September 21, 2012
Preventing Repeat of Tragic Events in Benghazi and other Places
by Jorge Sampalo@www.nst.com.my
BECAUSE of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations’ (UNAOC) mission statement and objectives, the recent deadly tragic events in Benghazi and incidents in Cairo, Sanaa and Tunis matter to the Alliance in various ways.
These violent protests were triggered by a provocative film trailer uploaded to YouTube that denigrates Islam and insults the Prophet Muhammad, thus offending the religious feelings of believers. There are many troubling questions about the production and the use of this video that should be investigated.
The urgent question is of further opposing intolerance or advocacy of religious hatred. Since 9/11, incitement to religious hatred has increased in significance with Muslims being the targets of general blame. Another dimension of this change has been the escalation of religious intolerance by non-state entities and the corresponding role of the state in combating intolerance.
There is a need to increase appropriate preventive measures and mechanisms at local, national and international levels to address religious intolerance and combat incitement to religious hatred, denigration of religions and religious symbols.
My suggestion is to promote further UN joint reflection to examine what can be done in the present situation to strike a new balance between freedom of expression, non-discrimination and hate speech.
The UNAOC has developed a rapid response media mechanism to address this kind of crisis. But this mechanism should be expanded.
It should reinforce its dimension of early warning both in terms of early detection of signs that a crisis is brewing and of real-time analysis about them (risk assessment). But it should also comprise an early response dimension, that is, initiatives by honest brokers to defuse tensions (preventive action) as well as crisis management once disruptive actions and unrest occur that need to be addressed by means of soft power tools through facilitation of dialogue and mediation.
Secondly, much greater effort has to be made in terms of long-term strategy for education and awareness-building. This involves a variety of topics such as media literacy — how to develop people’s critical abilities when it comes to information provided by media and social media; education for human rights, pluralism and tolerance; cultural literacy — how to acquire intercultural skills and competencies to live at ease in a landscape of differences and diversity; and dispute management.
More long term, strategic action is needed in the field of formal, informal and non-formal education for a culture of tolerance and peace at all levels, based on respect for human rights and diversity of religious beliefs.
Education for responsible citizenship is also necessary to speak out against intolerance and protest against abuse of free speech without being trapped in the cycle of violence.
As Kairat El-Shater reminds in the statement issued by the Muslim Brotherhood: “In the new democratic Egypt, people have the right to voice their anger over productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law”. The Ennahdha Party in Tunisia issued a similar statement recognising that in democracy, people are free to protest but in a peaceful way.
At the ministerial meeting of the Group of Friends of the Alliance on September 28, I will be proposing a set of concrete proposals to ministers, and a special working meeting (Focal Points’ level) is convened on October 18 to discuss additional action in the euro-Mediterranean region. I will also be consulting our civil society networks and youth to discuss on how to enhance dialogue and cooperation on the ground.
Recently, the UNAOC, in cooperation with the Maltese government, the League of Arab states, the North South Centre of the Council of Europe and the University of Malta, with the support of Brazil, organised the first regional summer school focused on “Building Peace in the Mediterranean”. It brought together young lawyers, journalists, political activists and information technology experts to act towards peace-building.
In spite of the challenging and complex times we are going through, grassroots, bottom-up initiatives like this one, which is focused on reinforcing the sense of common humanity, make me think there is hope for a better common future. But as the wake-up call resonating from Benghazi to Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa and elsewhere clearly shows, to transform hope into achievements, bold action is urgently needed.