Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Terrorism and Racism: The Aftermath of Durban

Filed under: Antisemitism
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 468    December 2001

The Durban Conference

Confronting bin Laden’s rallying cry of “good” and “bad” terrorism lies at the heart of any battle to defeat terrorism. This now entails the courage to address directly the terrorists’ and their state sponsors’ rhetorical weapon of choice, the accusation of racism. In fact, their claim inverts the very heart of a civil libertarian agenda, since it is closely associated with a deep-rooted antisemitism.

The Durban World Conference on Racism, which ended only three days before September 11, revealed the intimate connections between anti-racism politics and a key platform in the terrorist agenda, namely, the delegitimation of Israel and the legitimation of terrorism against its citizens. The Durban phenomenon was repeated in the aftermath of September 11 as allegations of racism and displays of antisemitism abounded from terrorists, apologists of terrorism in the media, and at the 2001 UN General Assembly deliberations on terrorism. The linkage between racial hatred and terrorism is a phenomenon which democracies ignore at their peril. Durban uncovered racism as a real root cause of terrorism, a motivation which the terrorist seeks to camouflage by the accusation of racism itself.

The World Conference Against Racism became a forum for racism. Human rights was used not as a facilitator for communication but as a weapon of political interests antithetical to human rights protection. A large group of states sought to minimize or exclude references to the Holocaust, redefine or ignore antisemitism, and isolate the state of Israel from the global community as a racist practitioner of apartheid and crimes against humanity. The vestiges of Jewish victimhood were to be systematically removed by deleting the references to antisemitism and the Holocaust, to be displaced by the Palestinian victim living under racist, Nazi-like, oppression.

The hate literature distributed during the NGO conference included caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, Palestinian blood on their hands, surrounded by money, and Israelis wearing Nazi emblems. At the Government Conference, there was daily distribution by NGO participants of literature reading “Nazi-Israeli apartheid,” while inside the drafting committees, states such as Syria and Iran objected to the inclusion of antisemitism or the Holocaust on the grounds that antisemitism was a “complicated,” “curious,” and “bizarre” concept, and reference to the Holocaust would be imbalanced or “favoritism.”

Meanwhile, outside the conference hall, as one delegate reported in the Los Angeles Times, he and other representatives of Jewish groups were subjected to taunts and physical intimidation. At one point, thousands of South African Muslim demonstrators marched bearing banners proclaiming “Hitler should have finished the job.”1

Thus, success on the political battlefield was to be accomplished by utilizing the language of human rights to demonize, and then dismember, the opponent. In this way, the Durban Conference provided rampant antisemitism with a global platform under UN auspices, in a conference allegedly against racism and xenophobia. It also revealed the malevolent antisemitism underlying the campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel.


Arab Reactions to September 11

The dangerousness of the Durban rhetoric and its program of action were immediately evidenced by the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Political actors and commentators continued to weave the same distorted pattern which Durban purported to legitimize. At the UN, which was seized throughout the Fall 2001 General Assembly with the subject of terrorism, Arab states pressed the Durban racist strategy in response to September 11. A successful war against terrorism demands clarity of the target, and the Durban result threatens its identification.

In many parts of the Arab world, the terrorist events of September 11 triggered racist responses. For example, in many Arab countries, media, teachers, and religious leaders spread the theory about the “4,000 Jews who had been tipped off to stay away from work at the World Trade Center and the Jewish film crew that had advance notice to be on the scene to film the planes plowing into the towers.”2

The leader of Pakistan’s largest and most powerful Islamic political party told thousands of supporters in Karachi that Jews sold their shares in United and American Airlines before September 11.3

Immediately after the September 11 bombings, Internet messages claimed that pictures of Palestinians celebrating the bombings were CNN concoctions using footage from years past.

