It is true that throughout its history, the UN has claimed to work to eliminate racial discrimination. The UN Charter adopted in 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1963, were notable milestones in working towards racial equality. The UN designated March 21st as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to provide an opportunity to renew commitment to “building a world of justice, equality and dignity,” where racial discrimination has no place.
The UDHR was drafted after the world witnessed the horrors of genocide in World War II based on anti-Semitism. However, close to seven decades after UDHR’s adoption, history appears to repeat itself when sadly racism in all its forms is still a global reality. Racial discrimination and hatred, including hate-motivated actions, crimes and policies, remain far too prevalent across the world we live in. These threats are compounded by deepening inequalities, and rising exclusion and marginalisation, which weaken the fabric of societies at once globalised and atomised. Emerging trends, racism and a lack of accountability for racist acts continue to occur worldwide despite protection guarantees rooted in international laws.
Fear of the “other” is so widespread and ferocious in modernity that we may be tempted to think of it as an immutable attribute of the human animal. But people are not hard-wired for prejudice. 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. The promotion of Islamophobia today creates both prejudice and discrimination among the general population. Prejudice in turn plays a key role in the existence and proliferation of Islamophobia. Prejudice alone, as a negative judgment, opinion, or attitude, is a detriment to a population’s overall wellbeing. Prejudice combined with overt actions, rising to the level of discrimination, creates a dangerous environment for everyone.
Particularly in this continent, the notion of Europe being “invaded” by an Islamic other has gained considerable traction in the past decade and a half. The far-right milieu increasingly deploys the rhetoric of invasion and Islamification to present Muslims and Islam as a very real and tangible threat to the continent’s national and cultural unity. Islam’s tenets are frequently distorted and taken out of context, with the acts or practices of certain people fallaciously taken to represent or to symbolise the rich and complex Islamic heritage. In too many circles, disparaging remarks about Muslims are allowed to pass without censure, with the result that prejudice acquires a veneer of acceptability. Thus, Muslims are being made the new bogeyman, in a well-orchestrated campaign initiated and fuelled by a powerful Islamophobia industry; a new path to profit and a money-cruncher. As Peter Oborne said back in 2008 in an article on Islamophobia in the UK,
“We do not treat Muslims with the tolerance, decency and fairness that we so often like to boast is the British way.”
This sad state of affairs is shaking the weak-hearted to the core and confusing those of us who, all of a sudden, find ourselves in the midst of a very disorienting storm, at a time when Islam is being attacked, whether from within, by people who skew and distort Islam to fit their malicious desires, or from outside by this rising tide of Islamophobia. Islamophobia is at once a deeply personal issue for Muslims, a matter of great importance to anyone concerned about upholding universal values, and a question with implications for international harmony and peace. Thus, the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world’s greatest religions, cultures and civilisations should not be underestimated.
In this context, how effective will the UN mechanism be in solely tackling the scourge of racism in general and Islamophobia in particular? Going by how the UN handled situations of this nature in the past and, more recently, the ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf resigning over pressure to withdraw a report on Israel’s Apartheid, the prospects of the UN’s ability to act fair and just and stand up bravely to the threats of the Big Powers seems bleak. Adding salt to fresh wounds, Muslim rulers and the OIC also appear to be passive and losing their influence to demand effective and pragmatic action against the criminalisation and victimisation of Muslims who form part of a quarter of humanity.
What can Muslims therefore do to combat this menace which seeks to degrade their dignity? This new racism must be made known and fought against. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General highlighted eight factors that must have a place in any strategy to combat Islamophobia: laws and norms, education, limiting the power and influence of hate media, leadership, two-way integration of cultures and peoples, dialogue (particularly interfaith dialogue), understanding of policy context, and combating terrorism and violence carried out in the name of Islam—or any religion. He stressed that 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 could be seen for what they were. It is important to prevent the media and Internet from being used to spread hatred, while safeguarding freedom of opinion and expression. There is also a crucial need for leadership. Public authorities should not only condemn Islamophobia, but ensure that law enforcement and other practices followed through on pledges of non-discrimination.
It is essential that solutions initiate from within the community. For any strategy to therefore work effectively to meet this challenge, the Muslim Ummah first and foremost should rediscover and reassert itself. It is therefore highly important initially in these times to take heart from our own guide—the Qur’ān—which gives us inspiration through stories of prophets; and from lessons from prophetic traditions and practices of the early Muslim generation—particularly during the Meccan period, when Muslims lived in a similar atmosphere. Interestingly, the majority of the UN’s mandates were based upon principles contained in the Qur’ān. The way forward is therefore to recognise that the true “defenders of the faith” were those who defended people’s God-given rights, be they minority rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of families, which constitute the pillars of society.
Combatting Islamophobia is a much larger systemic challenge that requires a multifaceted approach involving different players. Islamophobia cannot be eradicated without the participation of religious and political leaders, the media and educators, and the private and public sectors. The UN should also play a major part in building a modern notion of tolerance. It is also time to create a United Nations of hope so that future generations will not face the same difficulties as their forebears.