Remarks at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) High-Level Meeting on Combating Religious Intolerance
Secretary of State
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, Secretary General. And thank you for your leadership in organizing this meeting. I am honored and delighted to be here with so many colleagues from around the world. And it’s a particular pleasure for me to be back at the Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture in this magnificent Yildiz Palace here in Istanbul. Fifteen years ago I was here when the secretary general was then leading this organization, and he and I participated in a remarkable dialogue with representatives from Istanbul’s diverse religious communities.
That conversation took place just a few months after the signing of the Dayton Accords. We were all deeply concerned about the sectarian tensions and violence, and we were all troubled by what we had seen happen in the Balkans. I had come from Sarajevo and Tuzla, where I had met with Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims all together. And I will never forget one woman saying that neighbors began turning on neighbor because of religious and ethnic differences. And this woman asked a friend from another religious background: “We’ve known each other for so long, we have celebrated each other’s weddings, we’ve buried each other’s family; why is this happening?” And her friend replied: “We were told that if we did not do this to you, you would do it to us.” And it was as clear a statement of what incitement to violence and hatred can lead to as any that I’ve heard. And the conflict proved so costly, we are still living with the consequences today.
In our conversation 15 years ago, I remember the secretary general talking about the imperative for us to move beyond these differences and how much the three great monotheistic religions have in common, especially our respective commandments to love our neighbors and to seek peace and understanding. Well, today, this wisdom that is ageless is as important as ever. We have seen violent attacks across our world, where those who are members of minority communities – either religious or ethnic – have been killed by their neighbors. We have seen the transitions to democracy that are so inspiring in the Middle East and North Africa, but have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers.
And in established democracies, we are still working to protect fully our religious diversity, prevent discrimination, and protect freedom of expression. So for all of these reasons, this gathering and the shared commitment it represents is vitally important. It is one of these events that has great ramifications far beyond this room.
I want to applaud the Organization of Islamic Conference and the European Union for helping pass Resolution 16/18 at the Human Rights Council. I was complimenting the secretary general on the OIC team in Geneva. I had a great team there as well. So many of you were part of that effort. And together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression, and we are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs. Under this resolution, the international community is taking a strong stand for freedom of expression and worship, and against discrimination and violence based upon religion or belief.
These are fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places, and they are certainly essential to democracy. But as the secretary general just outlined, we now need to move to implementation. The resolution calls upon states to protect freedom of religion, to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate, and to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes, but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence. We will be looking to all countries to hold themselves accountable and to join us in reporting to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on their progress in taking these steps.
For our part, I have asked our Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, to spearhead our implementation efforts. And to build on the momentum from today’s meeting, later this year the United States intends to invite relevant experts from around the world to the first of what we hope will be a series of meetings to discuss best practices, exchange ideas, and keep us moving forward beyond the polarizing debates of the past; to build those muscles of respect and empathy and tolerance that the secretary general referenced. It is essential that we advance this new consensus and strengthen it, both at the United Nations and beyond, in order to avoid a return to the old patterns of division.
The Human Rights Council has given us a comprehensive framework for addressing this issue on the international level. But at the same time, we each have to work to do more to promote respect for religious differences in our own countries. In the United States, I will admit, there are people who still feel vulnerable or marginalized as a result of their religious beliefs. And we have seen how the incendiary actions of just a very few people, a handful in a country of nearly 300 million, can create wide ripples of intolerance. We also understand that, for 235 years, freedom of expression has been a universal right at the core of our democracy. So we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing antidiscrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose, and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.
In Europe, we are seeing communities coming together to address both the old scourge of anti-Semitism and the new strains of anti-Muslim bias that continue to undermine the continent’s democratic ideals. Across the Middle East and Asia, we look to both people and leaders to resist the incitement of extremists who seek to inflame sectarian tensions, and reject the persecution of religious minorities such as the Copts or Ahmadis or Baha’is.
In Egypt and Tunisia, we hope to see minorities brought into the process of drafting a new constitution and given a seat at the table as new democracies take shape. And I know that, here in Turkey, there is a potential upcoming constitutional reform process, and we look forward to new protections for religious freedom as well. Tomorrow, I will meet with his all holiness, the ecumenical patriarch. And as I do on every trip, and as my friend Ahmet knows, we will continue to urge the Turkish Government to reopen the Halki Seminary as a symbol of Turkey’s commitment to religious freedom.
No country, including my own, has a monopoly on truth or a secret formula for ethnic and religious harmony. This takes hard work and persistence and patience. But wherever we come from and however we worship, all of us can do more in our own lives, in our positions of leadership, and in our communities, to bridge the divides that separate us. Here in Istanbul, which for so long has symbolized a bridge between cultures and continents, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to this goal.
Fifteen years ago in this room, the secretary general said about Istanbul, “This is a city which for over five centuries has been one of those rare lands of peace, where people of different religions live together in an environment of perfect harmony.” So if you will permit us, Secretary General and Foreign Minister, we want to take some of that spirit home from wherever we came – (laughter) – and we want to do so by transporting it in our hearts so that it is imprinted there and continues to remind us of the work ahead.
Thank you very much.