Scholars and diplomats from around the world gathered in New York on 7 December to discuss the rising wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. Secretary-General Kofi Annan kicked off the daylong seminar at UN headquarters.
"When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry -- that is a sad and troubling development," Annan said. "Such is the case with 'Islamophobia.' The word seems to have emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the weight of history and the fallout of recent developments have left many Muslims around the world feeling aggravated and misunderstood, concerned about the erosion of their rights and even fearing for their physical safety."
Annan rejected widely held views that Islam is incompatible with democracy or irrevocably hostile to modernity and women's rights. He said stereotypes also unfairly depict Muslims as anti-Western despite a history of commerce and interaction in the arts and sciences.
Getting over Islamophobia and any other kind of phobia is crucial in a world of intense global economic competition, according to Annan. "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," he said. "We must prevent the media and the Internet from being used to spread hatred while, of course, safeguarding freedom of opinion and expression."
A key factor contributing to the raise of Islamophobia, panelists noted, is the concept of "jihad" or "holy war" against infidels. Militants such as Osama bin Laden invoke jihad to rally Muslims to their cause.
But Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, an Egyptian judge and law professor at Cairo University, said that the notion of "holy war" does not exist in Islam.
"In Islam and in Islamic literature there is no such thing as 'a holy war.' This is [a] Western invention that was attributed to us, I don't know how and why and when," Aboulmagd said. "In the Koran, there are many verses that say [that] when you need it [jihad], and you Muslims need it -- [you need] explicit authorization to engage even in a war of self-defense. So the concept of holy war is always a hateful thing."
But in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the United States, and other terrorist strikes around the globe including in Russia and Europe, the international perception of Islam as a source of violence against civilians is only growing.
Yet the war on terrorism pursued by Washington and other governments seems to many Muslims to be a war on Islam.
"The impact and implications, the influence of Islamophobia raised many questions and issues," said John Esposito, director of Washington's Georgetown University Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "No. 1, it certainly feeds the perception in many parts of the Muslim world that it's not a war against global terrorism -- it's a war against Islam. It raises questions about the extent to which our [U.S.] domestic and foreign policies are influenced not simply by a concern about extremism that we need to address them, but in fact by Islamophobia."
Esposito called for more efforts from educators and the media to correct distorted perceptions and to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
"For at the end of the day Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance know no religious, racial, tribal, or national boundaries or limits," Esposito said. "The message at the end of the day is clear, the message is simple -- Islam is not the enemy, religious extremism is."
Several seminar participants pointed out that for centuries Islam and Christianity have enjoyed mutually beneficial contacts in art, culture, and science. They noted that today's problem seems to be that those historic ties have dried up.
The result is a lack of understanding on both sides. But as Asma Gull Hasan said, there is also a lack of understanding among members of the same religion.
Hasan is an American of Pakistani descent and the author of "Why I Am A Muslim" and "American Muslims: The New Generation." She said that as a Muslim born and raised in the United States she has seen the main obstacle toward tolerance and perception in Muslims themselves.
"My main experience with Islamophobia has been from other Muslims," Hasan said. "The greatest resistance to true Islam, to achieving a beautiful, peaceful, spiritual Islam, to me and to my experience -- [it] has been from other Muslims."
She said she has faced racism and sexism from conservative Muslims and Arabs who consider non-Arabs unfit to discuss Islam.
Hasan said that interfaith activities could move in a more practical direction, building on the examples of communities where people from different religions come together in professional associations or even sports teams. Such activities, she said, demystify the way of life of others.
For similar stories, visit RFE/RL's new Religion And Tolerance webpage, which highlights examples of religious tolerance in our broadcast region.