The "Unlearning Intolerance" seminar series resumed on 7 December 2004 at UN Headquarters in New York.

The "Unlearning Intolerance" seminar series resumed on 7 December 2004 at UN Headquarters in New York. The groundbreaking series, organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), aims to raise awareness by examining manifestations of intolerance and exploring ways to promote mutual respect and understanding among different cultures.

Attended by more than 600 participants, the seminar devoted to "Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding" is the first of its kind held at the United Nations. An accompanying exhibit entitled "Islam", by Iranian photographer Abbas, former President of the Magnum photographers' cooperative, was also launched that day. The first seminar in the series on "Confronting Anti-Semitism" took place on 21 June, with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as the keynote speaker (see UN Chronicle, issue 2, 2004).


In his welcoming remarks, UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, who moderated the day-long seminar, noted that "no one is born intolerant, only taught to be so". In his opening address (see page 4), Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined a multi-dimensional strategy for effectively combating Islamophobia: limiting the influence of hate media, embracing laws, education, leadership, integration, interfaith dialogue, policy awareness and combating violence carried out in the name of religion.

Starting his keynote speech by saying that it was "very easy to learn intolerance and unlearn tolerance, but difficult to unlearn intolerance", Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, traced the root causes of Islamophobia. Noting that it referred back to the rise of Islam, he stated that the Christian West's fear of Islam was both religious and political, adding that this dark reservoir of historical consciousness had been resurrected in the past decade, leading to new waves of fear and hatred.

Mr. Nasr said four "myths" about Islamophobia needed to be dispelled. The first was that Islam was a monolithic whole--a presumption, often found in the Western media, that disregarded the various schools of Islamic thought. Another illusion was that Islam wanted to rule over the Western world, he said. The Islamic world was not anti-Western in itself because, according to surveys, some 70 per cent of adolescents in Islamic countries were interested in studying in the West. Similarly, it was false to believe that Islam was against modernity or democracy, as it affirmed the inherent dignity of each human being. Finally, Islam was a religion of tolerance, he stressed. Over the centuries, Islamic countries had frequently shown more understanding towards non-Muslims--accommodating Jews or Christians fleeing persecution--than Muslims generally had received in their societies.

In combating Islamophobia, Mr. Nasr concluded, it was important to take into account not only the role of extremism in Islam but also among Christians and Jews. The paradox was that many people afraid of Islam knew very little about it. Muslims needed to utilize the media and the role of education in fighting intolerance, the professor said. Three important groups in the West were crucial in overcoming Islamophobia: well-intentioned citizens who knew that hatred bred hatred; honest scholars whose voices needed to be heard; and Muslims themselves who sought to bridge the existing gap with the West.

The Islamophobia seminar featured three panels, comprising prominent scholars, writers and community leaders from all over the world. The first panel discussion on "Perspectives on Islamophobia Today" featured Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, Vice-President of the Egyptian Council for Human Rights and Professor of Public Law at Cairo University; Hany el-Banna, President of Islamic Relief, London; John L. Esposito, Professor and founding Director of Georgetown University Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding; Asma Gull Hasan, author of American Muslims: The New Generation; and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, President of the American Sufi Muslim Association.

Stating that he preferred the term "anti-Islamism" because, similar to anti-Semitism, it focussed on the agony of the victims while "Islamophobia" reflected the state of mind of those who felt threatened, Mr. Aboulmagd cautioned that mere "tolerance" should not be the ultimate objective. There was a need for a common effort to achieve something more than the minimalist objectives of "coexistence". Mr. Esposito, noting that Islam was too often seen through the lens of Muslim extremism, said there was a perception that as the third largest religion in the West, Islam presented a menace. Like anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, Islamophobia could not be eradicated without the participation of religious and political leaders, as well as the media and educators. The United Nations should provide leadership in building a modern notion of tolerance, he said. Mr. el-Banna stressed that plurality would be the first and greatest casualty of fearing everything that was positive and civilized. He noted that most UN mandates were based upon principles contained in the Koran. Having grown up as an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, Ms. Gull Hasan had encountered problems because she did not wear "head-cover"; Muslims needed to support each other more, she said. Imam Rauf, representing a multi-faith initiative which promoted the celebration rather than merely toleration of others, noted that each person had to take personal responsibility for the conflicts they could influence and to promote a common vision. All groups needed to participate, he concluded.

The second panel on "Education for Tolerance and Understanding" comprised Calvin O. Butts III, Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City; Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Professor of Law at the University of Richmond and President of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights; R. Scott Appleby, Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame; Noah Feldman, Associate Professor of Law at New York University; and Panchapakesa Jayaraman, Executive Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, the Institute of Indian Culture.

Reverend Butts noted that politicians often hid behind religion, using it as a cover for their base affairs, adding that terrorism was known to all faiths. Ms. al-Hibri said it was remarkable that a religion whose holy book had established acceptance of others was in need of defenders. Mr. Appleby stressed that education for tolerance should begin with the recognition of a variety of teachings and be rooted in practices that invited self-criticism, as well as celebrated differences. Mr. Jayaraman stressed that it was the time to create an educational system to teach about the commonality of all the world's religions. Mr. Feldman said that the only way to combat all forms of religious intolerance was to be as open as possible about the range, complexity and diversity of the beliefs that existed in the world.

The third panel on "Confronting Islamophobia" comprised Monsignor Gyorgy Fodor, Rector of Peter Pazmany Catholic University, Budapest; Amaney Jamal, Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University; Djibril Diallo, Director of the New York Office of the Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace and Spokesman for the President of the UN General Assembly; Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Giandomenico Picco, Chief Executive Officer of GDP Associates, Inc. and Special Adviser and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Dialogue among Civilizations.