15 February 2004

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a strong call for action to address rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, warning that complacency in the face of intolerance amounts to complicity.

Delivering the inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture at UN Headquarters in New York, Mr. Annan criticized those who remain silent in the face of bigotry, saying "such passivity must not be allowed to masquerade as tolerance."

The Secretary-General noted that Islamophobia -- a new word for an old phenomenon -- is one of the most disturbing manifestations of bigotry today. Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, "many Muslims, particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment and discrimination," he said, adding that too many people see Islam "as a monolith, and as intrinsically opposed to the West."

Contrasting this view, he pointed out that Western and Islamic peoples have a long history of commerce, of inter-mingling and inter-marrying, and of influencing and enriching each other's art, literature, science and much else.

"Despite a discourse of centuries, caricature remains widespread, and the gulf of ignorance is dangerously deep," he warned. "It would be unconscionable to add any further to the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world's great religions, cultures and civilizations."

Mr. Annan also pointed to anti-Semitism as "another dangerous hatred" that blights the world. He called attention to the scars left by the history of persecution against the Jews, adding that a recent upsurge of attacks shows this hatred to be "virulent still."

Addressing the broader political context, he noted that in some cases, anti-Semitism could be a byproduct of the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict. "Criticism of Israeli policies is one thing," he said, "but it is quite another when such critiques take the form of attacks -- physical or verbal -- on Jewish individuals and the symbols of their heritage and faith."

While pointing out that criticism of Israel must not be allowed to mask anti-Semitism, he added that Israel's supporters should not use the charge of anti-Semitism to stifle legitimate discussion.

The Secretary-General called for a "framework of shared values within which different peoples can coexist." Pledging full support for this endeavour, he said the battle for tolerance is of "paramount importance to the entire United Nations."