Remarks to the American Leadership Initiative for Muslims
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism
Bethesda Hyatt, Maryland
September 2, 2011
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you’re enjoying the festivities surrounding the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak! When my friend Imam Syed Naqvi invited me to speak to you tonight, I was honored to have the opportunity. I commend you for your desire to engage in the political process and develop plans to move your interests forward.
Before I share with you some of the efforts of the U.S. Government to promote human rights and combat hatred of all kinds, let me talk a bit about you and me. I stand here today as a first generation American Jew, and I am speaking to the Shia leadership of the country. Most people would look at us tonight and wonder what we had in common to discuss. They would be surprised to learn how much we share.
foremost, we are Americans, and share the pride and love we
have for this country, our Constitution, and what America
stands for in the world.
Furthermore, a recent Gallup poll showed that Jews and Muslims in America share common values – whether on domestic or international issues. We share an immigrant experience. Jewish immigrants, who arrived in multiple waves of immigration, mostly visibly in the late nineteenth century, often used education as a means of gaining a foothold in America and of finding a way to contribute to our new country. And the study shows that Muslims are taking a similar approach. Muslims and Jews have the largest number of degrees of higher education among all religious groups in the U.S.
While we Jews and Muslims may have highly educated communities, we also have fears about perceptions that others hold of our traditions. According to a recent report, Muslims and Jews are more likely than adherents of any other tradition to conceal our religious identity. Sixty percent of Muslim Americans polled say they experience prejudice against Muslims. The fact that Muslims experience prejudice here in America concerns me, as an American, as a Jew, and as a U.S. government official. Later in this discussion, I will explain how I incorporate that concern in my own work.
Jews and Muslims share so many experiences in the U.S. As small religious minorities, each under two percent of the population, we experience marginalization. But because both of our communities focus on education, we have been able to develop new opportunities for our next generations. We both share a drive not only to make America our home, but to attain a prominent role and make a major contribution to this newfound homeland. We share remarkable parallels, and to move forward with collaborations will help both of our communities reach those goals.
Let me share with you some of the efforts the
United States Government is making with governments,
international organizations, and civil society, and
encourage your engagement to help educate the US and the
world about Muslims.
I am so honored to serve as the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. I am charged with monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance. But the truth is, I am in the relationship building business. I am here today because it is imperative that we work together. I stand for rights of all peoples, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. We share the same mission: to combat hate and intolerance to create a more peaceful and just world.
First, I’d like to share with you my work on combating anti-Semitism, including how I frame the issue in my discussions overseas and here in the United States and why it is important that we talk about this issue. At the same time, it is very important for ME and others to talk about prejudice and anti-Muslim sentiment as well. So I will also tell you about my work in helping combat anti-Muslim sentiment, which I believe must be a part of all of our discussions about religious freedom and human rights.
Over the past year and a half, I have been tracking anti-Semitism around the world, and have witnessed its alarming presence and growth. While I am troubled by the rise of global anti-Semitism, I am also troubled by the rise of all hate and intolerance, especially hatred of Muslims. We must all join together, regardless of our backgrounds and faiths, to combat hate.
Through weekly monitoring of anti-Semitic
incidents, I have observed six global trends. Traditional
forms of anti-Semitism are passed from one generation to the
next, sometimes updated to reflect current events. We are
all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing
of property and the desecration of cemeteries with
anti-Semitic graffiti. There are still accusations of blood
libel, which are morphing from the centuries-old accusations
by the Church that Jews killed Christian children to use
their blood for rituals, to accusations that Jews kidnap
children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue
to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S.
media and the world banking system, or that Jews were
involved in executing the September 11 attacks. The
centuries-old Czarist forgery called The Protocols of the
Elders of Zion continues to be a bestseller throughout
the world, and taught to religious students as truth. Simply
put, it is the lie that won’t die. This kind of “old
fashioned” anti-Semitism is alive and well today.
