Seminar participants stress importance
understanding, education in countering
Secretary-General Says Re-Establishing
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
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”.
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
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
noted that the modern phenomenon echoed the historic rise and spread of
Islam to cover territories from
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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
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
Chechnya were also of great
importance. Fanaticism of people on both sides fed the fanaticism on
the other side.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
America, Islam presented a
menace to the West.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
EL-BANNA stressed that the diversity of Islam meant that while the core
of Islam remained the same, Muslims adapted to their surrounding
Panel II –- Education for Tolerance and Understanding
CALVIN O. BUTTS III, Pastor of the
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
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.
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
FELDMAN, Associate Professor of Law,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
However, Mr. FELDMAN, while clarifying that he was not apologizing for
United States, stressed the
importance of acknowledging that, statistically, Americans did not think
that Muslims were all terrorists. It was an unfair generalization.
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
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.
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.
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
Iraq. The drafters had
taken and left outside as they had seen fit.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
final round of responses to questions posed by participants in today’s
dialogue, Mr. FODOR noted that Islamophobia was the consequence of
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.”
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