Seeing Islam as a monolith, distorting its tenets and equating Arabs with the entire Islamic world are among the many practices that now make up the prejudice called Islamophobia and must be stopped, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said today.
"Islam's tenets are frequently distorted and taken out of context, with particular acts or practices being taken to represent or to symbolize a rich and complex faith," he said in an address entitled "Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding," part of a UN-sponsored series on "Unlearning Intolerance."
"Some claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or irrevocably hostile to modernity and the rights of women. And in too many circles, disparaging remarks about Muslims are allowed to pass without censure, with the result that prejudice acquires a veneer of acceptability."
No one should underestimate the resentment and sense of injustice that members of one of the world's great religions, cultures and civilizations felt as they looked at unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, the situation in Chechnya and the atrocities against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Annan said.
"But we should remember that these are political reactions - disagreements with specific policies. All too often, they are mistaken for an Islamic reaction against Western values, sparking an anti-Islamic backlash," he said.
The first seminar in the series, organized by the Educational Outreach Section of the UN Department of Public Information (DPI), took place on 21 June with an opening address by Mr. Annan and fellow-Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as keynote speaker. It was called "Confronting Anti-Semitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding."
Like other religions, Mr. Annan said, the Islamic world grouped together modernizers and traditionalists and the most populous Muslim countries are not Arab, but are located in non-Arab Asia, from Indonesia to part-Asian, part-European Turkey.
Despite the ferocity and prevalence of xenophobia, "people are not hard-wired for prejudice," he said. "In some cases they are taught to hate. In others, they are manipulated into it by leaders who exploit fear, ignorance, or feelings of weakness."
Unlearning intolerance was partly a matter of legally protecting human and civil rights, as well as providing relevant education, leadership, social integration and dialogue, he said.
Dialogue should include day-to-day contacts which "can be especially useful in demystifying the 'other'," Mr. Annan said.
In his keynote speech, Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University in Washington, DC, questioned the use today of the suffix "phobia," saying that when Islam rose and covered land from France to China within one century, the Christian West had a fear of Islam that was both religious and political.
By contrast, the non-Islamic world today was very powerful from many points of view. Unfortunately, the reservoir of historical consciousness had been resurrected and Islamophobia was not only a question of fear, but also a matter of hatred, Professor Nasr said.
Muslims were not trying to be aggressive, they were trying to be themselves, he said, but in many areas that effort had led to fanaticism and the fanaticism on one side was feeding the fanaticism on the other side.
In analyzing Islamophobia, therefore, it was important to take into account not only the role of extremism in Islam, but also the role of extremism among Christians and Jews, he said.
The first seminar was accompanied by a photo exhibition open to the public and entitled "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile" by Frederic Brenner. Today's event was highlighted by a similar photo exhibition, called "Islam," by Iranian photographer Abbas, a former president of the Magnum photographers' cooperative.