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With eight countries boycotting the meet and Iranian president causing an uproar, the United Nations Conference on Racism served to once again showcase the vast chasm in perception and outlook between the West and the Muslim world.

The recently concluded United Nations Conference on Racism in Geneva ended in recrimination, disarray and division. Whatever the noble ideals behind the convening of the conference, it will be remembered for the uproar caused by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech, and little else.

In his speech, the Iranian President, the only head of state to attend the conference, reiterated his previous criticism of Israel, calling it “a cruel and repressive racist regime.” His repeated threats to annihilate Israel, his denial of the holocaust and his uncompromising pursuit of a nuclear programme, have made him a controversial figure on the world stage.

Eight countries, including the United States, Australia and Canada boycotted the conference, fearing that Islamic countries in particular would single out Israel for criticism.

President Ahmadinejad’s remarks about Israel prompted a further 23, mostly European countries, to walk out. This must be the most walked out, if not the most talked about, UN Conference.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon criticised Ahmadinejad and deplored his use of the conference “to accuse, divide and even incite.”

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed shock and demanded to know how the Iranian President “is addressing racial discrimination and intolerance in his own country.” Rarely have senior UN officials rebuked a head of state in such a manner.

Iran’s UN ambassador hit back by accusing the UN Secretary-General and other senior officials of double standards and reminded them that they had a responsibility to be fair and impartial.

The conference served to once again showcase the vast chasm in perception and outlook between the West and the Muslim world.

For the West, such rhetoric only deepens their suspicions and unease about the difficulty in finding common ground with the Muslim world. It also allows the fear-mongers in the West to consolidate a more stringent Western response in dealing with the Muslim world.

For the Muslim world, the reaction of the US and others to Ahmadinejad’s speech reveals Western hypocrisy and biasness. They talk about freedom of expression but seek to deny it to those who hold to a different view.

They talk about justice but close their eyes to the injustices that are heaped upon the Palestinian people. Unsurprisingly, the media in the Muslim world was generally supportive of the Iranian President.

The brouhaha over Ahmadinejad’s speech unfortunately overshadows a much more important issue – the plight of the Palestinian people who have now endured more than 60 years of war, death and destruction. Few people in history have suffered that much, for that long. It is a crime and it needs to be ended.

The unresolved Palestinian issue has major consequences for global peace and security as well. Nothing divides the Islamic world from the West, and fuels Muslim outrage, as much as this one single issue.

The UN, and all its members, should make this the priority instead of arguing over elusive definitions of “racism.”

Both sides need to reassess their attitudes and approaches on this issue. The West needs to live up to its own ideals and fully support the right of the Palestinians to have their own state and to live in peace and security, no less than the Israelis.

US President Barack Obama must follow up on his pledge and leave no stone unturned in the quest for a peaceful settlement.

There needs to be a clear understanding that criticising Israel per se is not anti-Semitism. While Israel does have legitimate concerns on this issue, it cannot expect to shut down all criticism by crying anti-Semitism, as it has tended to do. Israel is always quick to defend its rights; it should accept that the Palestinians have rights too.

Islamic leaders, for their part, must stop using the Palestinian issue merely to score points on the Islamic street or use it to advance their own agendas. The people of Palestine deserve better.

As can be seen from what transpired at Geneva, such an approach only serves to further consolidate Western sympathy and support for Israel. It typecasts the Muslim world as unreasonable, hostile and implacable. This is exactly the kind of thing that Israel has been skilfully manipulating to generate continued support for its policies. Furthermore, it gives the Israelis the pretext they need to avoid serious negotiations.

For a peaceful and negotiated solution to take shape, both Palestinians and Israelis are going to have to make serious compromises. Long cherished dreams and strongly held convictions will have to be reassessed. It will be heart-rending and gut-wrenching.

The least the rest of us can do is to be supportive and encouraging, to somehow try to create an environment that is conducive to the tough choices and hard sacrifices that both Palestinians and Israelis will have to make.

Vitriolic rhetoric and inflexible positions make the task that much harder and must be eschewed.

Diplomatically speaking / The Star (M)