Press Release



He Also Underscores Need to Unlearn

Entrenched Stereotypes, Widespread Habit of Xenophobia

Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s address to the Department of Public Information (DPI) seminar, “Confronting Islamophobia:  Education for Tolerance and Understanding”, in New York, today, 7 December 2004:

It is a pleasure to welcome you to the United Nations, as you heard, for the second in our series on “Unlearning Intolerance”.  I would like to thank Professor Nasr, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, for joining us today.  I am grateful as well to the other panellists for their participation.

When a new word enters the language, it is often the result of a scientific advance or a diverting fad.  But when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development.  Such is the case with Islamophobia.

The word seems to have emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  But the phenomenon dates back centuries.  Today, the weight of history and the fallout of recent developments 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.  So the title of this series is very appropriate:  there is much to unlearn.

There is a need to unlearn the stereotypes that have become so entrenched in so many minds and so much of the media.

Islam is often seen as a monolith, when it is as diverse as any other tradition, with followers running the gamut from modernizers to traditionalists.  Some commentators talk as if the world of Islam was more or less identical with the Arab world -- whereas in fact a majority of Muslims are not native Arabic speakers.  The most populous Muslim countries are to be found in non-Arab Asia -- from Indonesia through South-East and South Asia to Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, which of course is both in Asia and Europe.  There are many predominantly Muslim countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and large minorities of Muslims are to be found on every continent.

Islam’s tenets are frequently distorted and taken out of context, with particular acts or practices being taken to represent or to symbolize a rich and complex faith.  Some claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or irrevocably hostile to modernity and the rights of women.  And in too many circles, disparaging remarks about Muslims are allowed to pass without censure, with the result that prejudice acquires a veneer of acceptability.

Stereotypes also depict 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.  European civilization would not have advanced to the extent it did had Christian scholars not benefited from the learning and literature of Islam in the Middle Ages, and later.

There is also a need to unlearn the habit of xenophobia.

Fear of the “other” is so widespread and ferocious that we may be tempted to think of it as an immutable attribute of the human animal.  But people are not hard-wired for prejudice.  In some cases they are taught to hate.  In others, they are manipulated into it by leaders who exploit fear, ignorance or feelings of weakness.

The pressures of living together with people of different cultures and different beliefs from one’s own are real, especially in a world of intense economic competition and in which there have been sudden influxes of immigrants, as has happened in Europe over the last generation or two.  But that cannot justify demonization or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes.  That only deepens the spiral of suspicion and alienation.

Unlearning intolerance is in part a matter of legal protection.  The right to freedom of religion -- and to be free from discrimination based on religion -- is long enshrined in international law, from the UN Charter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other instruments.  Such standards have been incorporated into the laws of many countries.  United Nations special rapporteurs continue to monitor the exercise and infringements of this right, and to recommend ways to combat Islamophobia and other forms of racism and intolerance.

But laws and norms are just a starting point.

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 can be seen for what they are.

We must prevent the media and Internet from being used to spread hatred, while of course safeguarding freedom of opinion and expression.

There is a crucial need for leadership.  Public authorities should not only condemn Islamophobia, but ensure that law enforcement and other practices follow through on pledges of non-discrimination.

In many countries of Christian tradition, large Muslim communities are a relatively new phenomenon.  Integration is a two-way street.  Immigrants must adjust to their new societies -- and societies must adjust, too.  Hosts and immigrants alike need to understand each other’s expectations and responsibilities.  And they need to be able, where necessary, to act against common threats such as extremism.

Interfaith dialogue can be useful.  But problems are not caused by the similarities among religions that are typically celebrated in such dialogue.  They are caused by other similarities -- the propensity of human beings to favour their own groups, beliefs and cultures at the expense of others.  Interfaith activities could take a more practical direction, building on the examples of those communities in which different peoples come together regularly in professional associations, or on the sporting field, or in other social settings.  Such day-to-day contacts carry less of the artificiality of established dialogue, and can be especially useful in demystifying the “other”.

An honest look at Islamophobia must also acknowledge the policy context.  The historical experience of Muslims includes colonialism and domination by the West, either direct or indirect.  Resentment is 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 can 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.

Efforts to combat Islamophobia must also contend with the question of terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam.  Islam should not be judged by the acts of extremists who deliberately target and kill civilians.  The few give a bad name to the many, and this is unfair.  All of us must condemn those who carry out such morally reprehensible acts, which no cause can justify.  Muslims themselves, especially, should speak out, as so many did following the 11 September attacks on the United States, and show a commitment to isolate those who preach or practice violence and to make it clear that these are unacceptable distortions of Islam.  Indeed, it is essential that solutions come from within Islam itself -- perhaps in the Muslim tradition of “ijtihad”, or free interpretation.  Such open inquiry, such openness to what is good and bad, in their cultures and others, may well offer a very useful path on this question and others.

Islamophobia is at once a deeply personal issue for Muslims, a matter of great importance to anyone concerned about upholding universal values, and a question with implications for international harmony and peace.  We should not underestimate the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world’s great religions, cultures and civilizations.  And we must make the re-establishment of trust among people of different faiths and cultures our highest priority.  Otherwise, discrimination will continue to taint many innocent lives, and distrust might make it impossible to move ahead with our 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.  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.

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For information media. Not an official record.