The father of Mohamed Atta, the hijackers’ ringleader, told reporters in Egypt that “the Zionists must have kidnapped him in order to steal his identity and make the mask that the agent carrying Mohamed’s passport could then wear onto the plane.”4

Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York City (and U.S. representative of the Cairo Center of Islamic Learning) who left New York shortly after the bombings, said on October 4 following his return to Egypt, “It became very clear to me that…the Jews were behind these ugly acts, while we, the Arabs, were innocent….Although the Americans suspect that the Zionists are behind the act, none has the courage to talk about it in public.” Furthermore, “Muslims in America were being persecuted…their children were being poisoned by Jewish doctors in American hospitals, and…’Zionists’ in command of the nation’s air traffic control towers aided the suicide hijackings.”5

Teachers in Mustafa Kamal Middle School in Egypt, Mohammed Atta’s former school, objected, along with many Egyptians, to the United States singling out the Arab names on passenger lists, citing instead Israel as the culprit.6

“Newspapers in the Arab world have been full of references to America’s ‘Zionist-controlled press’ and to the common rumors that no Jews died on Sept. 11.”7

“[T]he Syrian defense minister told a delegation from the British Royal College of Defense Studies that the destruction of the World Trade Center was part of a Jewish conspiracy.”8


Fomenting the Battle Against Israel

The widespread antisemitism in the Arab world, in the media, in demonstrations, and by religious and political leaders is voiced at the same time as the terrorists associate themselves with the battle against Israel.

On October 4, 2001, bin Laden explicitly linked his cause to that of the Palestinians, further threatening Americans until Palestinian demands are met.9 Again on November 3 he stated via videotape in a complaint directed at the UN, “Who issued the resolution on the division of Palestine in 1947 which gave the Muslim country to the Jews?”10 Although some claim the linkage by bin Laden was an after-thought, he has associated with the Palestinian cause for years. In 1998, for instance, he and his close associate, the Egyptian Al Zawihiri, called for a jihad against Americans and Jews, the same year in which bin Laden formed the umbrella group called the “International Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders.”11

The political formatting of this antisemitism has followed closely behind. Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for the U.S. to rein in Israel to prevent further fighting with Palestinians.12 Sheik Abdullah bin Zaid al-Nahayan, the Information Minister of the United Arab Emirates, said “Israel can’t be a member of the coalition while they behave as terrorists against Palestinians.”13 King Abdullah of Jordan suggested that the bloodshed might have been avoided had there been greater progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute.14 President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt warned that “if peace is not pursued quickly, the Israeli-Palestinian turmoil could engulf the region and damage the international coalition against terrorism.”15 The foreign ministers from six Persian Gulf states meeting in Saudi Arabia two weeks after the bombings issued a statement “arguing that any antiterror campaign should not ignore acts of terror that many Arabs say are being inflicted by Israel on innocent Palestinians.”16


Searching for the Guilty Parties

The move from Durban to September 11 and its aftermath was as close in substance as it was in time. Racists have no difficulty inciting antisemitism — in the name of the fight against racism. In their words, the bombing was a Jewish conspiracy. The war against terrorism is a racist response against Islam. Since victims have rights, victimhood of the allegedly unworthy fallen is denied, while others are substituted. The Jews got out. The true victim is the Palestinian, not the dead beneath the rubble. The aggressor prefers speaking of “root causes” to “consequences,” and then to point to U.S. support for Israel as at fault.

In other words, a banner of “oppression” is waved, while nothing is said of responsibilities. The 30 percent unemployed in a country like Saudi Arabia, in which the average income has dropped by half in the last twenty years while thousands of princes control vast fortunes, are ignored.17

Equally ignored are Palestinians forced to live in purgatory by Arab states where they have lived and worked for decades without being permitted citizenship or equal social benefits.18 This is in direct contravention to the spirit of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states: “Article 34. Naturalization: The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings.”

In sum, the goal is to eclipse the dead in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington by the victims of anti-Arabism in the United States and elsewhere. For example, in Cairo, “Arab intellectuals held a conference to discuss what they called the Muslim world’s most pressing danger in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The problem? Not how Islam itself has been hijacked by terrorists to justify the attacks, but what they called Islamophobia — a Western fear of Islam.”19

Tied to the political strategy is the unabashed blackmail coming from supposed members of the coalition, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. They threaten that Moslem cooperation with the coalition against terrorism will cease unless Israel is weakened and isolated, and Palestinian violence will increase.20


The Terrorism Debate in the UN General Assembly

The terrorism debate that took place in the fall of 2001 at the UN General Assembly further evidences the programmatic agenda and its political and legal implications. Member states were confronted with the subject of terrorism at a number of levels: the general debate in the Assembly, the negotiation of a Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism in a working group of the Sixth Committee, and specific terrorism resolutions. In all these contexts, Palestinians and Arab states sought to disassociate terrorism from violence directed at Israel. The continuing need to identify targets of a war on terrorism, proportionate responses, and coalition partners, makes the issue of definition immediately relevant.

