Dialogue on the global challenge of Islamophobia

I am deeply concerned about the global challenge of the spread of Islamophobia. There is a compelling need for the international community to understand and meet this challenge, just as surely as it would need to combat any epidemic that threatens the well-being of humanity.

PRR_QandA_MoroccoRecently, I was invited to speak about religious conflict in today’s world at one of Morocco’s leading universities. This place of higher learning, Al Akhawayn University, belongs to the same international network, the Council of Independent Colleges, as Naropa University.

It is an independent, public, coeducational university established by Royal Decree to promote “the values of human solidarity and tolerance”. So it was a truly appropriate setting in which to talk about religious hatred.

I spoke from the perspective of two leadership positions I hold. I am the Chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka. It that works working for a just, peaceful and equitable resolution to the continuing conflicts in that country. In the last two years there have been more than 300 attacks on mosques, businesses and homes of Sri Lanka’s Muslim population – as well as attacks on other religious minorities. It deeply saddens me to say that these have been led, in many cases, by Buddhist monks and carried out in the name of Buddhism.

There have been similar outrages in Myanmar (Burma) where Buddhist attacks have forced 100,000 Rohingya Muslims, many of them women and children, into impoverished refugee camps.

These horrific developments have a particular resonance for me as the President of Shambhala. We are one of the largest international Buddhist-inspired organizations in the western world with communities on all five continents. The name “Shambhala”  itself is derived from a legendary kingdom famed for being an enlightened society. It is said that Shambhala was located at the western part of the Orient and the eastern part of the Occident—the confluence of the Asian, European, and Arabic worlds, thus embodying a spirit of universality.

With the blessings of The Sakyong, Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, I am endeavouring to examine the worldwide incidence of Islamophobia and explore possible strategies to counter it. It must not be left to Muslims alone to defend themselves against this blight; this is a responsibility of all who care deeply for the shared values and dignity of humanity.

The International Working Group on Sri Lanka has engaged on this issue with representatives of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which brings together the Islamic nations within the United Nations. The most recent report of the OIC’s Observatory, covering October 2012 to September 2013, documents incidents in 18 nations involving attacks on mosques, desecration of Muslim graves, political and social campaigns against Islam and Muslims, intolerance directed against Islam and its sacred symbols, discrimination against Muslims in educational institutions, workplaces and airports, and other related phenomena.

These incidents not only target Islam. They are part of a larger and deeply disturbing tendency worldwide to denigrate, demonize and unleash assaults, often with extreme cruelty, on entire groups of people, victimizing them for their identity. Like all forms of religious, ethnic or cultural hatred, what is happening is a direct threat to the principles of co-existence that are essential if people of different faiths and traditions are to live and flourish together.

To quote the Secretary General of the OIC, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, “In the present globalized world, peaceful and harmonious co-existence among diverse religions and cultures is not an option but the only means to enduring human cohabitation … It has always been my firm belief that like apartheid, the challenge for the international community is to dismantle Islamophobia completely and prevent its spread before it gets out of hand and jeopardizes global peace and security … The sanctity of freedom of expression and freedom of religion cannot be allowed to be endangered by those few radical extremists who are determined to create unrest and divisions in our present day world.”

The argument is put forward that Islamophobia as a whole is justified by the atrocities carried out by extremists in the name of their faith, thereby casting suspicion on the hundreds of millions who belong to the same broad tradition but who have nothing whatsoever to do with these outrages. If the logic of this mass demonization were to be applied universally, the curse of suspicion would fall like a shadow across most of humanity. The historical record shows that few of us can claim that no one has ever committed harm in the name of our faiths, our cultures or our people.

I believe a deep-seated approach is needed to understand and heal what is happening across the globe. It will not end simply by denouncing it and seeking to suppress it. It will continue to burn. If there is to be an effective international roadmap for constructive action, it needs to be grounded in a far more profound dialogue, based on the enduring, noble and transcendent values of our respective traditions.

Many people have written to me since my lecture was live streamed by the university and by Shambhala Online. The full text with slides is linked from my previous post.