* Last in a Six Part Series: Tolerance and Intolerance in the Islamic World, held at the Palais des Nations during the Durban Review Conference. All members of the Panel are Practicing Muslims.

Bismillahi Rahman ar Raheem.  My name is Stephen Suleyman Schwartz.  I was not born a Muslim.  My mother was the daughter of a Christian minister.  My father was Jewish.  Both of them were anti-religious so I was brought up without any religion.  I became Muslim in Bosnia in 1997 and I founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) as a transnational network of moderate Muslim scholars and intellectuals and journalists in 2004.

I would like to start with a couple of comments that have been made by representatives of major Muslim powers at this conference.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of a powerful country with a great culture and history and a great Islamic legacy, commented that in the Middle Ages scholars and scientists were sentenced to death, and that later on the world witnessed the transatlantic slave trade, with the hunting down of innocent people, separating them from their families and taking them in bondage to America in the worst conditions.


Well, Islamic figures were also sentenced to death, by Muslim authorities.  Some outstanding Islamic thinkers were killed in this way.  And slavery was not an invention of the Renaissance or the Medieval era.  Slavery existed among the Greeks and Romans and it existed among the Muslims and there's even an Islamic legal tradition dealing with slavery. 


So I ask the question: why is it that President Ahmadinejad seeks to put the blame for these historical atrocities - for racism, slavery and suppression of free opinion - only on the West?  This is equally a part of the negative history within Islam, which we need to correct, in dealing with these bad, anti-human practices. 


I see also that in the official statement of the permanent UN representative of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Abdulwahab Attar,  he condemned “the defamation of all prophets whether it be Muhammad, Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus, ... or others.”  Attar continued, “therefore in this forum we are calling for effective and practical steps to address this issue in such a way as to curb the phenomenon of intolerance and xenophobia.”


In other words, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is asking for an international legal standard against negative opinions.  Well, I'm an American and I'm also a Muslim.  And I'm a Muslim strong in my iman (belief) and I don’t run from and I'm not afraid of criticism.  I'm not such a weak Muslim in my iman that somebody saying something negative about any of the prophets makes me cry or require legal protection against criticism.  We should be willing to face criticism and we should be prepared to talk with those who criticize us.


All religion as we know it today is based on criticism.  The Jews criticized Pharaoh.  The Christians have their criticism of Judaism as it was practiced at the time.  Islam criticized the polytheists who had taken over the Haram in Mecca.  There is no religion without criticism - even Buddhism is based on criticism of the society that existed during the Buddha’s life. 


So I would ask: are certain Muslims happy to have it said that they have put themselves on the side of those who oppressed Moses, those who oppressed Jesus, those who oppressed Muhammad?  Is that what they want to be on the side of, by calling for an end to discussion and criticism? 


Calling the criticism of certain aspects of Islamic societies or the criticism of Muslims or even negative criticism of all of Islam, stereotyping and hate speech, is false.  There may be stereotyping, there may be hate speech, but there is no reason to respond to it by attempting to suppress it and attempting to prevent people from expressing themselves. 


Whether you are of no religion or whether you are a monotheist or a Buddhist or something else, if you believe in your religion you must be prepared to argue in defense of your religion.  And the Koran commands us that when we debate with the People of the Book, we argue in a quiet and a pleasant way because God hates wrath.  So we don’t argue against those who say things that may hurt our feelings about Islam by saying, "Oh, there should be a law and they should be arrested and imprisoned and they should be suppressed and silenced."  


Here's a little folder I picked up in this building:  Geneva in Flames” on the epic of John Calvin.  This is Geneva, the city famous for its support for Protestantism, and a city that prides itself on being the birthplace and later the refuge of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  But today a special meeting is taking place here.  There will be a week of meetings of people who want to abolish the tradition of a refuge for Protestantism and of a refuge for Rousseau.


Why are these people here in Geneva?  Why does Geneva accept these people here when they come and attempt to destroy the tradition of Geneva, the tradition that encourages free dialogue inside religion and among and between religious people?  They try to destroy the honorable tradition of giving a shelter to Rousseau, their born son.  I don’t understand this.  I don’t understand why Geneva would permit this.


I think what we have seen and what we are seeing in the Durban Review Conference is an attempt to protect radicalism and intolerance under the pretext of combating stereotyping and incitement.  Why is this necessary?  Why is it necessary to engage in this double dialectic, this double dialogue, this double language, by saying that any criticism of Islam is stereotyping and hate speech?  The aim is clear: to do away with pluralism, to do away with dialogue, to do away with discussion.


