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UN Official Deplores Spread of 'Islamaphobia'

19 March 2002

Expressions of anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, and anti-Semitic sentiment have increased following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and are deplorable, says the top U.N. human rights official.

Mary Robinson, outgoing U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters Monday that Islamic communities need to become more active in countering ignorance by offering positive information on Islam and Islamic beliefs.

She also confirmed she would step down from her position in September, using the intervening period to strengthen the human rights commissioner's office.

Robinson called on the international community to combat the spread of "Islamaphobia", which she defined as an obsessive fear of Islam, saying the phenomenon has spread mostly throughout the United States and Western Europe.

"When we speak of Islam", said Robinson, "we are speaking of the religion of over 20 percent of the human population spread across the globe and expressed through many cultures."

"It is important to recognize the greatness of Islam, its civilizations and its immense contributions to the richness of the human experience,'' she added.

Last week, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded an apology from the rightwing U.S. magazine 'National Review' for suggesting that the United States should consider a nuclear attack on Mecca, Islam's holiest city, located in Saudi Arabia.

"Lots of sentiment for nuking Mecca," Review editor Rich Lowry said in an online forum called 'The Corner'.

Lowry said the likeliest sites for a U.S. nuclear first strike would be two countries with overwhelmingly Muslim populations: Iraq and Iran. "If we have clean enough bombs to assure a pinpoint damage area, Gaza City and Ramallah (in the Israeli-occupied territories) would also be on list," he added.

Last September, Anne Coulter, writing in the 'National Review', suggested: "We should invade their (Muslim) countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Elements of the U.S. religious community also have gone on the offensive.

Last month, Pat Robertson, a Christian fundamentalist broadcaster, said that Islam "is not a peaceful religion that wants to co- exist."

Rather, he told his TV audience, Muslims ''want to co-exist until they can control, dominate and then, if need be, destroy."

Reverend Franklin Graham, whose father, Billy Graham, also is an evangelical preacher and has enjoyed full access to the White House since the 1950s, said last year that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion".

Graham the elder said similar things about Jews during a 1972 conversation with then President Richard Nixon, according to tapes released by the National Archives. He has since repudiated those comments.

Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said Franklin Graham's and Pat Robertson's remarks were a "slightly warmed over version of the hatred that led to the Holocaust."

Robinson said Monday it was obvious the events of Sep. 11 have generated strong anti-Muslim feelings. The hijackers on that fateful day all had origins in the Middle East and professed the Islamic faith.

However, she added, there also has been an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment and rhetoric in the Arab world.

According to published reports, there has been widespread and unconfirmed speculation that more than 2,000 Jewish employees in the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center - which were hit by the hijacked planes - had kept away from work that day because they had foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks.

According to some of these rumors, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad masterminded the attacks.

Robinson, who has incurred the wrath of some of the world's major powers for criticizing human rights violations by the United States, Russia and China, also announced she has decided to step down as human rights commissioner in September.

Reed Brody, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the U.S. government had opposed Robinson's renomination for a full second term. "Mary Robinson paid a price for her willingness to stand up to powerful governments that violate human rights," he said. "She has set a standard of candor and strength for future high commissioners and we are sad to lose her as an ally."

Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said Robinson has navigated difficult and controversial issues, always emerging as a champion of those most vulnerable to abuse. "Hers will be difficult shoes to fill," he said.

Appointed in June 1997, Robinson announced plans to quit at the end of her four-year term last year. But Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged her to stay on until September 2002. Before her U.N. appointment, Robinson was president of Ireland.

Asked about the campaign carried out against her by the United States, Robinson would only say that she did not intend to comment on the position of individual countries, adding that she was planning to consolidate and strengthen her office over the next six months.

At a time when critics have described the United Nations as an extension of the U.S. State Department, Robinson bucked the trend by raising her voice against the erosion of civil liberties in the United States and other Western democracies.

On several occasions, she drew veiled warnings against rocking the boat; well placed sources say that behind closed doors, the admonishments were open and blunt. Despite these warnings, Robinson continued to express her concerns in public. Advocates and diplomats - including some of Robinson's critics - acknowledged this to be rare among senior U.N. officials.

Last year, she was a signatory to a joint statement in which her office, along with the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), warned governments against violating civil and human rights in their rush to fight terrorism.

A visibly displeased U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte reacted: "I don't have any concern in that regard, and I don't think Mary Robinson should have any concern either."

Thalif Deen, at the United Nations
Published by the Inter Press Service © 2002 IPS

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