Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 June 2007
Issue No. 849
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

The universality of intolerance

Growing bias against Islam is largely based on the agenda of certain powers to dominate the world order, writes Hassan Nafaa*

My first visit to Romania came 18 years after the collapse of communist rule in that country. Yet the haunting images of Nicolae Ceausescu's final days kept coming back to me. His arrest, trial and subsequent execution flashed before my eyes all the way from the airport to the hotel, past the grim façade of a city that still looks poor even by Eastern European standards. I was in Romania to attend a conference on "Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Understanding and Respect", an event that was organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and held in Bucharest 7-8 June.

Romania was eager to show the world that it can host a world-class event. Romanian President Traian Basescu attended the opening session in person. And the organising committee invited both Nobel laureate Elie Weisel and Prince Al-Hassan Ibn Talal, the former chairman of the Club of Rome, to deliver the two keynote speeches.

The conference was held at the parliament palace, one of the largest palaces built by Ceausescu. The palace is stunning by all accounts. Its imposing hilltop location, its massive staircase and highly decorative halls punctuated the contradiction between socialist ideology and sickening greed. That a socialist leader would build such a palace defeats all reason.

Later on, I found out that the palace was the last one Ceausescu built. In the last years of his life, the communist leader developed a type of megalomania that made him desiring of perhaps the largest palace on earth. The palace has 1,000 rooms, covers a space of 54,000 metres, cost several billion dollars, and took 10 years to finish. That was at a time when Ceausescu imposed strict austerity on the Romanian people, rationing basic supplies and cutting off electricity a few hours everyday to save energy. Ceausescu owned 39 villas, nine private jets, and three trains.

The fact that the conference was held in this particular venue, and only a few months after Romania was admitted into the EU, was symbolic. It launched a new phase in a life of a country that is becoming a pillar of US policy in Europe. The conference was part of a series organised by the OSCE to promote tolerance and fight discrimination. The first such conference was held in Vienna in 2003. Several follow-up conferences were held in Berlin, Paris and Brussels in 2004, and another was organised in Cordova in 2005. The Cordova conference focussed on anti-Semitism, whereas the Bucharest conference addressed all types of discrimination.

The conference was attended by delegations from all the 56 participating members of the OSCE, plus five Mediterranean countries with close ties to the organisation: Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan. Representatives from civil society groups in member states were also invited and had their own separate discussion groups. A number of experts and academics were invited to speak at the general sessions on various types of discrimination. Although the conference was meant to discuss all forms of discrimination, Jewish and Zionist organisations were present in force and attempted, with US support, to gear the discussion toward anti-Semitism, as if the latter were the ultimate form of discrimination and all other forms were mere derivatives.

A professor from Durham University and myself spoke at the session dedicated to intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. I started my presentation by stating that the fight against all types of discrimination is one of the noblest quests of humanity. As for the discrimination against Muslims, I summarised my views in five comments.

The first concerned the universality of intolerance. All human cultures and civilisations, since the beginning of history, have experienced various forms of intolerance. No self- respecting historian or sociologist can pin intolerance on a particular culture or religion. One can link intolerance with certain political or economic systems, but not with any particular culture, civilisation or religion. So it is wrong and dangerous to promote such terms as "Islamofascism" or "Islamic terror", for there is no relationship between Islam as a religion and such horrendous political and social ideologies that embrace racism, tyranny, terror and corruption. One can describe certain political, social or economic systems as racist, tyrannical, terrorist or corrupt, but it is inadmissible to describe religions and cultures as such. Europe, mostly a Christian region, has spawned the worst racist regime in history, Nazism. And yet no one ever speaks of Christian fascism.

The second comment concerned differentiating Islam as a religion and those political ideas and ideologies that claim ties to Islam. In all religions, not just Islam, there are a variety of schools, some of which are moderate to the point of complete tolerance, and some that are extreme to the point of blind fanaticism. There is no denying that the doctrines of several political Islam movements have become more extreme and radical of late. This is a phenomenon that has certain causes, and I am inclined to argue that the whole phenomenon has to do with the increasing intervention into the affairs of the Islamic world and the denigration of the basic rights of some of its nations, especially the right of the Palestinian people to self- determination. Religiously-based political extremism exists in Islam just as it does in Christianity and Judaism. One has only to look at Christian Zionism, an ideology still popular within the US administration, to realise how much work we need to do to combat extremism.

The third comment is that discrimination against Muslims is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until recently, discrimination against Muslims was just another form of indiscriminate intolerance towards "others". But after 9/11, when it transpired that those accused of committing that horrible act were all Muslims, things changed. Instead of condemning the individuals or groups responsible for the atrocity, certain political and media circles denounced the ideology of the attackers while pointing an accusing finger at Islam. This is how the phenomenon known as "Islamophobia" came to life in discourse. Since then, the urge to produce and recycle discrimination against Islam and Muslims became strong in certain circles. According to Human Right Watch, attacks on Muslims and those believed to be Muslims shot up by 1,700 per cent following 9/11. Muslims became a target for various types of discrimination, in academic circles, in business, and elsewhere. Some Muslim students were even barred from taking certain courses of study in universities.

The fourth comment concerned the perils of Islamophobia. Some people denounce this phenomenon on legal and moral grounds, but this is only part of the problem. Not only does Islamophobia imply a profound ignorance of Islam and Muslims, it also poses a grave threat to international peace and security. Muslims are one-fifth of the world's population. In other words, one out of every five people on this planet is Muslim. Muslims can be Arabs or Indians, Chinese or Africans, European or American. So to discriminate against them is to insult the entire human race and undermine all chances for co-existence on this planet.

The fifth comment concerned those international forces that use Islamophobia to promote their private political and ideological agenda, and I am referring particularly to the US and Israel. It is no secret that the current US administration used 9/11 to wage a so-called "global war on terror". This war was but an excuse for world domination and for control of foreign oil fields. The US invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or 9/11, on false pretexts, and we all know what happened since. It is no secret that the Sharon government used a similar excuse to liquidate the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian national movement and build a separation wall that epitomises racism. The invasion of Iraq and Israeli attacks on Palestinians are part of the problem, not the solution.

Based on the above five remarks, one can reach two conclusions. Firstly, Islamophobia cannot be understood in isolation from shifts in the world order and developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The same forces that promote Islamophobia are the ones that aspire to dominate the international order and the Middle East. Secondly, it is impossible to combat Islamophobia without reforming the structure and institutions of the current world order. It is true that a complex phenomenon such as intolerance needs a multi-disciplinary approach, one that covers education and the media, but no solution would succeed without the help of a multi-polar world order. The current uni-polar system is tainted with hegemony, and therefore unfit to address the phenomenon of intolerance. This is particularly true so far as Muslims are concerned. The current world order is a main source of Islamophobia, and a major beneficiary of that phenomenon.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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