In traditional Islam, the glory of our religion is that it is like Judaism in that it encourages debate among its scholars.  As the Prophet Mohammad said, the differences among the scholars of religion are a blessing and a mercy.  He also said that the scholars of Islam, the scholars of religion, are like the stars in the sky; if you choose one, you'll be guided.  That's traditional Islam.  Traditional Islam is not afraid of criticism either from within Islam or from outside of Islam. 


Diversity must not and cannot be used as a pretext to deny diversity and above all freedom of opinion.  That's the bottom line. 


I have only been given ten minutes and these are obviously topics I can talk about at great length.  But I wanted to include a little bit - maybe a little bit extensively in talking about my own experience in the Balkans. 


I first went to the former Yugoslavia in 1990.  As a journalist I reported on the war in Croatia; I reported on the war in Bosnia; I reported on the war in Kosovo.  I was just in Kosovo this week.  And I have seen many things that changed me as a human being.  When you have seen the coffins of twenty-four infants killed in an ethnic massacre, you don’t walk away from that feeling the same as you did when you first saw it. 


And I asked myself about the United Nations, because the United Nations rules Kosovo, just as the United Nations played a role in Bosnia when it was subjected to attempted genocide.  (The genocide did not succeed, it was an attempted genocide.)  The UN speaks endlessly about the tragic situation of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Believe me: for a person coming from a Jewish father, who has become Muslim, nobody feels this the way I feel this, the tragedy of the conflict between these two peoples in the Holy Land.


But what does the UN say about Tibet?  What did the UN say about Bosnia?  What did the UN say about Kosovo?  What did the UN say about the Chechens?  What did the UN say about the Georgians?  I demand that the United Nations, if it is what it claims to be, a defender of humanitarian values and ideals, that it not simply remain and perpetuate itself as a platform for attacking Israel and the Jewish people, trying to pretend that it is the only conflict in the world, and that it address all the conflicts in the world where people are victimized because of their ethnicity, because of their religion, because of their gender and because of their opinions.


I'd like to add a point that is of interest to me.  Everybody who is literate in any way about religion knows that there is immense diversity in Christianity.  If somebody says, "I've become a Christian," and I say, "Oh, you must be Catholic," they may say, "No, I’m a Baptist,” or a Methodist.”  If somebody says that they're Jewish, and if I say, "Oh well then you must be Orthodox."  They might very likely say, "No, I'm Conservative or Reform."  If somebody says, "I'm going to go to the lands of Buddhism," we know that Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism and Korean Buddhism are quite different from each other. 


Why is there supposedly only one Islam?  And it's the Islam that's dictated from Riyadh.  And it's backed by oil money.  And it's intolerant and hateful.  And it's supporting extremism all over the world.  I protest against this.  I refuse this.  I will not allow anybody to say to the Muslims that there is only one Islam and you must follow this one Islam.  We want the same rights that Christians and Jews and Buddhists and every other one of the universal religions has, the right to diversity within our community, the right to differences in our community, the right to discussion within our community, the right to be respected for those differences.


I spoke earlier about the ghosts of Geneva.  I spoke about Calvin - whom I don't happen to admire very much, but I do understand Geneva as seeing itself as the protector of Protestantism.  I do happen to admire Rousseau because I'm a reader of French literature.  But there are other ghosts in this building and I saw the traces of them here - the ghosts of the League of Nations. 


The League of Nations did not act against Japan when Japan attacked China.  The League of Nations allowed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to be shouted down and insulted when he came as the leader of an independent country fighting against Italian fascism.  The League of Nations did not act against Germany when Hitler occupied the Rhineland.   And the League of Nations presided over the death of the Spanish Republic.


The United Nations bears that legacy, and those ghosts are here too.  This is what I say in conclusion:  I am an American.  There was always a flaw of the League of Nations.  There was always a flaw in the United Nations.  They put peace before freedom.  But freedom comes before peace.  All the rights we're talking about - the rights of the old, the rights of different religious groups.  The rights of the man from Neturei Karta to speak for himself, these are the rights of freedom.  Freedom comes before peace.  If you want to change the United Nations you must make it an organization built on the defense of freedom and end this discourse in which peace is more important than freedom, by putting freedom before peace.


Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is the author of 20 books, including The Two Faces of Islam  (translated into Bosnian, Albanian, Indonesian, and Farsi) and The Other Islam, both of which have gained wide readership in the Muslim world as well as in the West.   He also worked as a consultant for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.  



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