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
Call for balance … Ms Khan questions why politicians and the media pay Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly so much attention. (Photo/James Alcock)
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
Copyright © 2006. The Sydney Morning Herald.