Together against intolerance: Understanding the importance of the International Day of Tolerance
According to the Geneva International Centre for Justice, global hate speech is on the rise putting freedom of expression and human rights under considerable strain. “When hate speech is allowed to proliferate, it contributes to the creation of norms: hatred and intolerance become acceptable in society.”
Reports on gender-based violence, political intolerance, and religious hostility fill significant space in the Bangladeshi press. Even some disputes within families seem to escalate to quite extreme levels.
Due to the frequency of incidents in the media and in daily life, people in Bangladesh may be increasingly desensitized to intolerance.
Many people, including young children, particularly those who live in towns and cities in Bangladesh, have probably experienced or witnessed some form of intolerance.
The risk is that intolerance becomes normalized.
According to the dictionary, intolerance is the “unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one's own.” This could be someone who looks different to us because of their race or the way they dress. It can be someone who seems too liberal, follows a different religion or from a different social class. All of us are guilty of intolerance on some level.
Bangladesh was founded on principles of tolerance and diversity. Intolerance was exactly what Bangladesh was breaking free from when its independence was won in 1971, which led to freedom of religion and a multiethnic society.
The country remains mostly governed by secular laws, while Islam was made state religion of Bangladesh in 1988.
The ideals of tolerance are fundamentally linked to a happier and more prosperous society. This enables personal development and a stable and flourishing economy.
A society in which we value diversity, yet can celebrate our shared values, is a benefit to everyone. We all have much more in common than we think, whether young or old, Christian, Muslim or Hindu, man or woman.
And the question is: How can we harness these shared values to make our lives better, make our communities stronger?
Bangladesh's Liberation War Museum is a great example of how we can harness this diversity and build tolerance. The museum tells the story of how Bangladeshis from all backgrounds, through a shared struggle for freedom and recognition, were able to forge a new nation based on the principles of democracy, secularism, and social justice.
The museum strives to continue this mission through education and awareness raising.
But we need to do more. We need to address intolerance, discrimination, and violence in Bangladesh.
The most recent data from 2018 of Pew Research Centre, an independent think tank that tracks societies attitudes and values, particularly on areas such as racism and religious tolerance, placed Bangladesh 13th out of 198 countries. Neighbouring India ranks first, and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan are all higher than Bangladesh.
Expanding education to develop an understanding of diversity and values is needed; as the famous author Helen Keller said “the highest result of education is tolerance.” The Ministry of Education is building its program on global citizenship education. This is something we need in every school and every community.
Legislation and policy reform are needed to strengthen protection of human rights and penalties for violating these. This needs to include capacity building for lawmakers.
Recognition of minorities through legal rights and opportunities to express their identity in safe spaces will help to build a stronger society for everyone in Bangladesh.
And lastly, supporting vibrant interfaith, interracial, intergenerational, and gender-friendly community networks that will work to celebrate diversity, respect, and tolerance.
We all have a role to play in promoting tolerance. Today is a day for each of us to reflect on how we can hold out a hand to someone different from us.
Happy International Day of Tolerance.
Gwyn Lewis is UN Resident Coordinator. Dr Susan Vize is UNESCO Officer-in-charge.
The op-ed was published by Dhaka Tribune on 15 December 2022