WASHINGTON (BP)–The United Nations’ second World Conference on Racism will be focused on the fear of Islam, or “Islamophobia,” and religious freedom experts are concerned it is simply an effort to sidetrack interest in the lack of tolerance and freedom inside Islamic and Arab countries.
“The world of human rights has developed a weapon. It’s one that inverts victim and perpetrator. It’s one that is designed to deflect attention from human rights abuses by those who violate human rights,” said Ann Bayefsky, a panelist at a Hudson Institute conference Oct. 30.
The panel convened in Washington to discuss “Islamophobia,” a term which is actively opposed by members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group inside the U.N.
“There’s nothing wrong with condemning ‘Islamophobia,'” Bayefsky said. “The problem is that it has been manipulated as a term to mean something quite different … a kind of mass movement on the part of western governments and non-Muslims to denounce all of Islam, which is not the case.”
Panelists contended the OIC has used the concept to “hijack” human rights issues. The discussion was a response to a September decision from the U.N.’s Human Rights Counsel to focus on prejudice against Muslims at its 2009 conference on racism in Durban, South Africa.
“As a Muslim, I can personally attest to the fact that ‘Islamophobia’ is not a myth,” said Fahad Nazer, a fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.
Nazer, however, also testified to the lack of public discourse in Saudi Arabia among those who are not of the dominant interpretation of Islam.
“Islam is the prism through which everything is filtered in Saudi Arabia,” Nazer said. The mixture of religious doctrine with governmental establishments creates extreme limitations for religious minorities, which include non-Muslims, as well as Muslims who interpret the Koran differently than the Wahhabi sect.
The panel’s concern was that laws against “Islamophobia” would be used to put up a “theological iron curtain,” preventing human rights organizations from advancing basic freedoms in Islamic states.
“Proposed bans against ‘Islamophobia’ are tantamount to blasphemy strictures that have been used to curtail freedoms of expression, press and religion by some of the OIC’s most repressive member states,” said Nina Shea, who introduced the panel.
Shea is a both a senior fellow at Hudson and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF, of which Southern Baptist Richard Land is a vice chair, reports to the State Department and Congress on religious liberty around the globe.
USCIRF has recommended Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan for designation by the State Department as “countries of particular concern” for “ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” although only Saudi Arabia and Iran have been placed on the list. All three countries are leading members of the OIC.
The U.N., which has been considered the world’s watchdog for human rights violations, cannot protect dissent among Muslims or basic human rights in the Middle East when it is dominated by an organization that is “not seriously interested in protecting human rights … of Muslims or Christians or Jews or Hindus or others,” Bayefsky said.
The 2009 U.N. conference, for which the U.S. taxpayers will foot 22 percent of the bill, is what Bayefsky described as “a call to arms for every terrorist on earth.” As the perception of a threat from non-Muslim sources grows among Muslims, the suppression of Islam, she fears, will be used to “excuse terrorism.”
Panelists also addressed the concern that human rights activists outside the U.N. are imposing Western definitions of basic rights on countries that have not accepted these designations.
“In just about every Muslim and Arab country, there are people pushing for reforms, there are civil society organizations who want the same exact rights that you guys all enjoy [in the U.S.],” Nazer said. “It’s not a good idea just to abandon them just because they are under an oppressive government.”
Sheik Ahmed Subhy Mansour, founder of the Quranic movement against Muslim extremists, and Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute also spoke on the panel regarding the limited freedom of religion and expression within the Muslim world.
Erica Simons is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.