JWF Focuses on Civil Society Initiatives to Combat Religious Intolerance

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JWF held a panel on Friday, March 14, on “The Importance of Civil Society Initiatives for Combating Religious Intolerance” at the United Nations Office in Geneva. Academics and diplomats attended the panel, which was organized as a side event during the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Dialogue among nations and civilizations should be increased, and knowledge-sharing and constructive discussions should be brought to higher levels. I believe that all sorts of hate speech can be barred through efforts for more constructive dialogue.

Dr. Stefan Hammer, professor of public law and legal philosophy at the University of Vienna

During the event, academics and diplomats came to an agreement that freedom of expression must be defended, but they also recognized the fact that this freedom should not be abused to justify hate speech. In this context, the panel discussion on universal respect for sacred values emphasized the importance of freedom of expression and thought.

Swiss academic Jean-François Mayer, who was the moderator of the panel, said that the panel did not have the potential to result in a ban on injustice and intolerance, but it could definitely contribute to finding productive ways to fight them.

JWF deputy chair Huseyin Hurmali, who was also a discussant at the 32nd Abant Platform held last weekend in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, discussed Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen’s methods of fighting ignorance, poverty, and strife. Stressing that Gulen has put forth peaceful co-existence as the only solution to these kinds of problems, Hurmali said that JWF has striven to establish peace by fostering human rights, freedom of belief, and freedom of expression through several organizations that it founded.

‘Intolerance cannot exist where sacred values are kept alive.’

Dr. Ibrahim Salama, Chief of the Human Rights and Treaty Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), also took the floor. Salama said that the possibility of encountering a lack of tolerance where sacred values are widely respected is minimal. “Religions are not an obstacle to human rights; religions even contribute to settling many problems. When one examines Islamic history, I am sure that many questions on human rights and peaceful co-existence will find answers. But I believe that terms like freedom of expression and belief give rise to confusion because they are not defined clearly,” said Salama.

Emphasizing that the exchange of viewpoints was a habit of Prophet Muhammad, Salama said, “Our prophet spent his whole life fighting against oppressive regimes, and he always exchanged views with his friends while he fought against such regimes.”

‘Hate speech against religion can be prevented through dialogue.’

Dr. Stefan Hammer, professor of public law and legal philosophy at the University of Vienna, mentioned that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) clearly defines the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of belief, and it bans all kind of hate speech against any religion or race.

Hammer said, “Dialogue among nations and civilizations should be increased, and knowledge-sharing and constructive discussions should be brought to higher levels. I believe that all sorts of hate speech can be barred through efforts for more constructive dialogue.”

‘Freedom of expression has reached its limits; hate speech has taken its place.’

Abdul Wahab, former UN ambassador of Pakistan in New York, explained that Islam is a religion of peace, politeness, and elegance that preaches tolerance and dialogue among religions. Wahab, who is still active in the OHCHR, repeated that it is very difficult to prevent hate speech against religions, but he emphasized the importance of that task.

Wahab also discussed non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “NGOs have a very significant role,” he said. “Even if the UN works hard on this issue, it won’t work out without the cooperation with and the support of NGOs. As NGOs are founded by people with different professions, they have the capacity to perform multifunctional projects.”

At the end of his speech, Wahab stated that the borders of freedom of expression should be defined clearly in order to prevent hate speech. He noted that when freedom of expression reaches its limits, hate speech begins to take its place.

‘Volunteers of the Hizmet movement are inspired by Mevlana.’

Ihsan Yilmaz, assistant professor at Fatih University, spoke about the work that the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement does in order to fight intolerance. “Fethullah Gulen is not a reformist. He follows the Sunni stream of Islam and does not invent new measures, but tries to apply Islam to our time, respecting Islamic fundamental values,” Yilmaz explained.

He also said that Gulen is the ideological and philosophical leader of the movement, which has sympathizers from more than 160 countries. Yilmaz highlighted that these sympathizers put Gulen’s ideas in practice while taking into account compatibility with peaceful coexistence, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, and science.

“The Hizmet movement has a heterogeneous constitution. The sympathizers are mainly Muslims but there are also many non-Muslims. The schools founded by this movement are secular and teach universal values,” said Yilmaz.

Yilmaz expressed that the movement puts intercultural and inter-religious dialogue into practice on a daily basis. Doing so requires values to be put into real life contexts before they are explained. Therefore, sympathizers as well as teachers working in schools founded by the Hizmet movement try to be role models. They try to promote a generation with an understanding of tolerance and peaceful acceptance of others.

Yilmaz finished his speech by quoting Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are!” Yilmaz added, “The volunteers of the Hizmet movement are inspired by Mevlana and they say: Whoever you are, wherever you are, we will come to you.”

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