The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) was established in 2005, at the initiative of former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan and co-sponsored by the Governments of Spain and Turkey. Its stated vision is to build “mutual respect among peoples of different cultural and religious identities, highlighting the will of the world’s majority to reject extremism and embrace diversity.”
H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, a high-ranking diplomat from Qatar, assumed the post of UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations in 2013.
Mr. Nasser spoke to the press at UN headquarters in New York on February 24th. He discussed the challenge of terrorism and extremism, including their allure to marginalized youth in the Middle East and the West. He emphasized the need to get at the “root causes” of this scourge, amongst which he included the lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, and lack of good governance and protection of human rights. He said that military force will not be enough to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups. More importantly, he declared, we must engage in “the battle of ideas.”
UNAOC High Representative Nasser pointed to the importance of social media in particular as a means to influence youths in a positive direction. Young people today, some of whom who are marginalized and some from more comfortable backgrounds in the West who are looking to find their own identities, are being recruited successfully by ISIS via social media.
However, just like President Obama at his “Combatting Violent Extremism” summit travesty last week, Mr. Nasser fails to acknowledge the true nature of the enemy we are facing in such a battle of ideas. He was wrong when he declared that “Terrorism has no religion.” To the contrary, the ideology unifying the vast bulk of terrorist acts around the globe today is the religious-based Islamic jihadism.
ISIS, with its self-proclaimed caliphate exercising authority over expanding territory and its unique brand of barbaric cruelty, is the most dangerous manifestation of Islamic jihad today and, at the same time, the most successful in using online tools to widen its appeal. In his insightful article in Atlantic, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood described the Koran-based governing precepts “embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers” that ISIS’s own officials and supporters “insist that they will not—cannot—waver from.” We ignore what ISIS is really all about at our own peril, as Mr. Wood warned:
“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam…”
“Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, ‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects ‘what their religion has historically and legally required…’”
“In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. ‘Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,’ Haykel said. Islamic State fighters ‘are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.’”
The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations High Representative Nasser refused the opportunity, in response to my question, to comment on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s call recently at al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islam, for reform within the Islamic faith. El-Sisi told the assembled imams and religious scholars that the destructive interpretations of the Koran and Islam, blessed over the years by Muslim religious leaders and scholars from Islam’s earliest days until the present time, were the root cause of the antagonism of much of the rest of the world against Islam today.
Mr. Nasser replied that he was not speaking in defense of Islam or any other religion, but then proceeded later to blame the media for being irresponsible in its “insults” of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. It’s not clear whether he would include President el-Sisi in his condemnations of such “insults.”
UNAOC’s High Representative repeatedly stressed the importance of education to steer the most vulnerable youths away from extremism, but failed to move beyond bland generalities. He should have taken a cue from Sheikh Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, who delivered a speech in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on February 22nd, urging reform in religious education to deal with “historical accumulations of tendencies of extremism in our heritage, which originated from corrupt interpretations of some of the texts of the Quran and the Sunnah [the teachings of Prophet Muhammad].” Parenthetically, the Sheikh would do well to take his own advice, since he has reportedly used the Koran in the past to justify expressions of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Nasser also refused to answer any questions regarding the role of his own country, Qatar, in funding Islamic jihadist organizations. Moreover, left unsaid was the fact that Qatar provides sanctuary to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist scholar, who has issued fatwas justifying death sentences for apostasy and statements calling for the killing of Jews.
In short, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is as clueless as the Obama administration in dealing with the ideological threat posed by Islamic jihadism, which has its seeds in deeply rooted interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts. Its adherents and sympathizers, who potentially number in the hundreds of millions, are impervious to anything resembling reason, shared humanity, or indeed the sanctity of life itself. To pretend otherwise is tantamount to conscious malignant neglect on the part of the United Nations and the Obama administration.