religious scholars of Islam. The prophet Mohammed himself had praised that variety, and that fact must be remembered today. Muslim children must be educated on their real heritage, he added; for example, Egyptian children today did not know who Rumi was.
He also noted that many believed “Islamophobia” to be a sui generis phenomenon. However, Judaism had experienced it a half-century ago, and Catholicism, one hundred fifty years ago. Muslims should examine those precedents to see how understanding of one’s religion could evolve. He also stressed the importance of developing interlocutory institutions to represent Muslim objectives. He had often been approached by Jewish and other religious community leaders who wished to address issues of common concern with their Muslim counterparts. Islam needed individuals who understood the real issues and fears affecting themselves and others perceptions of them, and had the ability to communicate them.
Mr. ABOULMAGD said one should not overlook the introspection now occurring, however. Many Muslims were now entertaining the new feeling of constituting part of a larger world, and isolationism was no longer accepted. The Muslim community’s negligence in not highlighting aspects of Islamic faith, particularly those related to democracy and respect for human rights, had also been recognized. Overall, all must seek to use an undistorted mirror to examine both themselves and others, as they truly were.
Mr. EL-BANNA stressed that the diversity of Islam meant that while the core of Islam remained the same, Muslims adapted to their surrounding culture.
Panel II –- Education for Tolerance and Understanding
CALVIN O. BUTTS III, Pastor of the AbyssinianBaptistChurch in the City of New York, said that as a Christian Minister, he was aware of the fact that his church should provide sanctuary, comfort and peace to its Muslim brothers. He was not afraid of anyone who loved God. The politicians of the world often hid behind religion, using it as a shield for their sordid affairs. However, terrorism was known to all faiths. In the United States, ignorance of Islam was really an impediment to the brotherhood of people, and education should help people become more familiar with all the faiths. Materialism and pornography were among the values that were promoted all over the world, but not supported by most religions. He represented the religious community, which did not understand occupying land in the name of God and did not support segregation in the name of God. Islamophobia needed to be eliminated.
AZIZAH Y. AL-HIBRI, Professor of Law at the T.C.WilliamsSchool of Law, University of Richmond, and President of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, said that the beginning of all teaching in Islam was the Koran, whose notions of inclusion and understanding were clear. All the children of Adam had been given dignity by God, who also installed free will in people. Islam guaranteed freedom of thought. It was remarkable that a religion whose holy book, as well as the predominant part of its history, established acceptance of others, now needed to be defended. Muslims in the West must be mainstreamed, especially in policy-making and education. Cooperation and understanding must be emphasized.
R. SCOTT APPLEBY, Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame, said that tolerance required a measure of self-confidence on behalf of those who practiced it. In the United States and much of Europe, the Muslim remained “the other”, the alien in the post-9/11 era. There were anxieties about the vulnerability of the Western societies. Terrorism had drawn unwelcome attention to Muslims. In the United States, it had elicited intolerance and hatred among some, just as the terrorists intended. Patriotism in the United States required not “a soft tolerance”, or condescension towards people cast as “the other”, but the willingness to recognize differences and risk honest self-criticism. Several points of view existing within the law were the basis of pluralism. Education must begin with the recognition of the variety of teachings and be rooted in practices that celebrated differences.
NOAH FELDMAN, Associate Professor of Law, New YorkUniversity, said that the common ground on the question of tolerance was that not every belief was compatible with other beliefs. That should not be seen as a threat. Unless one understood the substance of others’ beliefs, one could not determine if he agreed with them. Combating Islamophobia through education could have the desired effect. The only way to combat all forms of bias was to be as honest and objective as one could possibly be about the range of the beliefs that existed in the world. Before a non-Muslim could determine the meaning of Islam, that question should, first of all, be debated among the Muslims themselves. There was a sincere debate in the Muslim society on the interpretations of the Koran. At the same time, it was also necessary to improve the knowledge of Islam in the non-Muslim world. While not necessarily putting an end to Islamophobia, such an approach would definitely promote mutual understanding.
PANCHAPAKESA JAYARAMAN, Executive Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Institute of Indian Culture), said that, confronted with public terrorism on one side and State terrorism on the other, the world must do something to oppose the existing horrible situation and to redress the chaos all around. It must pursue religious harmony. Prophet Mohammad had given the world a beautiful religion, which drew upon the tradition of Judaism and Christianity and did not differentiate among the messengers of God. Proclaiming himself the last of prophets, he proclaimed himself the most recent in the line of prophets, and reaffirmed his predecessors’ teachings. Unfortunately, fundamentalists –- as fundamentalists in all religions did –- had attempted to create a situation in which their religion was separate. Now was the time, he concluded, to create an educational system to teach about the commonality of all the world’s religions.
