Posted on June 13, 2005 in Washington Watch

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Conference on Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance” convened this past week in Cordoba, Spain. The two-day conference, designed as a follow-up to the OSCE’s three earlier gatherings, provided a unique opportunity for world leaders to address a set of critical and troubling issues. In a conversation I was part of with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, he made clear the importance his government placed on the Cordoba event.

Bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination are everywhere with us. To a greater or lesser degree every nation on earth is plagued by these demons which, if left unexamined and unchecked, have led to tragic consequences, from systematic oppression of minority communities to horrific acts of violence against them. While most peoples are quick to point out injustices done to them, it is all too rare that they willingly examine the wrongs they do to others. This conference and the three that proceeded it are, therefore, significant in that they represent, at least in principle, a collective determination to engage in self-criticism.

The topics examined during the Cordoba conference, by an extraordinary and diverse group of specialists and leaders, covered a broad range of issues, including:

-responding to anti-Semitism and hate-motivated crimes: the role of governments, institutions, legislatures, law enforcement, and civil society;

-fighting intolerance and discrimination against Muslims: facilitating integration and respecting cultural diversity;

-fighting intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions; and

-fighting racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance and discrimination.

The conference, therefore, was important, and the issues it tackled were serious. What troubled me, however, was the lack of seriousness displayed by the choice of the official US delegation to the conference and the group of NGO advisors selected to accompany them to Cordoba.

While five of the seven “advisors” included representatives of the most major US Jewish organizations, major Christian or Muslim entities were not represented. The composition of the “official delegation” was even more disturbing. For the most part, the participants appeared to have been selected for reasons having more to do with domestic political patronage and ideological purity than with the purposes of the conference itself. Most were political conservatives, including the group’s lone Catholic clergyman. One of the delegation’s Jewish representatives has been known to argue vigorously against Israel becoming a “nation of all its citizens” or a “democracy” since that would “dilute” the state. Another appeared to have been selected mainly because he switched his support from Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004. And the delegation’s only Muslim representative was an individual who has recently aligned himself with the far-right against all of the US’s Muslim organizations arguing that he alone stands against terrorism, which, presumably, he believes, the others support.

There were a few serious individuals in the group, including the leader of a major US Jewish center who has worked hard for religious tolerance. But the role of these few would have been greatly enhanced if they had been paired, not only with their Muslim and Christian counterparts, but with major leaders in the African American, Asian American, and Hispanic communities.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.

The issues of the conference were serious and real, but the official US participation was not up to par, nor did it reflect American realities.

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of disgraceful discrimination are alive and well not only in the OSCE countries. An honest and respectful dialogue among nations and self-criticism within nations is needed to root out these diseases whenever they exist, in the West and elsewhere. Horrific acts of terrorism against Shi’a in Iraq and Pakistan and other countries is condemnable, as is the continuing nightmare in Sudan and the often deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, and Muslims and Christians in Indonesia. As well as persistent and wrongheaded discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities that exists in some Arab countries.

What is needed is an honest and open discussion of all of these problems, a model for addressing this behavior, and an examination of the intolerance that is at its root. The OSCE conference provided one such example. Many nations have taken the challenge it represents seriously. And many groups in the US have done so as well. The US Catholic Conference, for example, has undertaken a significant effort at dialogue, reaching out to Muslims and Jews and other Christian denominations. There are also a number of quite serious Arab and Jewish and “Abrahamic faiths” conversations taking place across the US. These are important, especially at this critical juncture in world affairs. It is also worth noting that there was an “unofficial” US delegation in Cordoba. It was comprised of representatives of US civil rights groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Efforts, such as these, could have been strengthened and provided important visibility had they been officially sanctioned by the US.

Unfortunately none of this was reflected in the delegation chosen by the State Department. That is why I asked, “What were they thinking?” and I might add, “Why did they miss this opportunity to send a stronger message?”

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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