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World: Analysis From Washington -- Combating Islamophobia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An international conference in Sweden this week condemned prejudice against Muslims and called on governments to combat it just as they often have committed themselves to fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

The 50 countries attending the Stockholm International Forum on Combating Intolerance on Tuesday adopted a declaration denouncing intolerance in all its forms, something the international community has done many times. But the Stockholm declaration added Islamophobia to the traditional list.

Muslim governments have long sought that addition. In 1994, Jordan's then Crown Prince and now King Hassan called on the United Nations General Assembly to commit itself to fighting "anti-Muslim sentiments and other manifestations of Islamophobia." But until this week, most governments had been reluctant to put that form of intolerance on the same level as anti-Semitism or racism.

In addition, Muslims living in non-Islamic countries have made similar appeals. This week, a Russian Muslim suggested that press coverage of Islam in his country was contributing to prejudice and mistreatment of his co-religionists. And Muslims living in the United States have organized groups modeled on those put together by blacks and Jews to defend themselves and their community against attack.

One of the reasons for the reluctance of the international community to go on record on this issue is that the citizens of many European countries which often take the lead in authoring international declarations against prejudice have become increasingly unhappy with the influx of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. And governments there have not wanted to put themselves at odds with their own citizens.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Stockholm meeting, "the impression is being created that because of popular resentment toward immigrants, some governments are taking approaches which are not in strict conformity with the 1951 Geneva Convention [on the treatment of refugees] and with international law."

In other comments, Annan made it clear that he was speaking precisely about Europe. "As we move forward," the UN leader said: "Europe is going to need more and more immigrants to sustain its own economic development and I think it is right that we have the right approaches and the right policy and the right understanding of the role immigrants play in society."

Yet another reason for past failures to condemn Islamophobia is the widespread view, often propagated by these and other governments, that Islam, at least in its fundamentalist form, represents a threat to democracy and civil society. Many who hold this view often make statements which blacken the reputation of Islam as a whole, regardless of whether that is their intention.

Sometimes it is stated outright. Nationalist politicians in Europe and the Russian Federation have often done so in the expectation that attacking Muslims is politically useful. Indeed, Russian officials have sometimes made comments about Muslims that border on the racist, and these officials all too often have been rewarded with political support rather than condemned for promoting prejudice.

But sometimes comments about Islam that are not intended by their authors to be derogatory are used by others with fewer scruples. Thus, some who find it politically useful to demonize Islam have exploited the ideas of Harvard University's Samuel Huntington, the author of the widely acclaimed book "The Clash of Civilizations" about his predictions concerning conflicts between Christianity and Islam.

The Stockholm declaration this week commits its signatories to fighting anti-Muslim prejudices not only among countries but within them. It urges governments to develop educational programs for young people to overcome this form of bigotry. And it calls on them as well to work to limit the use of the Internet to propagate this form of hatred, just as the international community has fought anti-Semitism and racism there.

Obviously, a single meeting, even one that attracted so many governments, is not going to overcome a form of prejudice as widespread as anti-Muslim attitudes now are. But the Stockholm session nonetheless represents a major step forward. That is because it gives this prejudice a name -- Islamophobia -- and the experience of other groups which have been subject to similar attitudes in the past have in every case gained ground when they secured official recognition of the name of the prejudices directed against them.

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