In the ensuing general discussion, one participant stressed that there was no dissonance between the foundational concepts of the United States and Islam. How could that message be bolstered in the United States?
In response, Mr. FELDMAN said the younger generation of American Muslims had a unique opportunity to influence public discourse about the nature of Islam. Recognizing that Americans were most comfortable hearing about cultural or religious phenomena from those who looked like them, he said Muslim Americans should take the opportunity to appear in public forums and communicate their distinctive positions. They should be honest and unapologetic in their identities as American Muslims, raise awareness when they saw disparities in policies or when they saw a version of Islam to which they desired to adhere. The day when a Muslim, not a Jew or Christian got the call to talk about Islam on television, would represent success.
Ms. AL-HIBRI, however, stressed that the problem was to open the doors of power. If a Muslim was invited on a show and expressed her own opinion, she was not invited back. As to the suggestion that people liked to hear from those most like them, she stressed that she was different from other Americans. The idea was to convey those differences.
Another speaker asked why -- if Islamophobia stemmed from a lack of education and all United States students were taught about world religions as a part of the high curriculum –- did Islamophobia persist? In response, Mr. APPLEBY stressed that the way in which a subject was taught constituted only one part of reducing ignorance. While it was essential to have a textbook and/or professor familiar with the subject, there must also be interaction with practicing Muslims in order fully to understand Islam.
Regarding the conflation of Islam with terrorism, while certain types of Christianity –- responsible for heinous acts of terrorism in the United States –- were not so associated, Mr. BUTTS stressed that a bigoted view of the world, in which what was different was feared, had influenced that association. There was also an aspect of racism, he added. Muslims –- whether they liked it or not -- were identified by Americans as people of colour. If they could not be labelled as “niggers”, they would be labelled as “terrorists”.
However, Mr. FELDMAN, while clarifying that he was not apologizing for the United States, stressed the importance of acknowledging that, statistically, Americans did not think that Muslims were all terrorists. It was an unfair generalization.
In concluding comments, Ms. AL-HIBRI said that acknowledging the history of discrimination in the United States remained part of figuring out the solution to the problem. Why would one think that Americans had shorter memories than any other people? Only when that history of discrimination was recognized would one be able to challenge it.
Mr. BUTTS stressed the importance of reaching out at the grass-roots level to raise awareness. The absence here of many American Muslims and African Muslims spoke to the issue of race, and must be tackled by both American Christians, but also adherents of Islam. He also noted that there were many feelings and expressions that were not necessarily articulated in open forums for all to embrace; many Americans would not acknowledge their own racism. Thus, the conclusions developed by some surveys did not speak to the actual phenomena driving the United States today. He also wished to affirm that those with access to the media and halls of power had not arrived at that juncture by speaking at the United Nations, but by taking action to make the United States and the world recognize the brutality and oppression visited upon African Americans. The call for Muslim coalitions voiced by Imam Rauf earlier must be forwarded, not violently, but aggressively.
Mr. APPLEBY said that those participating here today must hold their fellow Americans to the highest of ideals. Revisiting the topic of anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century, he noted the emergence of “Americanizers” who had sought to highlight the congruence between principles of democracy and Catholicism. They had advocated for greater integration of Catholics in schools and public life. He also noted that his children had a much greater awareness of civil rights and related African-American history due to a focused national effort to incorporate that part of American history in national curriculums following upon the civil rights successes.
Mr. FELDMAN said he had come to study Arabic and Islamic studies because of the close historical relationship between Jewish and Islamic theorists, sources and ideas, and because he saw that closeness as holding out hope for the future. He brought those studies into his teachings and writings. With regard to Iraq, he noted that he had served as a Constitutional advisor to the United States and Iraqi administrations, but that the Constitution itself was very much the product of Iraq. The drafters had taken and left outside as they had seen fit.
Mr. JAYARAMAN advocated the formation –- under the aegis of the United Nations -- of a group of scholars who believed in the unity of religions to prepare a team paper on “Religions: Commonality and Diversity”.
Addressing how the United Nations would try to bring this and other events to the wider world, Mr. THAROOR said that the series of seminars on Unlearning Intolerance had been advertised around the world, and it was hoped, the outcome would also be widely communicated. He also wished to underscore, in conjunction with Reverend Butts, the importance of reaching out at the grass-roots level.
