SARAJEVO, March 26 (FENA) – Right-wing extremist groups are peddling conspiracy theories about Muslims, and Muslim women are a special target of anti-Muslim attacks, Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told FENA.
As he points out, international human rights law protects human beings both as individuals and groups of individuals, but not ideas, opinions, beliefs or religions as such. However, everyone is entitled to hold on to any opinion, idea, belief, or religion free from coercion by others. While religions do not enjoy protection in that people are free to criticize religions or to abandon their religions or beliefs, international law does protect the rights of people to peacefully manifest their religious beliefs in worship.
Mr. Shaheed presented his latest report on anti-Muslim hatred at yesterday’s press conference organized by the Council of Europe.
On that occasion, he told FENA that although religions do not enjoy protection “in that people are free to criticise religions or to abandon their religions or beliefs, international law does protect the rights of people to peacefully manifest their religious beliefs in worship, observance, teaching, and practice.”
“Thus, the right to wear a headscarf is protected not because international law protects the underlying religious belief, but because it protects the right of the person wearing the headscarf to hold that belief and manifest that belief. One can observe and follow the requirements one’s faith so long as that does not involve harming other people or threatening certain public interests, namely, public safety, order, health or morals,” Mr. Shaheed said.
He reminded that the UN has long worked on human rights education and more recently, he has been working with the UN on an initiative called ‘Faith for Rights’ that focuses on religious groups to show how human rights are compatible with various religions—such as on the basis of the ‘golden rule’ of treating others as one would have others treat them.
“This Initiative seeks to increase literacy on the meaning of freedom of religion as a human right. This Initiative also increases religious literacy as people learn more about different interpretations of their own religions and those of others, as a way to deconstruct intolerant mindsets and essentialized worldviews,” said Mr. Shaheed.
In his report, he recommends several practical steps in this regard, including the need for States to tackle Islamophobic discourse by providing anti-stereotyping training to State officials and educators; removing Islamophobic rhetoric from educational curricula; and including content on religious and cultural diversity in school curricula.
“Looking beyond the classroom context, I also would like to emphasize the importance of a continued and strengthened dialogue among and within religions or beliefs, to promote greater tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding, such as through interfaith dialogues. These paths are the way forward, in bridging differences and building unity,” he said.
In his report, Mr. Shaheed stressed that Muslim women are a special target of anti-Muslim attacks, especially online.
“Right-wing extremist groups are increasingly peddling conspiracy theories about Muslims, particularly amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I also noted that Muslim women are more likely to be targeted than men with hate, both online and offline. Muslim women and girls often experience such discrimination, hostility, and violence on an intersectional basis, with religious-based discrimination, intersecting with or compounding discrimination based on their gender and other protected characteristics such as race or ethnic origin,” he said.
Asked whether this type of attack could cause easier radicalization of young women and girls, which certain groups could take advantage of, the UN Special Rapporteur said that people react differently when confronted with hatred, and the most closely co-related reaction is withdrawal from public or other spaces that had exposed them to such hatred and the overall result is increasing inequality and marginalization.
“Such social exclusion definitely has a negative impact on societal cohesion and social capital and makes affected communities more vulnerable to those who seek to radicalise others,” he said.
However, he stressed that “radicalization” is a complex and context-based process.
“It is dangerous to draw assumptions that a single factor – such as online hate – is the root cause or one of the causes, since this could (i) feed into harmful stereotypes about Muslims as being simultaneously high risk and at risk of radicalization, which could lead to, encourage and validate States’ adoption of security measures which disproportionately and discriminatorily target Muslims,” said Mr. Shaheed.
Individuals experience and respond to online hate in different ways, regardless of their religion or belief and the vast majority of Muslims should not be typecast based on the actions of a tiny minority.
“I urge States to consider my recommendations in the report on tackling online hate, including appropriate reporting mechanisms, training law enforcement on religiously-motivated hate crimes, and working with social media companies to combat this scourge of online hate. I also recall the importance of respecting human rights while countering terrorism, a principle which has been highlighted repeatedly by many organs of the United Nations, the OSCE/ODIHR, and many National Human Rights Institutions,” concluded UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief Ahmed Shaheed for FENA.