UNITED NATIONS (Web Desk) - Underlining that “diversity is a richness, not a threat”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for greater investment in promoting social cohesion and tackling bigotry in a message on Wednesday to mark the International Day to Combat Islamophobia.
“We must continue to push for policies that fully respect human rights and religious, cultural and unique human identity,” he said in a video broadcast during a commemorative event held online, organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in which Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also took part.
“As the Holy Quran reminds us: nations and tribes were created to know one another,” the UN chief said.
Nearly 60 countries are members of the OIC, which designated March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia.
The secretary-general cited a recent report to the UN Human Rights Council which found that suspicion, discrimination and outright hatred towards Muslims had risen to “epidemic proportions”.
Examples listed included disproportionate restrictions against the Muslims manifesting their beliefs, limits on accessing citizenship, and widespread stigmatization of Muslim communities.
The study also highlighted how Muslim women face “triple levels of discrimination” because of their gender, ethnicity and faith, he added, while the media and some persons in power had further compounded stereotypes.
“Anti-Muslim bigotry is sadly in line with other distressing trends we are seeing globally – a resurgence in ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazism, stigma and hate speech targeting vulnerable populations, including Muslims, Jews, some minority Christian communities as well as others,” the secretary-general said.
Stressing that “discrimination diminishes us all”, the UN chief called for safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom were under threat.
“As we move toward ever more multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, we need political, cultural and economic investments to strengthen social cohesion and tackle bigotry,” he stated.
The secretary-general underscored that fighting discrimination, racism and xenophobia was a priority for the United Nations.
Following a fall-out in relations between many Muslim countries and some Western nations in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States – and subsequent attacks in London, Madrid and Bali – the Organization established the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) in 2005.
Miguel A´ngel Moratinos, the current UNAOC High Representative, recalled the initiative was launched as a “political soft power tool” whose objectives included promoting mutual respect among diverse cultures and religions.
“Despite progress made in building bridges of understanding through the promotion of intercultural and interfaith dialogue, manifestations of anti-Muslim hatred persisted and morphed into different forms,” he said.
“Islamophobia cannot be seen in isolation from the worrying increase in xenophobia and hate speech against minorities, including immigrants and other faith communities.”
Moratinos said mutual respect, interfaith harmony and peaceful co-existence could be achieved “when there is broad space for everyone to practice the rituals of their religions or beliefs freely and safely”.
For the President of the UN General Assembly, Turkish diplomat Volkan Bozkir, any form of discrimination, including based on religion or belief, “is a deeply personal attack”.
He urged countries to re-commit to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other related instruments, expressing hope that they would lay the foundation for national laws to end hate speech and hate crimes.
“Today our conversation is focused on Islamophobia, but the source of this scourge is a source that imperils us all. The answer is solidarity, equality, and respect for the equal dignity and entitlement to fundamental human rights of every individual,” he said.
Bozkir added that protecting people from extremism required a global strategy that included defeating all forms of violent ideologies.
He called for building resilience to discriminatory, exclusionary, and intolerant teachings, and developing respect for the religious and cultural practices of others.
Urging tolerance, he looked to young people as a source of hope.
“Young people are the leaders and upstanders of tomorrow – and it is our duty to teach them that every individual is entitled to equal dignity and inalienable human rights,” he recommended.
“Beyond formal education, we must instill within them a moral compass to help them navigate difficult situations. I applaud the work of the UN Alliance of Civilizations for their programming which promotes interfaith and intercultural dialogue for young people. I believe this is critical to the progress of humanity.”
Underscoring the importance of the Day, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said it would send a clear message against contemporary challenges of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, negative stereotyping and stigmatization, raise international awareness about increasing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments, and promote the message of tolerance, peaceful co-existence and interfaith and cultural harmony.
“The idea behind commemorating this day is to exhibit unfettered solidarity with humanity, convey a strong message of respect for human dignity, and reiterate our common commitment to ‘unity in diversity’,” he said, adding, “This day is about uniting, not dividing.”
“Let us not allow those who want to divide us, to negatively portray this day as being against any region, religion or country.
“Disinformation and distortion of facts is our common enemy. And it is these tools that purveyors of hate use to nourish their self-serving agendas,” Qureshi added.
The tragic events in Christchurch two years ago, in which 51 worshippers lost their lives, were a grim reminder of what the hateful ideologies could accomplish, he pointed out, saying the way the prime minister, the government and the people in New Zealand responded was both emphatic and empathetic.
Noting that the phenomenon of Islamophobia is not new, he said it had grown considerably over the last two decades.
“Today, expressions of Islamophobia are unmistakable in the manifestos of far-right and neo-fascist parties, which openly call for expulsion of Muslims, politicization of the Hijab, frequent mob lynchings by cow vigilantes, discriminatory laws, state-sponsored pogroms, deliberate vandalism of Islamic symbols and holy sites, and attempts to link and equate Islam and Muslims to terrorism,” the foreign minister said.
“COVID-19, that should have united us, has led to rise of negative narratives and hate speech in some countries, holding Muslim minorities responsible for spreading the virus,” he said.
The latest report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has revealed that such policies have served to perpetuate, validate and normalize discrimination, hostility and violence towards Muslim individuals and communities.
“The natural reaction of the Muslims to situations like unresolved disputes and festering conflicts, foreign occupation, and denial of the right to self-determination, is political disagreement with specific policies. It should not be taken as or depicted as an ‘Islamic’ reaction against universal values or freedoms,” the foreign minister said.
“Islam is a religion of peace. It should not be judged by acts of a fringe group of extremists who exist in all societies, religions or belief system. ”
The world, he said, could not continue on this spiral of hate. It benefitted only extremists on all sides and results in polarized societies and ultimately violence.
“We, Muslims, unequivocally condemn the practice of insulting Prophets of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Respect for all religions and Prophets is an article of faith with us. Similarly, we oppose all acts of violence on the basis of religion or belief. We only expect empathy and solidarity from others,” Qureshi said.
“The way forward is dialogue and understanding. Only if we are able to better understand each other’s perspective, will we be able to create peaceful and harmonious societies.
“The United Nations is the best platform to nurture this understanding.
The Secretary-General should convene a global dialogue on countering rising Islamophobia and promoting inter-faith harmony, as a step to foster engagement,” he added.