UN Seminar on Islamophobia


New York: Addressing an audience which included a delegation headed by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for increased education, legal protection, and interfaith dialogue to combat the rising tide of Islamophobia during a seminar on "Confronting Islamophobia" held at the United Nations.
"Unlearning intolerance is in part a matter of legal protection," Annan said to an audience of over 600 international scholars, American Muslims, and interfaith leaders. "But laws and norms are just a starting point... There is a need to unlearn the habit of xenophobia."
The seminar, which focused on the current realities of Islamophobia and the role of education and the media in countering damaging stereotypes, represented a historic opportunity for American Muslims to learn from and strategize with prominent participants in the ongoing international dialogue on Islam and Muslims.
To contribute to this important task, MPAC's delegation met with representatives from the United Nations, its Member States and affiliated non-governmental organizations, who emphasized the need to transcend tolerance. The 20-member group of scholars, professionals and community activists included MPAC's National Director Ahmed Younis, Communications Director Edina Lekovic and Washington, DC staffer Amin Alsarraf, as well as a representative of the New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
"The context of the on-going dialogue is tolerance, which represents a minimal connection between two particles," said Dr. Ahmad Kamal Aboul Magd, who is Professor of Public Law at Cairo University and Judge for the World Bank Administrative Tribunal. "We are fully aware of the eminent dangers that are continually crossing the boundaries of geography, politics and populations in the effort of making life more enjoyable for all people. Tolerance is very minimalist, negative, and passive. The same goes for coexistence."
In a panel addressing the role of education, Professor Noah Feldman, author of "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy," characterized the pervasive nature of anti-Islam sentiment as a challenge to be met with honesty and objectivity.
"Even spreading a better understanding of Islam does not guarantee the end of Islamophobia, but it can protect against a particularly virulent response to misinformation," said Feldman, Associate Professor of Law at New York University. "Here in the United Nations, the principle that governs is that persons who disagree can nonetheless find common ground to benefit the greater good."
During the audience Q&A session which followed the panel, National Director Ahmed Younis introduced the delegation as a group of American Muslims who believe that there is no dissonance between being an American and a Muslim. He asked Feldman how he, in his capacity as a writer, educator and legal expert, could bolster such mainstream moderate voices.
"Muslim Americans have an extraordinary challenge in front of them – to go out to university campuses, to television, to write in newspapers and write books and to communicate their distinctive perspective. Be honest," Feldman responded. "Feel no need to be apologetic. When you see that a version of Islam that you find attractive should be pushed – say so. All I can do is tell you is that I’m looking forward to a day that an American of Jewish origin would not be called by the media to talk about Islam."
Giandomenico Picco, Special Adviser and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Dialogue among Civilizations, articulated the source of phobias as a fear of change, which is compounded by the media attention given to individuals and groups with extreme views.
"It is time to take away from the hands of the extremists the ability to dictate the agenda," Picco said. Dr. Aziza Al-Hibri, University of Richmond law professor, and Amaney Jamal, Assositant Professor of Politics at Princeton University, also discussed the real consequences of extremism which undermines the work of moderates to claim their identity and define their religious and political beliefs independently.
"Too often, the diversity of Islam has been seen through the lens of extremism," said Dr. John Esposito, founder of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "It will not be eradicated easily or soon. Therefore. we all have a critical role to play. Religious and political leaders, educators, and media people, the private and public sectors are charged today to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue that is grounded in mutual understanding of others.
"The message is simple: Islam is not the enemy, religious extremism is," added Esposito, who will be a keynote speaker during MPAC's national convention on December 18.
Moderated by Shashi Tharoor, Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information, the seminar was the second in a series entitled "Unlearning Intolerance" which has previously examined anti-Semitism.

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