In the general debate on terrorism, statements of Permanent Representatives to the UN included the following:

  • Libya on behalf of the Arab Group — “The Arab Palestinian people are victims of modern terrorism….The Arab Group stresses its determination to confront any attempt to classify resistance to occupation as an act of terrorism.” “[R]esistance to occupation is one of the most important obligations, not only legitimate rights, for people whose lands are occupied by the foreigners….[T]he Palestinian people, the Lebanese people, and the Syrian citizens in the Syrian Golan Heights have the full right to resist the occupation of their lands.”21

  • Iraq — “We cannot consider the legitimate struggle of the Palestinian People against occupation, terrorism and Zionist aggression as terrorism.”22

  • Syria — “[D]istinguish it [terrorism] from the just and legitimate struggle of peoples fighting for independence and liberation. This is exactly what we are seeking today during this session…. [R]esistance to…Israeli occupation is legitimate.”23

  • Saudi Arabia — “[T]he Arabs call for avoiding any confusion between terrorism on the one hand and, on the other hand, the right of peoples to defend their independence, freedom and human rights when they are subjected to foreign occupation and dominance…a clear distinction between terrorism which is a criminal act and an unlawful form of warfare, and armed resistance to…racism and foreign occupation which is a legitimate struggle.”24

The political rhetoric was repeated in the legal negotiations in the Working Group of the Sixth Committee, which for some time has been considering a “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.”25 In the 1999 meeting of the Working Group, Syria and Pakistan proposed a paragraph in the draft Convention incorporating anti-racism politics, which stated: “to contribute to the progressive elimination of the causes underlying international terrorism and to pay special attention to all situations, including…racism and situations involving… alien occupation.”26

In the 2000 meeting of the Working Group, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sought language specifically exempting “national liberation movements” from the purview of terrorism. Malaysia, on behalf of the OIC, proposed adding a paragraph to the draft Convention that stated: “Peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law, shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”27

In a written paper during the negotiations of the draft Convention in Fall 2001, the OIC stated: “[T]hose who fight against colonial domination and foreign occupation in the exercise of their legitimate rights should be distinguished from terrorists.”28 They repeated the proposal that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation…aimed at liberation and self-determination…shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”29 The controversy surrounding this exemption was the major factor in the failure of the 2001 General Assembly to adopt the Convention, despite considerable pressure for the General Assembly to be seen to be taking strong action in response to September 11.

The very idea pushed by the OIC is inconsistent with the two most recent UN terrorist conventions on Suppression of Financing of Terrorism, and Terrorist Bombings. Both of these conventions make clear that criminal acts “are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.”30 Or in the words of Israeli Ambassador Lancry in the 2001 General Assembly debate: “Terrorism is defined by what one does, not by what one does it for.”31 Blowing up Jewish women and children in pizza parlors in Jerusalem, or teenagers at discotheques in Tel Aviv, or passengers on Israeli buses, counts.

The UN’s role in the fight against terrorism will be tested in its implementation of Security Council Resolution 1373.32 The resolution, passed on September 28, 2001, called for the production of a report on action taken pursuant to the resolution from all member states within ninety days. The reports are to be considered by a committee of the whole set up to oversee its implementation. The resolution requires member states to take various strong measures to, for example, “Refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts.”33 The chair of the committee has issued specific guidelines concerning the broad expectations of such reports.34 However, one member of that committee will be Syria, which was elected to serve on the Security Council on October 8, 2001, for a two-year term commencing January 1, 2002.35 Syrian spokesperson Ghassan Obeid, at the time of the adoption of the anti-terrorism resolution during the 2001 General Assembly, “stressed the need for a differentiation to be made between terrorism and the legitimate struggle of occupied people….[T]he struggle of peoples for national liberation…should not be considered acts of terrorism….[R]esistance by the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation was legal.”36 His words were echoed by the representatives of Lebanon, Cuba, and Iran.37 It is evident, therefore, that as a member of the committee of the whole charged with overseeing UN Security Council action on terrorism, a committee which will operate by consensus, Syria will jeopardize its purposes and principles.

