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D.C. Islamophobia Conference Was a Bad Idea

Nina Shea

Yesterday marked the opening of the international conference announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a high-level meeting on Islamophobia that she co-chaired, held last July in Istanbul and hosted by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). At the time, Secretary Clinton described this week’s conference as a move to implement U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on “combating [religious] intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization.”

This State Department conference, entitled “The Istanbul Process,” is proving to be a very bad idea. It remains to be seen whether speech limitations to protect religion generally and Islam specifically will be officially endorsed by the conference similar recommendations have already been adopted by the OIC and by the EU conference participants but, judging from the opening session, at least some of my misgivings seem well founded.

The three-day conference was closed to the public, but I was invited to its opening session (as well as to the closing session to be held on Wednesday) by virtue of my being a commissioner on the official but independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Chatham House Rules,” which State directed us to abide by, forbid releasing anything about a specific delegation or quoting for attribution.

To speak more generally, then: Legal and security officials of a delegation which will remain unnamed gave a sweeping overview of American founding principles on religious freedom and how they have been breached time and again in American history by attacks against a broad variety of religious minority groups including now against Muslims. A raft of current cases were mentioned; America’s relative exemplary and distinctive achievement in upholding religious freedom in an emphatically pluralistic society was not. That same speaker reassured the audience, which was packed with diplomats from around the world, that the Obama administration is working diligently to prosecute American Islamophobes and is transforming the U.S. Justice Department into the conscience of the nation, though it could no doubt learn a thing or two from the assembled delegates on other ways to stop persistent religious intolerance in America.

Across the room, smirking delegates from some of the world’s most repressive and intolerant regimes could be spotted, furiously taking notes.

The Saudi Justice Minister was recently in the U.S. but unfortunately departed before the conference opened and won’t be making any presentation on how the Saudis stop religious intolerance. Nor will his delegation be making any apologetic mention of the Saudi ban on churches, its repression of its large indigenous Shiite population, its textbooks teaching that Jews should be killed, or its beheading yesterday of a woman for sorcery, in addition to another recent beheading of a Sudanese man for the same crime.

Meanwhile, at U.N. headquarters in New York, a new resolution following on 16/18 has been introduced by the OIC and will soon be voted on by the General Assembly, where it will no doubt passed with U.S. approval. It singles out for praise regarding the promotion of religious tolerance one state  Saudi Arabia.

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