A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial, which is espoused by religious leaders, heads of State, such as in Iran, and academic institutions; it is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. Last summer, when I met Imam Naqvi, it was on a trip to combat Holocaust denial. We and seven other Muslim leaders, two of whom had been Holocaust deniers, visited the Nazi camps of Dachau and Auschwitz.
When we arrived at Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp, the imams were overcome with the pictures they saw and immediately went to the ground in prayer at the sculpture commemorating the six million Jews exterminated. At that moment, I knew I was watching history being made. All of the passers-by, tourists, and docents stopped in their tracks to witness their spontaneous prayer. Auschwitz was overwhelming for all, and—for some—it was transformational. We walked amidst ash and bone fragments from the 1.5 million Jews exterminated there – solely because of who they were. We were facing the fact that unfettered and unanswered hatred can indeed create an Auschwitz. All the imams had their own catharsis there, and together, they produced a historic statement strongly condemning Holocaust denial and all other forms of anti-Semitism.
In this statement, Imam Naqvi and his fellow leaders stated that: “We bear witness to the absolute horror and tragedy of the Holocaust where over twelve million human souls perished, including six million Jews.
We condemn any attempts to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics.
We condemn anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on his or her faith or religious conviction.
We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.”
Now, a year later,
we continue to stand together for truth. These imams have
been urging colleagues and schools to join their statement.
Some are planning to take their youth on the same trip, to
become witnesses to history, to teach the power of hatred,
and the power that condemnation can have to stop
A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification, which can be seen in parades honoring soldiers who fought in the Waffen SS, which glorifies Nazism under the guise of fighting the Soviets and obscures their roles in the Holocaust. There are also calls for another Holocaust to finish the job. Truly bone chilling.
A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism, where some governments, museums, academic researchers, and others conflate the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Dirty War, the Soviet regime, or the ethnic cleansing in the Baltic. I am not trying to diminish the many other terrible horrors human beings have inflicted on others in this past century alone. However, the danger of conflating all dark chapters of history is that we then diminish each of them, and fail to learn the lessons each one has to teach. It also allows us to avoid acknowledging the damage done to each particular group. We then don’t teach how each manifestation of hatred happened or learn from those contexts, the horrid regimes and atrocities.
The fifth trend I’ve observed is the
increasing tendency of blurring the lines between opposition
to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. I
want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of
Israel is not anti-Semitism. But it crosses the line when
Israel is demonized and blamed for all the region’s ills;
or when it is held to different standards than any other
country; or when Israel is delegitimized, denying its right
While anti-Semitism thrives everywhere, I am particularly concerned about it in the Middle East. Our reports indicate that anti-Semitism increases in official state-sponsored media following developments in the Middle East peace process or in response to Israeli policy-making. Anti-Semitism is also a real problem in textbooks used in several countries in the region, which preach intolerance and hate against Jews, against Shia, and other religious minorities of the area, and are distributed around the world, in places as far off as Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The sixth trend we are seeing is the growth of nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities – in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. We have seen that movie before.
It is clear
from these trends in anti-Semitism and incidents I’ve
reported on in the past 18 months, coupled with reports of
rising levels of anti-Muslim sentiment, that hate is
destabilizing. The recent murders in Norway are another
example of how unchecked intolerance and hate contribute to
In an effort to combat hatred and turn it around, my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and I launched a virtual campaign called 2011 Hours Against Hate, focusing on youth, using Facebook and twitter. We are asking young people around the world to pledge their time to volunteer with people who may look different, pray differently or live differently from them. For example, a young Jew might volunteer to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a Russian Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Muslim at a Baha’i food pantry. We want people to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. It’s about mutual respect and taking action to advance acceptance, pluralism, tolerance.
Farah and I have already met with thousands of students and young professionals in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Spain, countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. Young people want to DO something, and this has given them an outlet. More recently, Farah and I met with youth and interfaith leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon, discussing ways to increase tolerance and understanding among different religious groups. We have already surpassed our goal of 2011 hours pledged against hate, with over 12,000 hours pledged from all over the world, and stories and videos posted to the Facebook page. Check it out at 2011HoursAgainstHate, and become part of this movement.
In the Department of State, the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, monitors and reports on religious freedom issues in general, including the rising hatred of Muslims. The Department of State also actively advocates for religious freedom for people of all faiths, and for protection of religious minorities of all faiths. To this end, the U.S. Government has made Muslim engagement a priority as we have sought to engage international and national Muslim leaders and communities; strengthen tolerance education; encourage political, religious, and civil leaders to speak out against anti-Muslim sentiment; train government officials to recognize anti-Muslim rhetoric; and foster a dialogue about religious tolerance and cooperation.
As I mentioned earlier, civic engagement is a way to amplify the image of Muslims at home and abroad. Over the course of this weekend, I imagine you will discuss and brainstorm how greater Muslim engagement in the political process will help build a more just and sustainable democracy. Democracy is, of course, more than voting. Democracy is what we see here today: a plurality of ideas, voices, and individuals working to strengthen the rights of individuals. Civic engagement is essential, with advocacy to protect fundamental rights like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom to assemble and associate with whomever you want.
In addition to engaging
in politics, coalition building is, in my experience,
integral to delivering and spreading one’s message.
Diversity makes democracy work. In a democracy, even the
most vulnerable have the opportunity to raise their voice
and issues onto the national stage. Through coalition
building, dialogue, and cooperation on efforts like 2011
Hours Against Hate, we can engage in national
conversations that confront intolerance and hate. We need to
use one voice to publicly condemn anti-Semitism and hatred
As I mentioned at the beginning, joining in partnerships and coalitions is an effective way to condemn and confront all forms of hate. Your partners can be governments, civil society, international institutions, business leaders, labor unions, and the media. Building partnerships and building bridges among ethnic and religious groups helps change a culture from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance.
Also it is good to work with international
organizations, such as the Organization of Islamic
Cooperation, which provided influential leadership to pass
Resolution 16/18 at the UN Human Rights Council. This
resolution, “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping
and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to
violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or
belief,” strengthens our efforts to combat hate while
promoting religious diversity, tolerance, and the protection
of human rights.
Another international organization, UNESCO, established a network of like-minded cities interested in fighting intolerance, racism, discrimination, and xenophobia called the “International Coalition of Cities against Racism.” UNESCO recognized the need to partner with policy-makers on a local level to implement and promote tolerance policies, creating regional coalitions around the world.
This past March, European and American politicians came together at the European Parliament to discuss racial equality and inclusion at a conference focused on the issue of political inclusion of ethnic minorities in the United States and Europe. Discussion centered on adopting an EU-US Joint Strategy on Racial and Ethnic Equality and Inclusion to combat racial discrimination as well as promote political participation and inclusion of minority groups living in Europe and the United States.
The Chair of the OSCE, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, appoints three dedicated special representatives to Muslim, one to Jewish and one to Christian communities, to ensure that the needs of our communities throughout Europe and beyond are being addressed.
These efforts by our government and others underline how hard individuals and organizations are working together globally to combat hate and promote tolerance and inclusion using virtual campaigns, conferences, developing and sharing materials, and discussing best practices. We all share in a common humanity. The things that I want for myself and my children are no different from what you want for yourself and your children: safety, good health, security, a good education, dignity, and the ability to reach our full potential. And as people of faith we want to improve the lives of the least, the last, the lost.
We must fight to achieve and maintain these human rights. We must continue to engage with elected officials and hold them accountable for ensuring our human rights, our freedom of religion, our human dignity. We must continue to educate our communities and opinion leaders about ourselves and about what it means to live in a tolerant, democratic society. We must engage in the political process to ensure that it represents a plurality of voices and individuals. This process is always hard work and sometimes even messy, but it will spread a message that says that discrimination and intolerance have no place in any society.
It is inspiring to stand here among you and to see your commitment to achieving change. I hope this conference will spark innovative and effective ways to partner with government officials and other members of civil society to make your voices heard. I look forward to working with you in the future as we all work together to repair this fractured world.