The UN’s ability to counter terrorism is also suspect because of the organization’s long history of bias against Israel. One need only consider UN rules which currently prohibit only one member state from even standing for election to the Security Council, or to the Commission on Human Rights, and that is Israel. Standing for election to the vast majority of UN bodies requires full membership in one of the UN’s five regional groups and Israel alone is excluded from full membership of all five — in direct contradiction of the UN Charter which requires the “equality of nations large and small.”38


The Terrorists’ Racist Strategy

The identification of the terrorist lies at the heart of a successful campaign to defeat terrorism. Definitions which would include the embodiment of Jewish self-determination as a legitimate target are fostered by spurious allegations of racism, in turn driven by antisemitism. Durban directed the search for a key root cause of terrorism to racism and xenophobia. It is no accident that it is then the language of racism that has become a tool of terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism. September 11 and its aftermath make clear that the nomenclature is not benign. It inflames racial hatred and incites violence.

State sponsors of terrorism are not reliable allies in a fight against terrorism, whatever their religion. The victims of terrorism will not be silenced, just as they are also not defined by race, religion, or nationality. The essential rule which governs a war on terrorism is that of proportionality. Those who would instead define ally or foe alike by religion — be they Moslem or Jew — will doom any fight against terrorism to failure and ultimately irrelevance, as the passions of racism, triumphant in Durban, will take over.

