Exclusive interview of Dr Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri with AzerNews
By Gulgiz Dadashova
Question: Growing Islamophobia poses new challenges to the efforts being made to counter such dangerous phenomena. What is your approach to this issue?
Answer: Hostility to Islam, fear of Islam or what is widely referred to as “Islamophobia” is a dangerous phenomenon common in Western and other countries around the world. It is one of the major fallouts of the prevailing misunderstanding, inadequate knowledge, lack of discernment and scarcity of reliable information about Islam. It also has a historical and psychological aspect associated with a legacy of mis/disinformation pervading many circles, including intellectual and academic communities. I can even say that these same circles are the most common mongers of such baseless accusations, rumors, falsehoods, lies and stereotypes about Islam, the Islamic civilization and Muslims. However, it must be admitted that the practices of a minority of extremists in some countries of the Islamic world add to the already tarnished image of Muslims and Islam. Terrorist groups are exploiting religion under various pretexts for their own evil ends, thus giving opponents of Islam strong arguments to wage their anti-Islam propaganda.
The phenomenon remarkably emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Before, a particular intolerance towards Muslims was visible, but which was not as aggressive as it is today, with anti-Islam sentiments being exhibited even by political parties and intellectuals in Western countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and France.
Islamophobia entails a misconception about Islam which originates in a fanatical ideology presenting it as being a threat to the Western civilization, and making use of the attitudes of a small minority of Muslim extremists whose statements or acts contribute to generalizing the negative image of this minority over the majority of Muslims consisting of peaceful moderates aspiring for a decent life for themselves and for others. With their faith and their attachment to their religion, the majority of Muslims represent no danger whatsoever to the world or to any civilization. They, on the contrary, are an important component of the human civilization that contributed and still contributes with its abilities and its potential to the development of that civilization.
The world’s wise are therefore invited to challenge this Islamophobic image promoted and sustained by fanatics in the West, so as for Muslim-West relations not to turn into a clash of ignorances and fanaticisms instead of being based on respect, cooperation and synergy. As such, instead of the barriers and fences being erected by fanatics, we need to build bridges of concord and rapprochement between peoples and civilizations. We, Muslims, have fallen short to sell to the West our true image and our religion’s truth as a message preaching development and construction not sabotage and destruction as claimed by such falsehood mongers.
ISESCO has contributed to addressing this phenomenon through reflection on its causes, its consequences on the future of Muslim-West relations and its serious repercussions on the global effort to cultivate justice, peace, coexistence, and tolerance and foster intercultural dialogue and alliance of civilizations. In the same vein, ISESCO has held seminars and conferences in some European capitals, in cooperation with several Islamic organizations and institutions operating in the West, and has organized several such events in some Member States. Moreover, the Organization has developed the Course to Train Journalists and Broadcasters in Addressing Stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in Western Media, which was adopted by the 9th Islamic Conference of Information Ministers, held in April 2011, in Libreville, Republic of Gabon. This document features modules intended to identify practical mechanisms to deal with Islamophobia in the media through a holistic approach taking into account the laws and regulations in force in the West. In implementation of this course, ISESCO held a number of training sessions for the benefit of Muslim and non-Muslim journalists in many European cities.
Q.: Located on the crossroads of the East and the West, Azerbaijan is a land of tolerance with its Muslim majority coexisting with the followers of other religions and beliefs. How do you assess Baku’s role in addressing anti-Islam propaganda?
A.: Azerbaijan is devoting outstanding efforts to promoting middle stance, brotherly love, tolerance, peace and respect for differences, which together are values actually advocated by Islam and its teachings. Azerbaijan’s most important initiatives in this regard include the organization of the Baku International Humanitarian Forum in whose sessions ISESCO is an active participant and which I personally dubbed a “civilizational project” on the occasion of its first edition in 2011. The Forum is worthy of this title, given the significance of the objectives it aims to achieve through an enhanced form of cooperation with the international community, and thanks to its standing as an international cultural and intellectual platform aimed at promoting rapprochement between cultures and religions, peaceful coexistence, acceptance of otherness, and recognition of the right to difference. I think these goals together constitute a civilized model for countering the anti-Islam propaganda machine which accuses Islam of favoring terror and rejecting dialogue and coexistence.
Q.: In today’s context where Islam is unjustly associated with extremism and terrorism, ISESCO is more than ever in need of a new platform of action. What is your Organization’s action plan to promote mutual understanding among people of different religions and cultures?
A.: Intercultural dialogue and alliance of civilizations is an open programme under which ISESCO implements many activities, joins up with its international partners in holding international conferences on such issues, and contributes to dialogue forums it is invited to, including the annual United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Forum (UNAOC), in which I personally take part as representative of ISESCO. This particularly gives me the opportunity to present ISESCO’s perspective on the issues pertaining to intercultural dialogue and alliance of civilizations, since the Organization is also concerned with promoting dialogue among followers of religions, cultures and civilizations in the Islamic world and beyond.
