By Arab News
By Siraj Wahab
In what can rightly be described as a seminal step in relations between the Muslim world and the Western world, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the leading nations of the Western world led by the United States and the European Union agreed Saturday to take concrete steps to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.
The high-level meeting was held at the historic Yildiz Palace in Istanbul. It was attended by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Cathrine Ashton along with foreign ministers and officials from France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Poland, Romania, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan, the Vatican, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Arab League and African Union. The meeting was co-chaired by OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ever since he took office, the OIC secretary-general has been working on formulating ways and means to stop acts of religious intolerance.
“It was during my address to the 15th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva that I outlined a new approach toward evolving a consensus against incitement to violence and intolerance on religious grounds that could endanger peaceful coexistence and must be viewed as a direct contrast to the very notion of a globalized world,” said Ihsanoglu. “I am glad that the eight points in the proposed approach found resonance with all the negotiating partners. They formed the basis of the consensus reflected in Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18. The importance of the consensual adoption of this resolution should be duly recognized.”
He said challenges remain.
“However, the test would lie in the implementation. Having been successful at consensus building, we must now act in concert to build on the consensus. The adoption of the resolution does not mark the end of the road. It rather signifies a beginning based on a new approach to deal with the whole set of interrelated issues,” said Ihsanoglu. “Resolution 16/18 provides a good basis for concerted action by states, at both national and international levels and must be utilized accordingly. Otherwise, we would be faced with the unaffordable risk of the agenda being hijacked and set by radicals and non-state actors.”
Ihsanoglu said there was a delicate balance between freedom of expression and incendiary speech.
“We continue to be particularly disturbed by attitudes of certain individuals or groups exploiting the freedom of expression to incite hatred by demonizing purposefully the religions and their followers. Though we respect their freedom of opinion and expression, we find these attitudes politically and ethically incorrect and insensitive.”
At the meeting, Clinton discussed how to build on a UN Human Rights Council resolution passed on March 24 that calls for promoting tolerance and respect for diversity of beliefs, without restricting legitimate free speech.
Clinton agreed to pursue a new religious tolerance agreement, which respects free expression of religious beliefs in order to resolve debates over religion between the West and the Islamic world.
“Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of religion,” Clinton said. “We are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs.”
Speaking of the United States, Clinton said: “We have seen in the United States how the incendiary actions of just a very few people can create wide ripples of intolerance, so we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose, and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.”
She recalled a dialogue with Ihsanoglu and leaders of Istanbul’s diverse religious communities 15 years ago.
“That conversation took place just a few months after the signing of the Dayton Accords. We were all deeply concerned about the sectarian tensions and violence, and we were all troubled by what we had seen happen in the Balkans,” she said. “I had come from Sarajevo and Tuzla, where I had met with Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims all together, and I will never forget one woman saying that neighbor began turning on neighbor because of religious and ethnic differences. And this woman asked a friend from another religious background, ‘We’ve known each other for so long; we have celebrated each other’s weddings; we’ve buried each other’s family; why is this happening?’ And her friend replied: ‘We were told that if we did not do this to you, you would do it to us.’ And it was as clear a statement of what incitement to violence and hatred can lead to as any that I have heard. And the conflict proved so costly, we are still living with the consequences today.”
She commended the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for its work securing the passage of Resolution 16/18 at the Human Rights Council.
“Resolution 16/18 calls upon states to protect freedom of religion, to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate, and to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes, but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence. We will be looking to all countries to hold themselves accountable and to join us in reporting to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on their progress in taking these steps.”