4th Annual Interfaith Dinner and Dialogue for U.S. Religious Leaders
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank Ambassador Erlan Idrissov for hosting this dinner, the fourth one dedicated to interfaith dialogue. I am honored to join Ambassador Idrissov and Imam Fiesal Abdul Rauf in addressing you tonight.
Amid the portrayal of ethnic and religious violence in the news, we must not forget, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that “religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society.” Religious freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and therefore must be respected by all governments. Moreover, it is in government’s interest to respect religious freedom. Religion often teaches respect for the rights and dignity of each individual. Religious freedom and tolerance are integral for building stable and harmonious societies, and this means freedom for all people of all faiths or beliefs, including those who do not believe in any religion.
Kazakhstan, in its capacity as the founder of the Congress on World and Traditional Religions, as 2010 Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and as 2011 Chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has acknowledged the role that religious freedom and tolerance play in building stable harmonious societies. When governments unduly restrict religious freedom and freedom of expression, or when societies fail to take steps to promote tolerance and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they risk alienating religious believers and emboldening extremists.
I am honored to serve as the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. I am charged with monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance. But the truth is, I am in the relationship building business. I am here today because it is imperative that we work together. We stand for rights of all peoples, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. We share the same mission: to combat hate and intolerance to create a more peaceful and just world.
Over the past two years, I have been tracking anti-Semitism around the world, and have witnessed its alarming presence and growth. While I am troubled by the rise of global anti-Semitism, I am also troubled by the rise of all hate and intolerance, especially hatred of Muslims. We must all join together, regardless of our backgrounds and faiths, to combat hate.
I would like to tell you a story about my work with my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. In June 2010, Farah and I were scheduled to speak at the OSCE High-Level Conference on Tolerance and non-Discrimination in Astana, Kazakhstan. Farah had prepared the official U.S. statement on hatred of Muslims and I had prepared the official U.S. statement on anti-Semitism. The night before the conference, Farah and I had an idea. We decided to switch speeches. The next day we caught everyone by surprise when I sat in the U.S. chair in the session on Islamophobia. At first, people seemed surprised, sure that I had made a mistake and turned up in the wrong session. But then I delivered a speech on combating hatred against Muslims. The same thing happened in the session on anti-Semitism, where Farah delivered remarks on combating anti-Semitism.
Our swap caught the attention of the international community. Sometimes the messenger does make a difference and can increase the impact of the message. When I was in Saudi Arabia in June, meeting with representatives of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, one told me he remembered the speech switch in Astana. In September, when I met with Swedish diplomats in New York, they delightedly noted what an impact our Astana speech made. And recently at UNESCO, several people talked about the speech swap.
When the Special Representative to Muslim Communities delivers remarks on combating anti-Semitism, people listen. When the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism delivers remarks on combating hatred of Muslims, people listen. It is far more powerful and far more meaningful if we speak out together.
During the Kazakhstan Tolerance conference, Farah and I hosted a side event called “The ART Initiative.” “The ART Initiative” stands for Acceptance, Respect, and Tolerance. Representatives from six international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on youth shared their organizations’ mandates and best practices. These included CIVITAS (Bosnia and Herzegovina); Public Movement Multinational (Georgia); The Center for Interethnic Cooperation (Russia); “Sources of Tolerance” summer camps and “Tolerance Clubs for Teenagers” (Ukraine); The Three Faiths Forum (UK); and The Interfaith Youth Core (USA). The dialogue focused on new initiatives to promote pluralism and highlighted best practices of NGOs that work to advance acceptance, respect, and tolerance. The overall goal of the ART Initiative is to present successful and easily adaptable approaches to combat intolerance and discrimination by involving interfaith, inter-ethnic youth and young adults.
The youth we brought with us were impressed with our speech switching in Astana, but then asked us, “What can we do? We don’t have a lot of money, but we want to do something to make a difference.”
From this impetus, Farah and I launched 2011 Hours Against Hate. A virtual campaign, 2011 Hours Against Hate focuses on youth, using ways that they like to communicate, through social media. The whole initiative is on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign’s success was so great and so widespread that we have decided to extend 2011 Hours Against Hate into 2012.
We are asking young people around the world to pledge their time to volunteer with people who may look different, pray differently or live differently from them. For example, a young Jew might volunteer to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a Russian Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Hindu at a Baha’i food pantry. We want people to walk in another person’s shoes. It’s about mutual respect and taking action to advance acceptance, pluralism, tolerance. And it is about relationship building.
Farah and I have already met with thousands of students and young professionals in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Spain, Lebanon and Jordan, countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. Young people want to DO something, and this has given them an outlet. We quickly surpassed our goal of 2011 hours pledged against hate, with over 16,000 hours pledged from all over the world, and stories and videos posted to the Facebook page. Please check it out on Facebook at 2011HoursAgainstHate, and become part of this movement.
When history records this chapter I hope it will reflect our efforts to build a peaceful, fair, just, free world where people defend universal human rights and dignity. This is not a vision to be dismissed as naïve idealism – it is a real goal that should never be far from our thoughts.
Since the beginning of humankind, hate has been around, but since then too, good people of all faiths and backgrounds have striven to combat it. The Jewish tradition tells us that “you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of refusal to understand another’s point of view, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak before you and participate in this dialogue. Thank you Ambassador Idrissov. I look forward to a fruitful discussion.