Recently I received an email from "a Palestinian in Vancouver," in Canada, asking me to boycott Israel's annual Presidential Conference, "Facing Tomorrow," soon in Jerusalem, where I have been invited to speak.
The request for my boycott citied as reasons Israel's human rights violations and mentioned that as Stephen Hawking boycotted the conference, perhaps I should, as well.
My response to my Palestinian friend is that the first time I was invited to speak at this conference three years ago, I went, hesitantly, not knowing what it was all about. I was so enthused by both my visit to Israel and the conference that I wrote extensively about the experience on my blog, and later named my own Not-for-Profit Organization "Muslims Facing Tomorrow" with an idea that one day, I would host a similar conference about ideas and a vision for a better tomorrow.
Upon my return, I praised the country and the people, but many of my Muslim friends were not interested in knowing these details. They only asked, "Were there any Palestinians at the conference and was the Israel-Palestinian issue discussed?" I was happy to respond that yes, there were Palestinians at the conference; I had even brought home a book on Islam from one of the Palestinian speakers there.
About human rights violations: granted that Israel, like every other country, has violations -- but far fewer than those of the countries surrounding it. Israel is still the only liberal democracy in the area where one can find gender equality and freedom for its citizens. During my visits to Israel, I have, in fact, questioned Israeli Arabs and found that they are loath to leave the country where they enjoy freedom and human rights.
As I am accredited to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, where I attend its sessions twice a year, I have a close connection with human rights. At the UNHRC, I hear a lot about humanitarian crises, and these do not include Israel. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Co-operation), for instance, – a group of 57 Arab and Muslim States which has a permanent delegation to the United Nations and is the largest international organization outside the United Nations -- continuously slams and blames Israel for everything happening in the Arab and Muslim world and beyond. This incrimination of Israel has become the norm, and can be seen as a ruse to deflect or move focus away from the real problems besetting the Arab world.
BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel is also not a new movement, but has taken on a life of its own at academic institutions all over North America. This movement has led to "Israel Apartheid Week" events, ugly and nonsensical, at many universities. If I were a student, I would, in retaliation, host Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan "Apartheid Weeks." But I know that is not the solution to the problems besetting these countries, and the crux of the issue is how freedom of speech can become the fine line between hate mongering and truth.
This incrimination also highlights the double standards held by academics such as Stephen Hawking: he had no issues, apparently, speaking in China and Iran, two countries that have appalling human rights records. But that is his problem.
My problem is that I am from Pakistan, a country where the word human rights has no meaning or recognition whatsoever. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report on Pakistan for 2012, Pakistan had a disastrous year -- including increasing attacks on civilians by militant groups, religious minorities facing unprecedented insecurity and persecution, and where freedom of belief and expression are coming under severe threat as the presence of Islamists has grown by leaps and bounds. This does not even begin to address violations against women. The Aurat Foundation, a local women's rights group in Pakistan, says the number of incidents of violence against women in Pakistan has increased at least seven percent over the past year.
But I have never seen or heard a Palestinian speak out about these human rights violations; take part in demonstrations or boycotts for these offences, or show support for the cause of Pakistani women. Where were their voices when Christians and Shias were being killed and brutalized in Pakistan just a few months ago? No one asked me to cancel my annual visits to Pakistan, but I did lodge a complaint against my own land of birth at the UNHRC, so I may not be travelling back there soon.
Let us also talk about Saudi Arabia, a country where the list of human rights violations is endless. There is evidence, according to some UN reports, of torture; and lashing criminals is a common practice. Amnesty International published an annual report on the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia last week. The report covered a large range of human rights violations within the country -- everything from women's repression, migrant worker mistreatment, execution of minors, sectarianism, arbitrary detainment and torture was discussed. The largest section of the report, however, concerned the suppression of dissidents and the detainment of human rights defenders within the kingdom.
But no one ever speaks of BDS against Saudi Arabia. I think that all Muslims should boycott Saudi Arabia for one year at least.
In ending let me say this to my Palestinian friend: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is over land, and can be solved when both sides recognize one another and, as equals, then have a dialogue. This means that, like me, you have to accept that Israel has a right to exist. It is not the only conflict related to Muslims. If you want justice for those facing criminal human rights violations, then speak out against Sudan, Egypt, Burma, China, Iran and all other countries who regularly persecute their own citizens.
Meanwhile I'm packing for Israel and counting the days. My friends there have grown in number, and I plan to have a wonderful time in that beautiful nation.
Raheel Raza is President of The Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow