Islamophobia and religiophobia both need to be fought

Photo: AP
Photo: AP


India’s point at the UN was that marking a day of opposition to Islamophobia should not detract global attention from forms of religiophobia that are unfair to followers of various other faiths

Arecent resolution adopted by the United Nations and proposed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) declares 15 March as an International Day to combat Islamophobia. It was adopted after two years of deliberation and three years from the day that 50 Muslims were killed in a terror attack on a mosque in New Zealand. The objective is to mark on the calendar a yearly reminder to fight Islamophobia across the world. This resolution, moved by Pakistan in the UN General Assembly on behalf of the OIC, claims that, “Islamophobia is a reality. Its manifestations—hate speech, discrimination, and violence against Muslims—are proliferating in several parts of the world."

India’s permanent UN representative T.S. Tirumurti expressed the country’s concern over a ‘phobia’ against one religion being elevated to the level of an international day. He stated that other forms exist of contemporary religiophobia, aimed at Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs as well. This resolution, he said, would lead to multiple resolutions on phobias based on selective religions. Such resolutions could divide the UN into various religious groups, he added, and this one may set a wrong precedent, since such phobias are not restricted to Abrahamic faiths alone.

In this context, there arise some important questions. For example, what is Islamophobia? How did it come into being? Are there ways to measure it? How can the UN spread awareness of various religions and establish partnerships among faith-based organizations and government entities?

Tirumurti alleged that such resolutions end up downplaying the seriousness of phobias against other religions. To add to his argument, we have recently seen how Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from Afghanistan sought refuge in India after the Taliban took power in Kabul. More instances, such as the oppression of minorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, are visible in these societies.

We may well argue that there are two primary objects of the UN that are reflected in the United Nations Charter preamble and Article 1. First, the UN will work to ensure the peace and security of the world, and second, it will ensure the protection of individual human rights. From these two objectives, it is clear that the UN cannot support any religious division within its framework. Moreover, the journey of the UN over the last 70 years shows us how it promotes secularism and religious tolerance among its member states. India’s position on the resolution is based upon experiences in South Asia, mainly the oppression of non-Abrahamic religions. While addressing the meeting, Tirumurti cited the incident of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. He further said that followers of various religions across the world found India a safe haven, free of persecution and discrimination. The core of our existence depends upon plurality and protection of all religious faiths. The UN resolution that was passed did not mention the word ‘plurality’, which is the basis of protection for all religious faiths.

We all need to understand that it was European anti-racist activists who first adopted the term ‘Islamophobia’ in the 1970s and 80s as part of their resistance to anti-Muslim oppression that was mostly directed at Muslim immigrants in the West. In simple terms, racism is a matter of attitudes and beliefs which extends to the practical consequences of such hostility in the form of unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities and also to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.

Historically, people in the West have associated Islam with negative images, sentiments and stereotypes, with anti-Semitism as its analogue, but its origin in contemporary discourse came about through the 1997 publication of the report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, by the British race-relations non-profit organization, the Runnymede Trust.

This sentiment was echoed in 2004 by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a UN conference on ‘Confronting Islamophobia’, where he stated that “When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development, such is the case with Islamophobia"

Another question arises of how to measure Islamophobia. In absence of direct measures, it can be measured through unsolicited statements proffered by politicians, civil servants, public figures, religious leaders, journalists, bloggers and others whose words are recorded for posterity. In addition, there also exists some evidence in portrayals of Islam and Muslims in textbooks or popular culture, oppressive public policies that assume that religious conversion (for, say, marriage) is always coercive—or the alleged targeting of population-control policies at a specific minority group by denying government jobs, promotions, subsidies and the right to contest local elections to those who breach state-set child norms.

The need of the hour is to spread awareness about various religions, their customs, sources of authority, significant practices and what elements of their belief systems are most authoritative in informing the lives of their adherents. Finally, to analyse the impact of faith-based organizations and partnerships with government entities, both actors should work hard to articulate their understanding of how the world works and what role they can play to foster empathy and harmony.

Abhinav Mehrotra & Biswanath Gupta are respectively, assistant and associate professors at O.P. Jindal Global University.

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