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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

7 September 2001

Common culture between religions needed to end racism
by Stephen Webb

Islamophobia, anti-Muslimism and related intolerances were the main focus of a September 1 panel discussion on religious intolerance during the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) conference in Durban.

Offering "an interfaith European perspective", Dr Charles Graves from Interfaith International in Geneva spoke of the need to find a "common culture" between Abrahamic, Eastern, and Indigenous peoples’ religions.

In a message to the panel, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan suggested that WCAR's objectives included "discerning in our diversity the potential for mutual enrichment, and realising that it is the interchange between great traditions of human spirituality that offers the best prospect for the persistence of the human spirit itself".

"The Holy Qur’an says: ‘We have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another" not that you may despise one another," he stated, affirming that "From the very outset [...] Islam rejected any notion of differences based upon racial or ethnic distinction, and so rejected any notions of discrimination that might be based upon such differences."

"That is why we are here," he continued, "to know each other, to know each other’s points of departure, to agree to disagree, to be different, to be various, to accept that the concept and idea of oneness of humanity (Tawhid) is one of Islam’s contributions to human civilization[...]."

Referring to a call by the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan for "an injection of ethics, a spiritual ethos" into the UN and world bodies, bin Talal suggested that "The fight against intolerance can only be intensified if the diversity of humankind in all its aspects including spiritual, is appreciated. It is at the spiritual level that we often find the common ground."

Dr Abdel-Fatah Amor, UN special rapporteur for Religious Intolerance, noted instances of Islamophobia in Australia, the US and Germany. It arose, he said, in times of crisis, and affected people in terms of housing, employment and immigration policies. He called for dialogue between religious leaders, education on the issue, and the encouragement of respect.

Reporting on recent instances of ethnic conflict in northern England, Ased Rehman, from Amnesty International UK said that the struggle against racism was formerly organized from within religious institutions. Mosques and churches, by uniting in community organizations and providing welfare, places to meet and an exchange of views, helped form an active civil society.

Later, Rehman highlighted a move from anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Asian racism to anti-Muslim racism in the UK. The battleground and also the language of racism has shifted, he claimed. "Just as ‘Paki’ was a ’70s or ’80s word, I believe ‘Muslim’ is a new way of playing the race card." One explanation, he suggested, is that "when communism went, Islam became the last perceived coherent political ideology that threatens the Judeo-Christian philosophical basis of society".

Rehman believes that what is needed is not multicultural societies but inclusive cultures. "Multicultural education didn’t challenge people’s assumptions or beliefs. Rather, we need to understand the role racism has played in Western society, how it is used to justify and maintain certain positions - historical, economic, political."

On the question of reparation, Rehman said that people are looking at it too narrowly, as a monetary issue. "I think reparation is actually the first step towards unravelling and understanding slavery as the basis for legitimizing racism." "It was from that starting point that you got the coming together of intellectual thought, of Christianity, to justify racism... You have to go back to that point to see the legacy and how we unpick these things."

In its submission to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on WCAR's draft declaration and programme of action, the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (WCC/CCIA) noted that religious intolerance and the political manipulation of religion and religious affiliation are on the rise in many parts of the world, and are increasingly a factor in national and international conflict.

The WCC/CCIA submission called for the efforts of the UN special rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to be supported and strengthened, for governments to be encouraged to respect the right to religious freedom, and particularly to consider Indigenous peoples' spiritualities as authentic religion.

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