Early warning for Muslim bashing

The violent incidents and mass rallies over a provocative film, apparently made by hard-core Islamophobes in the US and featuring hate filled speech and insults that defame the Prophet of Islam, who is revered by some 1.5 billion Muslims around the world and respected by many more, showed us once again the urgency of dealing with rising Islamophobia at the global level.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled over the weekend in Sarajevo that Turkey will campaign to have Islamophobia listed as a hate crime on global platforms, including the UN, while ordering his men to start working on draft legislation to have Islamophobia listed a crime punishable under national law. With all due respect to Erdoğan, there already is an international campaign under way to raise awareness on Islamophobia that is headed by Turkish diplomat Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu who runs the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest intergovernmental organization after the UN.

The template developed by the OIC, which was also accepted by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, is a perfect recipe to tackle this global problem. Very much like anti-Semitism, the OIC together with its partners worldwide has been endeavoring for some time to address what appears to be an endemic problem at the root level with concerted and consistent efforts from every stakeholder in this issue. The effort has made some considerable progress but lacks the power of implementation and enforcement.

In other words, dialogue and common understanding have been finally achieved among OIC and non-OIC members, but the method of enforcing the common resolutions and how to incorporate those lofty goals of fighting anti-Muslim hate speech into national legislation, and to what extent, beg further deliberation and discussion. Until that happens, I think it is very likely that we will see continued provocations disguised under the umbrella of freedom of speech and freedom of the press at the expense of certain religious or ethnic groups who want nothing more than to be treated with dignity and respect.

If hateful words and actions are aimed at marginalizing Muslims, who are already vulnerable in countries where they comprise the minority because of prevailing biases and historical prejudices, this conspiracy should not be tolerated any longer. By the way, this international effort, spearheaded by the OIC, is not limited to Muslims only. It will pave the way to prevent hate from exacting a toll on certain groups based on ethnicity, religion or nationality. There are already sets of established rules and norms to protect people from hate speech in many international conventions, such as the 1993 UN Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

I think there is considerable progress in the American approach when it comes to tackling Islamophobia, and it should be welcomed and encouraged. The current administration in the White House deserves credit in that respect. President Barack Obama and his foreign policy czar, Hillary Clinton, seem to have successfully reversed the US position on the issue in sharp contrast to the EU, which is still dragging its feet on Islamophobia, citing fundamental freedoms, as if the right to live with respect for Muslims, or any other group for that matter, is not fundamental and ranks lower than freedom of speech.

The US opposed the original resolutions on defamation of religion in 1999 when it was first brought to the agenda at the UN, even though most of them were approved by a majority in the UN HRC in Geneva and in the UN General Assembly. In line with a major rapprochement with the Muslim world, Obama not only paid his first official bilateral visit to Turkey, a Muslim majority country, but also delivered a significant speech in Cairo afterwards to convey US feelings towards Muslims.

He took a different approach than his predecessors and decided to endorse a new resolution initiated by the OIC at the UN. The resolution, titled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief,” also known as Resolution 16/18, was adopted by consensus at the 16th session of the UN HRC in Geneva in March 2011.

The resolution is based on eight points that were outlined in OIC Secretary-General İhsanoğlu’s speech at the 15th session of the UN HRC in September 2010.It was later adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2011 as Resolution A/66/167. The high level meeting, held in İstanbul on July 15, 2011, under the co-chairmanship of İhsanoğlu and Clinton, paved the way for building an international consensus on how to tackle Islamophobia. It kicked off the much-celebrated “İstanbul Process,” with the US hosting the follow-up meeting in New York. The EU will host the next meeting.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to İhsanoğlu in Ankara and asked him if the OIC was able to evaluate the impact of Resolution 16/18. He said there is no evaluation report on the impact yet but underlined that based on informal reviews and feedback which he has received since March of last year, the resolution was very beneficial in bringing Islamophobia to government agendas at the national level. “Even judging from the far-right and extreme blogging sites that have been lashing out at this resolution, I think we made the right move. It was accepted, and in fact hailed, by the mainstream press in the West,” he said.

İhsanoğlu explained that the İstanbul Process moved the resolution into a political process and announced that the next meeting to be hosted by the EU will be held in the UK, possibly in November or December. “The OIC will host the fourth meeting,” he said. According to the OIC secretary-general, the most important result he expects from the İstanbul Process is the establishment of a “monitoring system” to keep track of incidents and manifestations of intolerance, discrimination, racism and incitement of hatred. He even envisages an international early warning system to make the monitoring as effective as possible. The system will be set up under the watch of the UN HRC.

If we had this early warning system in place before the violent incidents in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and other countries, we could have alerted the authorities in advance about this hateful film to take measures to prevent its fallout. Like a tsunami warning, we could have prevailed over the senseless killing of four American diplomats in Benghazi.

I believe that Clinton was dead right when she said, “It is time to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression and pursue a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs.” Now it is time to put those words into action.

If anybody knew better, I think Ambassador Chris Stevens, who used to enjoy dining and mingling with Libyan locals without paying much attention to his security detail according to media accounts, was very much aware of the dangers of negative stereotyping of Muslims and their continued stigmatization in the West. He was there on the ground, trying to make a difference in the post-revolution era. A sign held by a young Libyan at a Benghazi rally the day after he was killed tells the tale: “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”

We should all reflect on that message.

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