(CNSNews.com) - Muslim extremists are branding opponents "Islamophobes" in an effort to paint themselves as the victim and silence dissent and opposition to their political and religious beliefs, according to a panel convened in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.
"'Islamophobia' has become ... the new battleground in this war" on terrorism, Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said at the panel discussion.
She said the term "inverts victim and perpetrator" by portraying Islamic fanatics as the victim, thus allowing them to label dissent as a violation of human rights and, in effect, silence dissent.
The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) at the United Nations has been lobbying hard for bans against "Islamaphobia, which are "tantamount to blasphemy strictures that have been used to curtail freedoms of expression, press, and religion by some of the OIC's most repressive member states," noted the Hudson Institute in its preview to the panel discussion.
The term "Islamaphobia" will be a major focus of the 2009 U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.
Bayefsky said the goal of conference organizers, including Libya, Cuba and Iran, is to "deflect attention from the human rights abuses" and "to circle the wagons, to invoke mass hysteria, to suggest to people that they are under threat, which is in fact imaginary."
She said that by labeling themselves victims of Islamophobia, leaders of Islamic regimes can justify harsh crackdowns on internal dissent and legitimize calls for similar crackdowns on outside criticism - such as calls for the punishment of cartoonists who depict the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
"If you can claim the other guy is the human rights violator," Bayefsky said, "if you become the victim of racism and Islamophobia, then you justify the so-called struggle against the enemy of human rights."
Some panelists, including Fahad Nazer, a resident fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said that Islamophobia does exist, pointing to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a long-shot Republican presidential hopeful, as an example.
Tancredo came under fire in July for suggesting in a radio interview that Mecca, a Muslim holy site, should be bombed if Muslim terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in the United States.
"There is certainly something there," Nazer said of claims of Islamophobia being harmful to mainstream Muslims.
Bayefsky acknowledged that "insofar as it means discrimination against Muslims, there's nothing wrong with condemning Islamophobia."
"But the problem is that it has been manipulated as a term to mean something quite different, to suggest that there aren't particular cases of discrimination, but a kind of mass movement on the part of western governments and non-Muslims to denounce all of Islam, which is not the case," she added.
The panelists agreed that the United Nations was not a reliable vessel through which to address issues of human rights or discrimination against certain religions.
Nazer suggested that there is reason to believe the Islamic regimes themselves may be shifting their approach to dissent.
"They will reform, however they'll do it on their own terms and at their own pace," he said, specifically referring to Saudi Arabia. "The good news is that Saudi officials condemn terrorism routinely."
But, he said, "other developments ... are more ominous," such as reformers being asked to stop their political activism or being thrown in prison.
Nonetheless, Nazer said, "more than any [U.N.] declaration or conference, the Saudis are in a position to lead the Muslim nations by example and they can do so by lifting restrictions on speech, assembly and worship."
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
E-mail a comment or news tip to Nathan Burchfiel
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.