In the context of the Organization’s forthcoming sixtieth anniversary, he said promotion of informed coexistence and tolerance would constitute a main theme, and there would be continued utilization of the “Cyberschoolbus”, which had been widely praised as a tool. He also drew attention to a photo exhibition entitled “Islam” by renowned Iranian photographer Abbas, which opened today at the visitor’s entrance. Any comments and suggestions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. [For more information, please visit the UN Chronicle Web site (www.un.org/chronicle).]
Panel III -- Confronting Islamophobia
The stage for discussion was set by the panellists, who included Monseigneur Gyorgy Fodor, Rector at Peter Pazmany Catholic University, Budapest; Amaney Jamal, Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University; Djibril Diallo, Director of the United Nations/New York Office of the Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, and Spokesman for the President of the General Assembly; Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Giandomenico Picco, Chief Executive Officer of GDP Associates, Inc., Special Adviser and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Dialogue among Civilizations.
Mr. FODOR said that Islam had given rise to a magnificent human culture. Its ideas could be instructive and helpful to any person seeking God, regardless of their religious affiliation. People worshiping God should not fight each other in the name of God. Academic institutions had an important role to play in advancing harmony among religions. A religious person should not be seen as an adversary of another religious person. In Hungary, several important Islamic texts had been translated into Hungarian. Many universities, including Catholic ones, familiarized their students with the Koran. In turn, several Muslim universities had introduced courses on Christianity.
Ms. JAMAL focused on the reality of Muslim Americans today. After September 11, discrimination, civil rights abuses and hate crimes against Muslim Americans were on the rise. In the immediate days after the terrorist attacks, the public sentiment had focused on Arabs and Muslims. Government scrutiny had increased and although the authorities said that newly introduced security measures applied to all immigrants, in reality, Arab and Muslim immigrants were often singled out. The only voices heard in the West were those of radical Muslims, and those who chose to educate seemed to be losing a publicity campaign. There was a lack of understanding and education.
Mr. DIALLO informed the participants about the results of a recent survey in countries with Muslim populations, which had demonstrated the prevailing sentiment there. A study of chronic grievances could suggest the need for change. Regarding the image of the United Nations, he said that some of the results showed a general and serious perception that the Organization was not doing enough about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Horrendous damage had been done to the image of the United Nations by the developments in Iraq. There was a lot of misunderstanding of the role of the United Nations, which was often seen as a bloated organization, whose staff was drawing huge salaries while the majority of the developing world lived in abject poverty. Many viewed the Organization as having taking sides in world conflicts.
At the United Nations, there was a vigorous effort in terms of training in the area of communications around the world, he said. A special strategy was needed to target those important constituencies. A proposal to hold a world summit on Islamic-Christian dialogue was getting a lot of support and attention.
Mr. SAPERSTEIN agreed that there was a real problem with underreporting of hate crimes against Muslims, but stressed the need to recognize that, even taking that underreporting into consideration, there were three times as many hate crimes committed against Jews as against Muslims in the United States. The two religions’ experiences must be viewed as bound-up together. Thus, reflecting upon ways in which Muslims could raise awareness about Islam in American society today, he noted that the Jewish community had made a concerted effort to introduce comparative religion studies in American educational institutions over decades. There were enormous, existing resources to be exploited, he said. Personal bridges must also be built between groups and individuals. Furthermore, Muslims should not try to fight prejudice by themselves, but rather in conjunction with other religions. Members of non-Muslim communities must take the initiative when they saw instances of discrimination. Finally, a point that continued to be missing from the entire conversation related to the reduction of a religion to the extremist few. The voices of intolerance and extremism in any community must be addressed, not just by moderate Muslims, but by everyone. Muslims must help non-Muslims to know how to talk about extremism without be interpreted as anti-Islamic.
Mr. PICCO noted that he, like many others, had hoped that the end of the Cold War had signalled the end of the era of ideologies. Yet, future historians might well view the 1990s as an interregnum between eras of secular and religious ideologies. By the end of the 1990s, ideologies with religious overtones had begun to emerge all over the world. Based on divine dogmas, they claimed to know the truth before events happened and allowed for no compromise. In today’s political arena, many such groups existed and they all had one thing in common –- they believed themselves alone to be the repository of truth. They fed upon exclusion and welcomed each other’s existence, which perpetrated their own. Today’s dogmatic ideologues did not represent the majority, he acknowledged, but their power continued to increase, and they had begun to set the agenda in their own and other countries.
