Hit by the departure of the United States and Israel, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently welcomed its new Director-General, former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay. Those who care about cultural diversity and Western civilization hailed her election, because the representative of Qatar's Islamist regime had come close to winning UNESCO's leadership race. But the real problem is that UNESCO has been abandoned to Islamist dictatorships. A battle to save the organization has begun.
Among the critics of UNESCO there is a tendency to dismiss this agency as "irrelevant". Yet, so long as UNESCO exists, the West cannot allow repressive regimes to dominate the world's highest body supposedly in charge of culture, science and education. Richard Hoggart, the British scholar who served as UNESCO's assistant director general from 1970 to 1977, once asked: "Should Unesco Survive?".
The UN agency is currently dominated by the most oppressive regimes in regard to education and culture. There is China, which in July let writer, poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo die an agonizing death in prison, where he was serving an 11-year jail sentence for his support of human rights and democracy. Then there is Iran, where a dean of journalism, Siamak Pourzand, committed suicide to avoid more persecution by the regime. Last week, the assistant director for Education of UNESCO, Qian Tang, was in Iran to advance "cultural cooperation" with the Islamic Republic, but the issue of cultural freedom in the Iran was not even raised by the envoy of the UN agency. There is also Pakistan, a country that has sentenced to death essentially for being a Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi, whose condition has never even been questioned by UNESCO. There is Qatar, where a poet, Rashid at Ajami, was sentenced to three years in prison for a poem critical of the emir Hamad bin Khalifa at Thani.
Irina Bokova, then Director-General of UNESCO, is pictured speaking at China's official Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, on May 14, 2017. Two months later, the Chinese government let writer, poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo die an agonizing death in prison, where he was serving an 11-year jail sentence for his support of human rights and democracy. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein - Pool/Getty Images)
UNESCO has become a grotesque forum, hosting shows such as that orchestrated by Cuba. Last June, Cuba complained of a minute of silence for Holocaust victims, but was able to hold another one for the Palestinians. At the opening of UNESCO's 39th General Conference in Paris, the United Arab Emirates' delegation placed a box containing a medal on the desk of each foreign delegation in honor of the UAE having sponsored the renovation of the conference hall. No box, however, was placed on the desk of Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen. These farces are nothing new at UNESCO. And they must end. The UN agency cannot allow the "uncivilized regimes", as Shama-Hacohen called them, to continue to bully and vandalize Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.
Islamic regimes launched a takeover bid for UNESCO by investing massive financial resources and political lobbying at the UN cultural agency. Qatar, the wealthiest state in the world per capita, provided extremely generous financial support. That is why a Qatari representative, the former Minister of Culture Hamad bin Abdulaziz al Kawari, for days led the recent race for the leadership of UNESCO. The Simon Wiesenthal Center charged Qatar with bribing countries to win votes for the UN agency post. The Wiesenthal Center then launched an appeal to prevent Iran from becoming the head of UNESCO's executive board. Meanwhile, Turkey, another country with an Islamist regime that bullies culture and freedom, joined the executive board.
This "lobbying" has enabled those Islamic countries to form the most powerful bloc at UNESCO. As Denis MacEoin has previously explained:
"Of UNESCO's 195 member states, 35 are fully Islamic nations, another 21 are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and four are OIC observer states. That makes 60 who represent a bloc favourable to Muslim-inspired resolutions."
Qatar has been pivotal in sponsoring anti-Semitic resolutions. There was UNESCO's resolution denying Jewish history in Jerusalem, Islamizing historically Biblical holy sites by magic wand legerdemain, as Islam did not even exist until 600 years later. In a speech to the UNESCO General Assembly last week, Israel's ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen said :
"UNESCO has been hijacked and abused as a tool for the persecution of Israel and the Jewish people, while concocting fake facts and fake history, meant to erase our history in Jerusalem and rewrite global history."
The Islamists' takeover of the agency does not affect only Israel. It undermines the universal noble goal of this UN agency, which should be the protection of cultural diversity, especially where it is endangered.
The Preamble of UNESCO's Constitution says: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed". UNESCO is knowingly betraying its own message. It is allowing regimes that massacre the minds of men to take over the UN agency that claims to be precisely in charge of "defenses of peace".
Last March, UNESCO's then Director-General, Irina Bokova, expressed appreciation for Qatar's support with a $2 million loan as part of a commitment by the Qatari authorities to donate $10 million to UNESCO. UNESCO's headquarter in Paris hosted a forum sponsored by Saudi Arabia on "cultural and religious diversity". It was a capitulation to barbarism; Saudi Arabia tortures bloggers such as Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison. UNESCO also held a three-day event entitled "Saudi Cultural Days" with Saudi art, food, customs and dances. Saudi King Abdallah Ibn Abdul Aziz donated $20 million to the UNESCO Emergency Fund. Donations to UNESCO have been promised by other Islamic countries, such as Algeria, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Turkey.
The United Arab Emirates gave $6 million to UNESCO, while Kuwait gave $5 million. UNESCO now hosts the presentation of books such as The Foundations of Islam along with ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, whose director Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri met Flavia Schlegel, assistant director general of UNESCO, to advance the cooperation between the two agencies.
"The concept of Islamophobia masks the reality of the offensive, led by the Salafists, Wahhabis, and Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and North America, to re-Islamize Muslim communities — a prelude, they hope, to Islamizing the entire Western world."
Under UNESCO's previous Director-General Irina Bokova, the organization allowed the "State of Palestine" to join as a member, despite its not being a state and despite the Palestinians' clear failure to protect holy sites. Palestinians destroyed the Jewish holy shrine of Joseph's Tomb and attacked the holy site known as Rachel's Tomb, while Palestinian terrorists invaded the Christian holy site of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. UNESCO also kept silent when Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist terror group governing Gaza, destroyed the ancient Anthedon Harbor, which includes the ruins of a Roman temple and archaeological remains from the Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
UNESCO's concern for "endangered sites" -- a travesty of language used by these regimes to mask the Islamization of Hebron's Jewish cemeteries at the UN -- quickly disappears when it comes to Christian churches in the Islamic world. Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of Christianity in Istanbul, was re-Islamized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The muezzin's call to prayer resounded for the first time in 85 years since the country's former leader, Ataturk, turned the cathedral into a museum. If UNESCO is really serious about reforming itself, it should immediately issue a statement against the Islamization of Hagia Sophia, a UN World Heritage Site.
Novelist and filmmaker Zulfu Livaneli, Turkey's goodwill ambassador to the UNESCO, resigned in 2016; he accused the UN agency of hypocrisy for ignoring the destruction of a heritage site in Diyarbakir during clashes between the Turkish army and militants in his country's mainly Kurdish southeast. "To pontificate on peace while remaining silent against such violations is a contradiction of the fundamental ideals of UNESCO," said Livaneli, who had held the goodwill post to promote UNESCO values since 1996. More officials and personalities should take the same position protesting against UNESCO's silence on many other destructions.
New UNESCO chief Azoulay said last week that the US "empty chair" cannot last. The American boycott, however, is not a matter of time, but of substance. The US and Israeli boycott will last until UNESCO returns to its original mission.
When Pablo Picasso painted the famous frescoes at UNESCO's headquarter at Place de Fontenoy in Paris, UNESCO's founding fathers dreamed of the rebirth of Western culture after the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazism. Now the West, intimidated by physical terror and political ransom, is allowing UNESCO to be seized by regimes that hang dissidents, lash women, execute gays, imprison Christians and leave their own people illiterate.
When did the West cynically decide that education and culture were worth less than a barrel of oil?
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.