Thursday, November 13, 2008

Admission is the First Step

Zardari was very impressive in his address at the UN Interfaith Conference. Despite spending half the speech effusively praising the Saudi King, he did admit – though very briefly – that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both serious problems that need to be dealt with. His exact words were:

"Bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combatted."

Yes, he mentioned anti-Semitism only once, but implicit in the lumping together of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism was the idea that they are two sides of the same coin. The West's Islamophobia and the Muslim world's anti-Semitism are both a result of grievously mishandled geopolitics in the absence of meaningful people to people interaction.

Muslim anti-Semitism is based solely on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Muslims never had anything against the Jewish faith. In fact, while anti-Semitism raged in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Muslim world gave protection to Jews. Now, however, Jew is a dirty word in places like Pakistan. Synagogues have been burnt down in Karachi, the old Jewish cemetery desecrated and Jews – South Asian Jews mind you – have been run out of the country. Pakistani hatred of Jews is blind and overwhelming and rests on the false premise that Israel and individual Jews are the same.

The West's Islamophobia rests on the same misconception: the Muslim terrorists and the rest of the Muslim world are the same. Hate crimes against Muslims in America and Europe have been on the increase. In the US presidential elections, the label of Muslim was used almost as a slur on Obama, and the most revealing thing about it was that his Muslim middle name, Hussein, was a big concern for Americans.

Yet Americans acknowledge their problem and many in the liberal media try to fight Islamophobia. But in Pakistan, anti-Semitism has never been challenged by the media, intellectuals or politicians. Zardari's admission of the problem is a first step. His proposed solution, which followed the admission also seems to be in the right direction:

"Dialogue, and not discord, between civilizations and faiths must be encouraged... Let us not isolate people, let us engage people."

It is vague but it is something. Of course it would have been infinitely better if Zardari had said this to the Pakistani people and not a bunch of diplomats and world leaders and talked a little more specifically and extensively about anti-Semitism. There is a rumor that he might meet Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at one of the dinners. I for one hope he does. I hope that Pakistanis are allowed to go to Israel and Israelis allowed to come to Pakistan. Getting to know each other as human beings as opposed to demonic caricatures will only further the mission for tolerance for which all these distinguished persons have gathered at the UN this week.

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