Noting that threat gave way to fear, and fear to phobia, he said that perception often mattered more than fact with such ideologies. A nation or group in search of its own identity often relied upon the phobia of the other. And in a mixed nation, that search was unavoidably more difficult. However, boundaries today mattered less and less, and those seeking the future in the past were bound to be confounded by modern interdependence. For too long, identity had implied exclusion. Responsibility for correcting the present situation rested upon those who would not ascribe to such ideological identification. It was time to take the world’s agenda out of the hands of extremists.
Among the issues raised in the ensuing debate was the public perception of Islam. It was unfair that a whole religion should be judged for its extreme voices, a speaker said. However, whether correct or not, there was a general perception that Muslim leaders were not prepared to condemn terrorism.
In that connection, Ms. JAMAL said that all the mainstream Muslim organizations had denounced terrorism. Public opinion polls showed that across the board, the Muslim populations did not support it. However, those facts were often not reflected in the media, which seemed to be biased against Muslims.
Every Islamic country had condemned terrorism, another speaker added, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference had adopted a resolution against that phenomenon. At the same time, it was also important to point out that under the excuse of anti-terrorism measures, national liberation movements should not be affected. Attempts had been made to quell those movements and struggle against foreign occupation as acts of terrorism. The question was whether those facts were known and whether efforts were being made to present the real situation to the public.
A gloomy picture had been presented to the participants of the excesses committed against Arabs and Muslims in the United States, another participant said. He wondered what could be done to improve the situation. It did not seem like the Muslims could engage in a dialogue with people like the United States Attorney General John Ashcroft, and other members of the Administration were no better.
Ms. JAMAL said that more publicity was needed. That was easier said than done, but the media needed to be more receptive to the Muslims’ concerns. It was necessary to justify the United States’ presence in Iraq, for example.
In a final round of responses to questions posed by participants in today’s dialogue, Mr. FODOR noted that Islamophobia was the consequence of ignorance.
Responding to a question regarding the threshold for labelling something as Islamophobia, Ms. JAMAL said that the phenomenon depicted Muslims as a liability to humanity. That type of Islamophobia legitimized the feeling that hunting down Muslims was acceptable. It was important to note that, in American society, civil rights infringements against Muslims were tolerated across the board. Thus, it was hard to target specific segments of the population as needing education.
In response to a request to comment upon the Secretary-General’s morning remarks, she agreed that it was important for the Muslim community to do some internal monitoring. However, it was a misinterpretation to say that Muslims had sat by and let clerics preach violence without responding to them. It was also a misinterpretation to say that all Muslim clerics were using the pulpit to preach violence. Experience showed that no Muslim American had been linked to terrorism, including the 11 September 2001 attacks. Terrorism was not a part of the fabric of Muslim American life. Moreover, regarding the need for internal monitoring of clerics in the Arab world, she noted that many Arab States had developed from authoritarian bases and had formed close ties with the clerical establishment in order to maintain legitimacy. Thus, the regime protected the Islamic establishment, and the clergy were prohibited from criticizing the regime. In that sense, deflecting tension against the other was largely the by-product of a lack of democracy, which the West had done little to counter.
Mr. DIALLO said that a strategy must be adopted to address the anger rising out of marginalization. That strategy must also be adaptable to individual situations. Additionally, the international community must work harder to highlight positive instances of coexistence. For example, his country of Senegal was 95 per cent Muslim, but in the same families one would find Christians, Muslims and traditional believers. Yet, instead of hearing about the Senegalese experiences, the focus fell upon inter-religious struggles in Nigeria.
Acknowledging that it would be hard to offset scepticism about inter-religious dialogue, given the Palestinian and Iraqi situations, he nevertheless stressed the importance of engaging in dialogue. In particular, the youth of Islamic societies must be targeted with specific activities as they tended to lose hope quickly.
Mr. SAPERSTEIN agreed that differences over Israel made communication difficult in some instances, but stressed that dialogues among Jewish and Muslim groups did occur every day. The strains between them could be overcome. On the issue of terrorism, however, he emphasized the accuracy of George Mitchell’s definition of terrorism as the use of military force to target innocent civilians for political purposes. All must see that the targeting of Israeli civilians in schoolyards, discos and bar mitzvahs had no place in any religion. In conclusion, he noted that tonight was the first night of Chanukah, and he hoped the candles lit by today’s discussion would come to light the entire world.