As I said, ISESCO is an active partner of the international synergy for dialogue between followers of cultures and religions. Under this heading, it participates in international conferences on dialogue where it highlights the Islamic civilization’s perspective on the issues addressed by such international events. It also contributes to the efforts aimed at fostering tolerance, coexistence, harmony, mutual understanding and mutual respect, and promoting a culture of dialogue, justice and peace, through the conferences and seminars it organizes and the studies and books it publishes. ISESCO’s actions in this regard also include advocacy for the integration of these concepts into the educational curricula in the Member States, and for the enculturation of moderation, middle stance and correct understanding of religion, in such a way as to eliminate intolerance and extremism. Such is the approach and policy adopted in all ISESCO’s action plans.
The Organization is all the time more interested in the issues falling within its ambit at so many levels. This includes incorporating such concepts into the strategies, major civilizational projects and programmes scheduled under the action plans adopted by its triennial General Conference, on the one hand; and into the educational curricula and systems to whose development ISESCO contributes by offering ideas and suggestions to the Member States to enhance their capabilities in this vital area, on the other hand. ISESCO’s involvement at this level also concerns the educational and cultural studies and books it publishes in Arabic, English and French, which constitute an important intellectual contribution to dispelling misconceptions, presenting true information on Islam as a tolerant religion and a culture favoring intellectual and emotional development. All this originates in ISESCO’s conviction that quality education based on reliable facts and information and on sound conceptions is indispensable for promoting a good religious literacy which refutes falsehoods and corrupt beliefs and disseminates moderate Islamic thought.
Q.:Azerbaijan has recently established a National Commission for ISESCO. What role do you attach to this structure in terms of promoting intercultural dialogue?
A.: I think that among the functions of Azerbaijan National Commission for Education, Science and Culture is to play an active role in promoting Azerbaijan’s cultural relations regionally and worldwide, in view of its location at a crossroads of cultures, nations, religions and civilizations between Europe and Asia.
In his speech at the opening of the 3rd International Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, held in Baku in May 2015, His Excellency President Ilham Aliyev explained that one of Azerbaijan’s biggest assets was its involvement in promoting multiculturalism, peaceful cooperation and mutual understanding, and stressed the need to strengthen that positive trend and to work harder in order to bring countries, civilizations and religions closer to each other in such a way as to reduce hatred and racism.
So I think that His Excellency’s speech presents a comprehensive outline of an action plan for promoting intercultural dialogue which the Commission can build on. The Commission can also coordinate in this regard with the Baku International Multiculturalism Centre, by focusing on activities aimed at reducing hatred, extreme violence, religious extremism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, given their role in so many tragedies of today’s world. We at ISESCO are ready to provide our expertise in this field within the framework of the special relations of cooperation between our Organization and the competent authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Q.:Finally, what issues do you regard as the most challenging for Islam today?
A.: I believe that the real issue is not about challenges to Islam which, as an integrated, global and timeless divine message, actually has no challenge whatsoever to face. The real question we should ask is indeed about the biggest challenges facing Muslims today.
Illiteracy is the mother of all banes smothering the Muslim world and undermining its potentialities and development plans. Though rife throughout all Muslim countries, illiteracy unfortunately still holds a low priority status on the agenda of a large majority of these countries which continue to consider it as a purely educational and moral issue. Many Islamic countries have failed to ensure universal access to primary education, improve the quality of secondary education and develop university education. This negatively bears on scientific research which still has not been given the status it deserves within adopted action plans and strategies.
Then come the terrorism-related challenges fomented by some forces seeking to destabilize the Islamic world and distort the image of Islam; along with the cultural challenges posed in terms of theoretical and intellectual production, planning and cultural action in its various fields, and in terms of achieving cultural harmony, overcoming sectarian and ethnic divisions, and ensuring balanced confrontation with the alien cultural trends originating in both the West and the East. Among these challenges are also those of an economic character which concern mainly the choices, reforms, applications, and adaptation to the modern economic systems; in addition to those with a social dimension, which consist in fighting the triad of poverty, ignorance and disease and resisting despair that drives young people to extremism; and finally, the political challenges, which concern governance and management systems and how committed they are to the principles of the integrity, transparency and justice, and how responsive they are to the aspirations of Muslim peoples.
These tough challenges faced by the Islamic world are compounded by the exacerbation of bloody clashes in many Muslim countries, the prevalence of sectarian and religious strife tearing apart people who share the same Qibla (praying direction for Muslims). In pursuit of their own interests, foreign powers unfortunately are taking advantage of this situation to interfere in the internal affairs of some Islamic countries, penetrate Islamic societies and break the ranks of national unity in unstable countries. The Islamic world has thus become a target of many plots that wreak havoc with its stability and jeopardize security and the general conditions of the populations. This has had a negative impact of the political, security, economic and social conditions of the Muslim populations, thus propelling the Islamic world back into regression and stalling its march towards the future in a context marked by looming disintegration, map-reshuffling schemes and State sovereignty violation.
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