Fighting the Flames Ignited by That One Day in September
Published on Wednesday, November 1, 2006 by the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Fighting the Flames Ignited by That One Day in September
by Neil McMahon

There was never a doubt Irene Khan would find her tenure as the head of Amnesty International challenging. It began in the week of the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. Five years later, she finds herself in Sydney discussing two men whose public standing is tied directly to that day.

David Hicks and Taj el-Din al Hilaly would otherwise never have clouded her thoughts, but in a world riven by division over Islam, terrorism and the West's response to both, she cannot ignore either.

Ms Khan, the recipient of this year's Sydney Peace Prize, is a Muslim, as well as the secretary-general of the world's foremost human rights group. But she is also a mother, lawyer, citizen of Bangladesh, resident of London - and she believes that recognising people's "multiple identities" is a key to avoiding clashes that make sensible dialogue impossible.

A person should be seen as more than a Muslim, she says, and Muslims should be seen as more than just the image presented by Islam's more radical adherents, such as Sheik Hilaly.

Ms Khan considers the sheik's recent comments on woman and rape "outrageous", but she questions why politicians and the media pay him so much attention, other than to stoke fear and division.

He no more represents the views of all Muslims than Pauline Hanson did the views of all Australians, she says. "By giving disproportionate attention to him, all we do is give him legitimacy. It's important to be open to different voices."

Governments are often to blame, Ms Khan argues. They fan the flames of intolerance, and are hypocritical as they do so. She notes that a key Western ally is Saudi Arabia, where women's rights are severely curtailed.

And while lecturing other nations on human rights, governments often neglect them. They "betray their own citizens", she says, pointing to David Hicks's detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Amnesty would now embrace his cause and use him as an international symbol in its fight against the American detention centre. "He is a symbol of what happens to an individual when they are outside the protection of the rule of law," she said.

Yesterday Ms Khan launched a global campaign on Amnesty's Australian website to have Hicks brought home. Tonight she will be presented with the Sydney Peace Prize at the University of Sydney.

Copyright © 2006. The Sydney Morning Herald.