Mr. PICCO stressed that one of the practical developments that could come out of meetings such as the present one was acceptance that the world’s youth should be the main audience of such discussions. The youth were very sensitive to role models, he stressed, and one instrument that was underutilized was the use of hero figure that transcended divides. Such role models had tremendous appeal. For instance, none were familiar with the Afghan doctor who lost his life in Western Africa helping those he did not know. Yet these were the heroes of the world who should be used in books and stories, not because of who they were, but for what they had done.
In his closing remarks, Mr. THAROOR said that the second seminar had proven every bit as interesting as the first one. It had been a privilege to hear the perspectives of many talented and fascinating speakers, and interesting comments from the floor that had stimulated the debate. Much more dialogue was needed post-Seminar, however, to truly make a difference in dispelling the myths about Islam.
This morning, the Secretary-General had described eight things that must have a place in any strategy to combat Islamophobia: laws and norms, education, limiting the power and influence of hate media, leadership, two-way integration of cultures and peoples, dialogue –- particularly interfaith dialogue, understanding the policy context, and combating terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam –- or any religion for that matter. It was never the faith, but the faithful who distorted and misrepresented the elements of that faith. All those components could lead to victory.
Just as there had always been prejudice in the world, there had also always been cross-fertilization and cooperation between cultures, religions and peoples, he continued. People sometimes forgot that the works of the ancient Greeks that underpinned modern Western thought had once been lost to Europe, and were only preserved in Syriac and Arabic in the great Islamic libraries. Indeed, they resurfaced to play a key role in the Western enlightenment only after they were translated from Arabic into Latin. The modern world –- a phrase which was often code for the modern Western world –- was as much a product of the thinking of Muslims as it was of Christians or Jews.
“Every one of us has many identities”, he said. “Sometimes religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities.” Any fundamentalism –- and Islamic fundamentalism was no exception -- did so because it embodied a passion for pure belonging, a yearning intensified by the threatening tidal wave of globalization as well as by the nature of Middle Eastern politics. Of course, there was something precious and valuable in a faith that allowed a human being to see herself at one with others stretching their hands out towards God around the world. But could religion be separated from identity? Could people dream of a world in which religion had an honoured place, but where the need for spirituality and connection to the Divine would no longer be associated with the need to belong?
“If we can accept the truth that we each have multiple identities -- that you can be a good Muslim, and a good Jordanian, and a good Arab and a good human being all at once -- and that each of these identities can live in harmony with other identities, then we might resist intolerance more effectively”, he continued.
Terrorism and bigotry both emerged from blind hatred of an “other”, and that in turn was the product of three factors: fear, rage and incomprehension. “Fear of what the other might do to you, rage at what you believe the other has done to you, and incomprehension about who or what the Other really is –- these three elements fuse together in igniting the deadly combustion that assaults, and even destroys, people whose only sin is that they feel none of these things themselves”, he said. What was reprehensible, and just plain wrong, was when people attached these understandable emotional responses to the same blind hatred of the other that was the source of terrorism. When anger was directed not at the perpetrators of these crimes, but at everyone who shared their hair colour or their ethnicity, or who believed in the teachings they claimed to be following.
The ends to both terrorism and Islamophobia were to be found in the same place. If they were to be ended, the international community would have to deal with each of these three factors by attacking the ignorance that sustained them. “We will have to know each other better, learn to see ourselves as others see us, learn to recognize hatred and deal with its causes, learn to dispel fear, and above all just learn about each other”, he said.
Being an Indian, he wanted to conclude with an Indian story, he added –- a typical Indian story of a sage and his disciples. The sage asked his disciples, “When does the night end?” And the disciples said, “at dawn, of course”. The sage said, “I know that. But when does the night end and the dawn begin?" The first disciple, who was from the tropical south of India, replied: “When the first glimmer of light across the sky reveals the palm fronds on the coconut trees swaying in the breeze, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins”. The sage said “no”, so the second disciple, who was from the cold north, ventured: “When the first streaks of sunshine make the snow and ice gleam white on the mountaintops of the Himalayas, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.”
The sage replied, “no, my sons. When two travellers from opposite ends of our land meet and embrace each other as brothers, and when they realize they sleep under the same sky, see the same stars and dream the same dreams -– that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.”
“There has been many a terrible night in the century that has just passed; let us preserve the diversity of the human spirit to ensure that we will all have a new dawn in the century that has just begun”, he said.
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