U.N. Conference Denounces Terrorism, Racism

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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UNITED NATIONS — Even as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Muslims to condemn extremists preaching and committing violence in the name of Islam, several participants of a special conference on “Islamophobia” were blaming “racist America” as the root cause for the rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

The embattled Annan, target of a rising chorus of American Republican lawmakers calling for his resignation in the wake of the growing Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, opened the one-day conference Tuesday denouncing Islamophobia but calling on Muslims to take the responsibility of addressing the issue.

“Efforts to combat Islamophobia must also contend with the question of terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam,” Annan told a packed U.N. assembly hall. “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.”

But, he said, referring to extremists who deliberately target and kill civilians, “all of us must condemn those who carry out such morally reprehensible acts, which no cause can justify.”

“Muslims, themselves, especially, should speak out…and show a commitment to isolate those who preach or practice violence, and to make it clear that these are unacceptable distortions of Islam,” Annan said. “Indeed it is essential that solutions come from within Islam itself — perhaps in the Muslim tradition of ijtihad, or free interpretation.”

Later in the day, Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, said it would be “absolutely wrong” to suggest that Muslims have not denounced terrorism sufficiently.

“All the main Muslim organizations have denounced terrorism,” even the Arab media including Al Jazeera, she insisted. “Look at the more moderate clerics — not all of them but across the board — the majority are denouncing terrorism.” She blamed the American media for failing to get out the message. “What more can we do?”

The conference, titled “Confronting Islamophobia,” was the second in a series of U.N. seminars called “Unlearning Intolerance,” organized by the education section of the Outreach Division of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information. The first conference, in September, focused on antisemitism.

Several speakers at the conference denounced the USA Patriot Act and the record number of Muslims arrested, detained and deported under the Bush administration since September 11, 2001.

The politically influential Rev. Calvin Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, joined noted University of Richmond Islamic law professor Azizah Y. Al-Hibri and several others in citing the history of racism in the United States as key factors in the increased verbal and physical assaults against Muslims following the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers.

Butts consistently likened Islamophobia to the racism experienced by blacks in “the very racist United States of America.”

“If they can’t pinpoint calling you a nigger, they will pinpoint calling you a terrorist,” he told the packed, mostly Muslim audience at the U.N. assembly hall.

Raising the 1994 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing by a white Christian, Butts asked why young Christian men “with crew cuts and hush puppies” had not been singled out by law enforcement, while Muslims wearing traditional garb have been since September 11.

Al-Hibri, president of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, said that solutions to Islamophobia would be found in the history of discrimination in America. She said it was remarkable that Islam, which preaches tolerance and understanding, and whose holy book, the Quran, teaches inclusion and acceptance, must now be defended in the world.

One Jewish panelist, Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who helped draft Iraq’s interim constitution, challenged Butts’s assertion that Americans think all Muslims are terrorists.

“I don’t think that’s a fair sociological description,” Feldman said, citing surveys.

Butts drew applause when he countered that most people don’t tell pollsters their true feelings. He also criticized religious terrorists who believe that God gave them land. “Imagine someone kicking in your door saying that God has given us your land,” he said.

Speakers also criticized the America media, singling out the conservative Republican Fox News for failing to be fair and balanced on Muslim issues.

Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, criticized the “militant Zionist Christian right” for fomenting Islamophobia.

Wissam Nasr, executive director of the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the seminar failed to answer several key questions regarding how to define anti-Islamic bias. “Who are the Islamophobes?” he said. “What is the threshold for Islamophobia? I can accept fear and suspicion. That’s freedom of thought.”

On Wednesday, the Vatican called for the U.N. to recognize “Christianophobia” as a rising world evil equal to antisemitism and Islamophobia, according to the London Telegraph. Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo said that anti-Christian feelings have risen because of the war on terrorism.

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