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OSCE: Conference On Tolerance And Racism Opens In Brussels

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The annual Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference on tolerance and the fight against racism opened today in Brussels. The concerns of the Islamic world are a major aspect of the conference. Speakers addressed issues, such as the spread of fanaticism, immigration, and what many consider growing 'Islamophobia' in Europe. Others called on non-European OSCE countries to display greater understanding of the concerns of their own non-Muslim minorities.

Brussels, 13 September 2004 (RFE/RL) - This year's OSCE conference on tolerance is marked by two overarching concerns.

The matters under discussion are becoming increasingly more urgent. They are also highly contested. And the greater the urgency, the more contested the issues become.

In his opening remarks today, the OSCE's chairman in office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, underlined the urgency of the task.
"Xenophobia is the product of a timorous conscience, namely of individuals who lack sufficient self-confidence who do not feel secure in their personal status."

He said that Islam and Muslims now form a key challenge for the OSCE.

"We understand that the Islamic world now expects the OSCE to confront a fast-emerging negative phenomenon, namely [attacks] on Muslims and Arabs, and incitement against Islam and its followers. It is indeed the aim of this conference to reaffirm our decisive response against all forms of intolerance, racism, and discrimination in the OSCE area. Thus, I believe, we have incorporated the legitimate concerns of all Muslims in the OSCE area into our agenda," Pasi said.

Tragically, Pasi noted, the urgency to deal with developments in the Islamic world has been magnified by the outburst of terrorist attacks over the past years.

Pasi dedicated the conference to the families of the victims of terrorist attacks this year.

"The shocking images from Bali, Indonesia recently, and from Beslan [in] North Ossetia on our television screens filled us with revulsion and deep sadness as the brutal terrorist acts led to the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, including many children. I hope you all will permit me to dedicate this conference to the families of those who were killed, injured, or hurt in the terrorist acts of 2004," Pasi said.

Speaking on behalf of the host country, Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt summed up the challenges facing his country and Europe at large. Belgium has proportionally one of the largest immigrant communities in the EU, many of whom are Muslims.

Verhofstadt regretted that attitudes in his country are not changing fast enough.

"Many of us had thought that globalization, television, the Internet and people's increased eagerness to travel would lead to greater tolerance in Europe and the entire world. Unfortunately, we are regularly confronted with just the opposite. We have all witnessed the progress, in many countries, of ultra-right wing parties which hardly refrain from spreading racist messages. And, even worse, we are witnessing a trend of increased racist violence," Verhofstadt said.

Verhofstadt called for greater dialogue with the Muslim community. He said that it is equally important to focus on educating and increasing the historical awareness of Belgium's young people.

"In the light of recent racist incidents, I have concluded that young people in my country are often not sufficiently aware of the horrible consequences that racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have had in the past. They are not aware of what people went through because they happened to have a different color of skin, religion, or origin. I am shocked at how quickly this can be forgotten," Verhofstadt said.

Another keynote speaker, Jordan's prince Hassan, echoed many of the concerns expressed by Pasi and Verhofstadt, but with some significant differences in emphasis.

"With all due respect with all this talk of tolerance, Mr Chairman, may I say that I prefer the word 'respect.' I don't want to [have to] tolerate you and you don't want to [have to] tolerate me. But I think if we can learn to respect each other's traditions -- particularly at a time in world history when it seems to me that events are determined by exceptions rather than by rules -- we need to develop a continuum of commitment to respect the other," Hassan said.

Prince Hassan said the West should spend more time on promoting multiculturalism rather than trying to prohibit and outlaw discrimination and racism. He said pluralism, not assimilation or emphasis of differences, should be the answer.

He also criticized rulers of Arab countries for hoarding billions of dollars of oil revenues, while their citizens go uneducated.

Another keynote speaker, Patriarch Bartholomeos, the spiritual leader for 300 million Orthodox Christians, offered this analysis of xenophobia.

"Xenophobia is the product of a timorous conscience, namely of individuals who lack sufficient self-confidence who do not feel secure in their personal status. Strangers are thus regarded as a threat, as posing a hazard. It is precisely when we do not feel efficient in our self-assurance and confidence that we consider others, especially strangers, as the root cause of our worries and turn against them in the hope that by removing them we remove the danger that ostensibly threatens our being," Bartholomeos said.

The patriarch, who lives in Istanbul, went on to make clear that he was most worried about "indigenous majorities" in countries where intolerant majorities make them scapegoats "for their [own] backwardness and failure to progress."