Via Dolorosa

MESA's human rights conference - There is no hierarchy in suffering

June 19, 2001

With the theme set as There is No Hierarchy in Suffering, the Middle Eastern Students' Association of DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois held its first annual Human Rights in the Middle East Conference May 19 and 20. The conference, which attracted over 170 participants, focused on a multitude of human rights concerns within the Middle East.

Topics ranged from the persecution of women in Afghanistan to the radical ideology of Zionism.

According to MESA's president Aziza Khatoon-Mehmoudzai, The purpose of the conference was two-fold. One was to serve as an educational experience and/or tool that will raise awareness about human rights issues. The other was to provide a step towards better understanding between various Mideast ethnic/national groups who too often exclusively concentrate on their own 'cause' rather than take the initiative to unite and understand the concerns of one another.

Thus, the theme, There is No Hierarchy in Suffering enabled MESA to communicate that when it comes to suffering, all who have been victims of human rights violations have experienced the same grief, pain and anguish. No one's suffering is greater or insignificant in comparison to another's.

A lecture on war crimes committed against the Assyrian people by secular groups that branched out of the Ottoman Empire during World War I launched the conference. Dr.

Abdul-Massih Saadi of the Chicago-based Syriac Institute for Manuscript Studies discussed the historical importance of what befell the Assyrian population in terms of learning from the past and bringing about recognition of persecuted minorities in the Mideast.

According to MESA treasurer Stella Alkass, It is extremely important that Mideasterners and non-Mideasterners alike learn about what happened to the Assyrian population of present day Turkey. Assyrians continue to suffer at the hands of the majority populations in all Mideast nations they reside in. The persecution of Assyrians continues to this day, and it is up to other Mideasterners to help us fight for our human right to exist as an ethnic minority.

A documentary presentation entitled Jerusalem: An Occupation Set in Stone by Marty Rosenbluth, and a lecture by the progressive Jewish organization Not In My Name, which demands Israel stop the brutal treatment of Palestinians and eradicate its racist policies towards Arabs in general, were part of the agenda of the conference's second day agenda.

Not in My Name members Charity Crouse and Cindy Levitt gave an in-depth analysis of the documentary, which focuses on building-permits and travel restrictions unequitably placed upon Palestinians for the simple fact that they are Arabs.

Local organizations participated in the activity fair held in conjunction with the conference. The fair gave participants a chance to engage in fruitful discourse with such groups as United Muslims Moving Ahead, Solidarity, Revolution Books, Amnesty International Lincoln Park chapter, Afghan Women's Task Force, Human Rights in Algeria and Not in My Name.

Despite rumors of cancellation floating about, the much anticipated lecture by keynote speaker Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein took place immediately after the activity fair. The renowned scholar, who recently authored The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, addressed the controversial ideology of Zionism, which, at one time, was equated with racism by the United Nations.

According to Finkelstein, the Zionist ideology gave Israel the justification to expel 90 percent of the Arab population from what is now Israel.

Finkelstein compared the expulsion of Palestinians to ethnic cleansing. He also went on to describe the lives of Palestinians living under apartheid-like policies.

Another highly anticipated lecture was that of human rights in Turkey. Dr. Erol Yorulmazoglu, a volunteer member of the public affairs committee of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, focused on the Armenian allegations of genocide by Turks.

During his in-depth discussion, Yorulmazoglu claimed that though Turks do not deny war crimes were committed on their behalf during World War I, what many choose to ignore is that Turks also suffered over two million deaths and casualties.

This presentation gave participants the unique opportunity to listen to the Turkish side of the story, which is often undermined by exaggerated and biased illustrations of Turks by other Mideast ethnic groups and the Western media.

A satisfied participant from Loyola University of Chicago, Ali Mehmoudzai, expressed his admiration of the conference's objectives. It is truly amazing how such a conference can bring about some mode of understanding between people. . .They [MESA] made sure all parties involved had their say. They also made sure that the all too common demonization of religions and entire ethnic groups based on the actions of a few who did wrong was not included.