While ambassadors and foreign ministers from around the world give seven-minutes speeches in the main Assembly Hall, NGOs have been invited to speak at the same time on dozens of panels around the UN complex. Since the conference organizers decided not to hold a separate NGO Forum this year (which, as I noted yesterday, was the center of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at the 2001
On Tuesday, I attended a panel entitled “Human Rights, Discrimination And Islamophobia,” which touched on one of Durban II's hot-button issues: defamation of religion. A number of Muslim countries tried to get the Durban II final statement to oppose incitement against religion, which many Western countries saw as a veiled attempted to restrain critics of Islam (or institute so-called "blasphemy laws"), thereby restricting freedom of expression. Some of the countries that have decided to boycott, such as the
The panel was thus overflowing with attendees--about two-dozen delegates from Jewish and pro-Israel groups among the hundred or so people sitting at the tables, lining the walls, and crouching on the floor. It began innocuously enough, with a series of relatively balanced presentations from various academics and activists on issues including the attacks on Tamils in Sri Lanka this week, the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a political tool, the affect of anti-terror laws on Muslims, and discrimination against Muslims in Europe.
But as soon as Charles Graves, the event’s chair and secretary general of Interfaith International, opened the floor for questions, dozens of hands shot up--almost all of them from anti-Israel activists. The first questioner, declaring that the "most dangerous thing against Muslims around the world is Zionism actually," asked the panel to confirm that Zionism is a racist ideology. Another questioner asked how this panel can be related to the "crisis in
Seeing the conversation getting side-tracked, the affable yet geriatric
But before long, another questioner declared, "Considering the importance of implementing justice, we need to address the two injustices that occurred in
Someone interrupted the silence by turning on their microphone and yelling that the session was being hijacked. At that point,
The Jewish activists were visibly distressed by the hijacking, but since most of them were attending such a panel for the first time, seemed unclear what to do. Two of them finally raised their hands, but at that point, it was too late;
Though most of the panelists gave the usual banal, pat answer to these questions, the most poignant response came from panelist Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who had spent most of his presentation criticizing human rights in the Middle East. "There are many brave human right defenders in the Arab world," he said calmly in response to the questions from the pro-Israel activists. "It is not respectful to their hard work and sacrifices when the human right situation in these countries is cited not in a genuine concern but as way of political scoring or name-calling." As one of the Jewish activists told me after the session, "It was such a powerful response because there was definitely a hint of truth in it."
Zvika Krieger is a deputy web editor of The New Republic.