*     *     *



  1. Abraham Cooper, “Hate Hits the Mainstream,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2001.
  2. Joseph Lelyveld, “All Suicide Bombers are Not Alike,” New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2001, p. 53.
  3. Tucker Carlson, “Our Man in Islamabad, New York Times, October 22, 2001, p. 24.
  4. Lelyveld, “All Suicide Bombers.”
  5. Laurie Goodstein, “New York Cleric’s Departure from Mosque Leaves Mystery,” New York Times, October 23, 2001, p. B4.
  6. Neil MacFarquhar, “US Has a Long Way to Go to Bring Around Egyptians,” New York Times, September 26, 2001, p. B5.
  7. Donald McNeil, Jr., “More and More, Other Countries See the War as Solely America’s,” New York Times, November 4, 2001, p. B1.
  8. Jonathan Rosen, “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism,” New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2001, p. 50.
  9. Bin Laden stated on October 7, 2001: “Our brothers have suffered in Palestine and Lebanon….Those in America will never taste security unless we taste security here and in Palestine.”
  10. Neil MacFarquhar, Jim Rutenberg, “Bin Laden, in a Taped Speech, Says Attacks in Afghanistan are a War Against Islam,” New York Times, November 4, 2001, p. B2.
  11. Judith Miller, “The 27 Whose Assets will be Frozen are Just the First of Many,” New York Times, September 25, 2001.
  12. James M. Dorsey, “Saudi Leader Warns US of ‘Separate Interests’,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2001, p. A17.
  13. Douglas Jehl, “Worldwide Antiterror Coalition will be Shifting, Loose and Anything but Grand,” New York Times, September 30, 2001, p. B4.
  14. Douglas Jehl, “Arab Allies Not Jumping to Join US Side,” New York Times, September 27, 2001, p. B3.
  15. Steven Erlanger, “In Brief Talk, Arafat and Peres Discuss Their Cease-Fire,” New York Times, November 4, 2001, p. A8.
  16. Jehl, “Arab Allies Not Jumping.”
  17. Elaine Sciolino, “US Pondering Saudis’ Vulnerability,” New York Times, November 4, 2001, p. B4; Donald McNeil, Jr., “More and More, Other Countries See the War as Solely America’s,” New York Times, November 4, 2001, p. B1.
  18. Adopted on 28 July 1951.
  19. Douglas Jehl, “Speaking in the Name of Islam,” New York Times, December 2, 2001, sec. 4, p. 1.
  20. See, for example, Dorsey, “Saudi Leader Warns”: “Saudi Arabia has warned the Bush administration that its perceived failure to end Israeli-Palestinian violence could prompt the kingdom to reconsider its relationship with the U.S.”
  21. Statement of M.E. Mr. Abuzed Omar Dorda, Permanent Representative of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, October 1, 2001.
  22. Statement of Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Iraq to the United Nations, October 4, 2001.
  23. Statement of H.E. Mikhail Wehbe, Ambassador, Permanent Mission to the UN, October 4, 2001.
  24. Statement of H.E. Ambassador Fawzi A. Shobokshi, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, October 2, 2001.
  25. In 1996 the General Assembly, in Resolution 51/210, adopted 17 December, decided to establish an Ad Hoc Committee to elaborate an international convention for the suppression of terrorist bombings.
  26. A/C.6/54/WG.1/CRP.34, reproduced in A/C.6/54/L.2, 26 October 1999, “Measures to eliminate international terrorism,” Report of the Working Group.
  27. A/C.66/55/WG.1/CRP.30, reproduced in A/C.6/55/L.2, 19 October 2000, “Measures to eliminate international terrorism,” Report of the Working Group.
  28. Aide-Memoire, spokesperson for Member States of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, distributed 5 November 2001, meeting convened by the Secretary-General of chairs of regional groups and fourteen other Permanent Representatives on the drafting of the “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.”
  29. A/C.6/55/L.2, para. 30, 19 October 2000, Proposal submitted by Malaysia on behalf of the OIC Group, A/C.6/55/WG.1/CRP.30, Article 2.
  30. International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, A/RES/54/109, adopted 9 December 1999: Article 6, “…criminal acts within the scope of this Convention are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.” (See also Article 5, International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, A/RES/52/164, 9 January 1998).
  31. UN General Assembly General Debate, 4 October 2001.
  32. S/RES/1373(2001), 28 September 2001, Resolution 1373 (2001), adopted by the Security Council at its 4385th meeting, on 28 September 2001.
  33. S/RES/1373(2001), para. 2.
  34. Note by the Chairman, Guidance for the submission of reports pursuant to paragraph 6 of Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) of 28 September 2001. Issued 26 October 2001. For example, concerning operative paragraph 2, the Committee expects a state to report on:
    • Operative Paragraph 2:
      Sub-paragraph (a) — What legislation or other measures are in place to give effect to this sub-paragraph? In particular, what offences in your country prohibit (i) recruitment to terrorist groups and (ii) the supply of weapons to terrorists? What other measures help prevent such activities?
    • Sub-paragraph (b) — What other steps are being taken to prevent the commission of terrorist acts, and in particular, what early warning mechanisms exist to allow exchange of information with other states?
    • Sub-paragraph (c) — What legislation or procedures exist for denying safe haven to terrorists, such as laws for excluding or expelling the types of individuals referred to in this sub-paragraph? It would be helpful if States supplied examples of any relevant action taken.
    • Sub-paragraph (d) — What legislation or procedures exist to prevent terrorists acting from your territory against other states or citizens? It would be helpful if States supplied examples of any relevant action taken.
    • Sub-paragraph (e) — What steps have been taken to establish terrorist acts as serious criminal offences and to ensure that the punishment reflects the seriousness of such terrorist acts? Please supply examples of any convictions obtained and the sentence given.
    • Sub-paragraph (f) — What procedures and mechanisms are in place to assist other states? Please provide any available details of how these have been used in practice.
    • Sub-paragraph (g) — How do border controls in your country prevent the movement of terrorists? How do your procedures for issuance of identity papers and travel documents support this? What measures exist to prevent their forgery, etc.?
  35. A/56/PV.23.
  36. Press Release GA/L/3200, 21 November 2001, “Final Agreement Elusive, Legal Committee Endorses Further Work Towards Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism.”
  37. Ibid.
  38. The United Nations Charter provides in its preamble “We the peoples of the United Nations determined…to reaffirm faith…in the equal rights…of nations large and small,” June 6, 1945, UNCIO XV, 335.


*     *     *


Professor Anne F. Bayefsky is Visiting Professor at the Columbia University Law School and Professor of Political Science at York University in Canada. Her previous writings include The UN Human Rights Treaty System: Universality at the Crossroads (2001), Self-Determination in International Law: Quebec and Lessons Learned (editor) (2000), and Human Rights and Forced Displacement (co-editor) (2000).