International efforts to combat Islamophobia require more than lip service

Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution designating March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia.

Lauded by some, criticized by others, it remains to be seen whether such a move will actually have an impact on the millions of people worldwide who face state-sanctioned discrimination, oppression, and genocide.

“Today UN has finally recognized the grave challenge confronting the world: of Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols & practices & of curtailing systematic hate speech & discrimination against Muslims. Next challenge is to ensure implementation of this landmark resolution,” tweeted Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister.

The resolution calls on the international community — governments, civil society, the private sector and faith-based-organizations — “to organize and support various high-visibility events aimed at effectively increasing awareness of all levels about curbing Islamophobia.”

The date of the annual commemoration holds significance as the tragic anniversary of the rampage on two mosques in Christchurch, N.Z. in 2019. The perpetrator was a far-right terrorist and white supremacist who livestreamed the first of his two mass shootings on Facebook. He killed a total of 51 worshippers.

The brutality of those attacks was a clear example of the devastating consequences of Islamophobia, a phenomenon that has reached “epidemic proportions,” according to a 2021 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

“Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and other horrific acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam, institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim has escalated to epidemic proportions,” reads the report’s introduction. “Numerous States — along with regional and international bodies — have responded to security threats by adopting measures that disproportionately target Muslims and define Muslims as both high-risk and at risk of radicalization.”

Irrational fear of Muslims writ large has been used as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties around the world, provide unequal treatment to Muslim migrants and refugees, as well as utilized as a pretext to implement genocidal policies in various places including in China and in Myanmar. In India, home to the second largest population of Muslims in the world, the situation has become dire.

In a recent TIME magazine article titled “Is India headed for an anti-Muslim genocide?” Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism,” provided a bleak assessment.

“Indian social media today is filled with videos of self-appointed protectors of Hinduism calling for the lynching of Muslims — an act so common that it hardly makes news anymore. High-profile Hindu supremacists are seldom booked for hate speech. Muslims routinely face random attacks for such ‘crimes’ as transporting cattle or being in the company of Hindu women. Sometimes, the provocation is simply that somebody is visibly Muslim. As [President Narendra] Modi himself has told election rallies, people ‘creating violence’ can be ‘identified by their clothes.’”

In February, schools in a state controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), banned female students from wearing hijabs. This followed the passage of what Human Rights Watch described as “a slew of laws and policies that systematically discriminate against religious minorities.” Protesters have been killed.

Not surprising then that the Indian government opposed the UN resolution on Islamophobia. France, also accused of violating the human rights of its Muslim population, similarly pushed back.

“Time and again we have seen the French authorities use the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalization’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds, which risks leading to discrimination in its application against Muslims and other minority groups,” said a spokesperson with Amnesty International last March.

If an international day to combat Islamophobia is to have any meaning, it will require governments around the world to hold each other accountable.

Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa-based human rights advocate and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

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