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Unlocking an Alternative to Bigotry and Intolerance

Critical thinking and cross-cultural communication can catalyze a more communal year. 

Words: Kourosh Ziabari & Jon Letman    
Pictures: Behzad Ghaffarian

Headlines that flash across our screens daily have become almost unbearable. The endless stream of violent acts — some deliberate and methodical, others random and senseless — showcases the worst of human behavior. Much of this brutality stems from ignorance, fear, and bigotry, creating a self-perpetuating epidemic of polarization that erodes human rights.  

Since Oct. 7, the world has witnessed how relentless violence and war in Palestine and Israel is feeding a torrent of Islamophobia and antisemitism. 

From the heinous killing of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago, to the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Vermont, to physical attacks and threats of gratuitous violence against Jewish students at Cornell University, the spike in Islamophobic, antisemitic, and anti-Arab vitriol is jarring. 

A Rising Tide of Intolerance

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Islamophobia, the spread of neo-Nazi and white nationalist movements, and other forms of ethnic, national, and religious intolerance proliferated around the world. Prominent public figures including entertainers, business leaders, and politicians have fueled a culture of ignorance and fear that can contribute to horrific hate crimes and violence.

As a Jewish American and a Muslim Iranian, we grew up watching our political leaders — and others — tear both countries and their people down. US presidential candidates speak of Iran in terms of “cutting off the head of the snake,” “totally obliterating” it, and have joked of bombing Iran. Donald Trump, who could potentially return to the White House, called Iran the “number one nation of terror.” 

Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously questioned the Holocaust and, since 1979, Iranian politicians have described the United States as the “Great Satan.”

How We Can Spread Tolerance

December marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document comprising 30 articles that proclaim the universality of the right to live with freedom and dignity, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the right of life, liberty, and security of person.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said that “to counter the current attacks on human rights, we need stronger and broader alliances involving all of us — governments, human rights defenders, the media — everyone.”

Here, we see an opportunity to empower religious and cultural tolerance in a way that neither bullets nor bombs can stop. As free-thinking individuals, each of us has the ability to determine how we see one another. With so much animosity directed at Muslims, Jews, Arabs, and Iranians — much of it coming from outside our communities — it is imperative that we respect each other’s dignity and shared humanity. We owe it to ourselves and each other.

If you’ve never spoken with someone from an unfamiliar religious or cultural community, never read their books, or heard their stories, now is the time to do so. Seek them out, invite them in, ask questions, and perhaps most importantly, listen.

We see tremendous value in communication and connection. We’re fortunate that we’ve had the opportunity to visit each other’s country. We’ve learned that the on-the-ground reality is not as simple as common narratives and generalizations. 

As free-thinking individuals, each of us has the ability to determine how we see one another.

Even if politicians cannot display leadership qualities or act as visionaries, ordinary citizens can take the initiative to better the world. As individuals we can bridge gaps and foster understanding through people-to-people exchanges online and in person. 

The religious and cultural intolerance born from years of estrangement between Iran and the United States, aggravated by conflicts such as the war in Gaza, has deeply wounded our communities. As intolerance grows, we believe it’s urgent to offer relief and understanding to those bearing the cost of religious bigotry. 

What We Can Do

It’s easy to blame conflict on short-sighted leaders and social media. It may be more productive to promote greater understanding and harmony through our own actions.

 At Columbia University, where doxing and religious tension have tormented students, numerous reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks have been filed since Oct. 7. Columbia’s President Minouche Shafik has announced the launch of a Task Force on Antisemitism. She has been criticized for not establishing a similar probe of Islamophobia, but discrimination isn’t a competition and her acknowledgment of harassment and the need for protection is important.

We’re under no illusions about the realities of gross, systemic human rights abuses in Iran. Likewise, we recognize how the growing threats posed by white supremacists, fueled by autocratic, even potentially fascist politicians pose serious obstacles to building religious and cultural tolerance.

When global leaders are more committed to bolstering their own power than protecting human rights, it’s easy to feel despondent, but there is reason for hope. In the face of prejudice and the disregard for human rights, there is a place for peaceful protest, in the street and at the ballot box. At the same time, perhaps the most powerful tool we have to counter intolerance is safely locked inside each of us: our own ability to think critically, to open our minds and our hearts, and to seek out the good in others and within ourselves.

Kourosh Ziabari & Jon Letman    

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning journalist from Iran studying MA Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.   Jon Letman is a freelance journalist in Hawaii.

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