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France, EU and India opposed creation of UN day to combat Islamophobia

Uighur activists decry China's co-sponsorship of General Assembly resolution alongside Muslim-majority nations
Worshippers at the grand mosque in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, in March 2022 (Reuters)

France, the European Union and India objected to the creation earlier this week of a United Nations-recognised international day to combat Islamophobia.

Members of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday adopted a resolution proposed by Pakistan to mark the annual day on 15 March, the anniversary of the 2019 attack on two mosques in New Zealand which left 51 people dead.

The resolution was supported by 55 Muslim-majority countries of the Riyadh-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Syria, Algeria, Morocco and many other countries in the Gulf and North Africa.

Welcoming the resolution on Wednesday, OIC Secretary General Hissein Brahim Taha said it would “consolidate global awareness of the threat of hatred and fanaticism against Muslims”.

But it was also co-sponsored by a number of other states including Russia, currently waging an illegal war in Ukraine, and China, drawing condemnation by Uighur activists.

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Representatives from France and India, which have also faced accusations of Islamophobia by their own Muslim communities, both spoke against the resolution, though neither opposed its adoption by consensus.

Describing the resolution as “unsatisfying” and problematic, Nicolas de Riviere, the French permanent representative to the UN, told the General Assembly that France supported the protection of all religions and beliefs but questioned the singling out of a specific religion.

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“The term Islamophobia has no agreed upon definition in international law, unlike the freedom of religion or conviction. But it’s this liberty that France defends, as well as all the other public freedoms, such as the freedom of expression or conviction,” said de Riviere.

“The phrase also suggests that it’s the religion itself that is protected, not the believers. Yet it’s the liberty to believe, or not believe, or the right to change religion, that we should promote.”

De Riviere’s concerns were echoed by the EU, a bloc of 27 European nations which has permanent observer status at the UN but does not have voting rights.

In a statement to the General Assembly, the EU said it was concerned by the proliferation of international days.

It said a focus on Islamophobia was an “unnecessary duplication” after the UN in 2019 adopted 22 August as an “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief”.

“We are concerned with the approach of addressing only one religion through a General Assembly initiative,” the EU statement said.

“By using the term ‘Islamophobia’ instead of ‘anti-Muslim discrimination’ or ‘anti-Muslim hatred’, the OIC initiative focuses on protecting religion as such which is an approach that undermines the protection of the individual human rights of persons, such as the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to debate and criticise religion.”

'Islamophobic state'

France’s opposition to the resolution comes with the government itself facing accusations of Islamophobia over a raft of policies aimed at addressing “separatism and Islamism” and new powers which have been used to shut down mosques and Muslim community organisations.

Rayan Freschi, a researcher for Cage, a human rights groups advocating for Muslim communities affected by counter-terrorism policies, told Middle East Eye that French opposition to the UN resolution was “no surprise”.

“France has gradually institutionalised Islamophobia through the adoption of laws and policies severely restricting Muslim's ability to practice their faith freely. Under Emmanuel Macron's presidency, it took a step further by deliberately pursuing an anti-Muslim persecution - a persecution it refuses to acknowledge,” said Freschi.

“Hence, France is an Islamophobic state which can only oppose the establishment of an international day which could help holding it to account for its Islamophobia."

Addressing the General Assembly, India’s permanent representative TS Tirumurti called on the UN to condemn “religiophobias” rather than singling out Islamophobia, citing discrimination against Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

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“It is in this context that we are concerned about elevating the phobia against one religion to the level of an international day, to the exclusion of all the others,” he said.

The Indian government has been accused by human rights groups and the UN Human Rights Council of discrimination against Muslims and of stoking violence and hate crimes by Hindu nationalists against Muslim communities.

The adoption of the resolution comes after the United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief last year said anti-Muslim hatred had reached "epidemic proportions" in a report citing examples of Islamophobia in both France and India.

The resolution was widely welcomed by leaders of Muslim-majority nations.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Twitter: “I want to congratulate the Muslim Ummah today as our voice against the rising tide of Islamophobia has been heard.

“Today the UN has finally recognised the grave challenge confronting the world: of Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols and practices and of curtailing systematic hate speech and discrimination against Muslims. The next challenge is to ensure implementation of this landmark resolution.”

But the involvement of China as a co-sponsor of the resolution alongside OIC member states was decried by Uighur activists who accuse Beijing of waging a campaign of genocide against the Turkic Muslim minority in the west of the country.

Dolkun Isa, the head of the World Uighur Congress, a German-based advocacy organisation, told MEE: “Given the Chinese government’s brutal repression of Uyghur Muslims, and its war against Islam in general, China’s co-sponsorship is highly paradoxical.

"If China seriously wants to combat Islamophobia, it should first look at its own policies and the persecution of Uyghur Muslims.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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