Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser talks to Antonio Mora

The UN high representative for the Alliance of Civilizations talks about his role at the world’s governing body

Antonio Mora: Your mission, as the head of the U.N.'s Alliance for Civilizations, in one description is to galvanize international action against extremism through the forging of international intercultural and interreligious dialogue and cooperation, especially emphasizing defusing tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. I can't think of many more important jobs today.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser: Well, this is a very challenging job. And especially in this time where we witness the rise of hatred, racism, religious intolerance around the world. I think the international community should get together and address this issue. It's not a responsibility of region or subregion.  

One of your responsibilities, and I know one of the ways that you believe this needs to be attacked, this problem, is through sustainable development. And you've written that we need to better understand the fundamental relationship between radicalization, extremism and violence, where the absence of development can create the conditions for radicalization. Can that relationship be drawn between development and radicalization?

During the Presidency of the 66th session of the General Assembly we addressed this issue by promoting peaceful coexistence and sustainable development. It goes together, interlinked together. We cannot separate this from each other. Sometimes poverty marginalization leads to extremism.

And I think the United Nations' responsibility today [is] to address this issue. We know that there is a commitment through the Security Council last summer when the leaders met and agreed on adopting the Resolution 2178 to counterterrorism around the world. And this is a great move. But we want to see an implementation. I think we should [make] collective efforts.  

All right, let's talk about some of what you just said. And you said, "Sometimes marginalization leads to extremism." Because often, you know, more often than not, it does not. You have countries of terrible poverty around the world where extremism doesn't exist. So what is the toxic mix here that creates extremism, aside from marginalization and poverty?

If we look at Middle East, [the] dictatorship, corruption, lack of education, lack of opportunities, [have] led so many young people to take that road. And we see today, we cannot only accuse those young people from Middle East, we see many young people also from Europe.

I mean you're seeing radicalization happen in countries where there is development, where there are jobs, where there are opportunities. So some would argue that the issue is with some of the religious institutions that are failing these young people. But the argument others would say is that the problem is that they are aggressively recruiting young people, especially marginalized young people. How do we stop that?

When I mention marginalization and lack of opportunities, also don't forget the governments in the West. They have [a] responsibility when it comes to education. And few of those young people feel [like] equal citizens. But on the other hand, I think lack of education might lead to this problem, be [an] easy target by terrorist groups. Some young people also they want to look for their identity. They want someone to listen to their voices. So this is part of what we witnessed today.

But you yourself have not been shy about saying that part of the problem is a perversion of Islam. You specifically said that long-term success depends on providing meaningful alternatives to perversions of religion. What are those meaningful alternatives?  

Well, we see today many accusations against Islam. But in reality what we see around the world today [is] religious intolerance. It's not only against Islam. It's against other religions. And that's why when I ask the United Nations through the Security Council or Allies of Civilization or any organization responsible to promote tolerance, to promote dialogue, to promote respect. We see also on the other hand the media. When people said, "Well, OK, freedom of expression," I say, "That should be respected but also should be responsible." Media should be responsible to address issues, very sensitive issues, like what we witnessed in the last few weeks. I mean, when we see [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] today — is it a terrorist group? Is it a state? So the international community, we should look and address and find out the root causes of what's happening today in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But to attack the problem, then, what should the role of Muslim countries specifically be?

Well, they've been victims. Many Muslims have been victims by their own. So here, we are not talking about religion. There's something those few people, they, well, first, lack education. If they have good education, then they will have great opportunities to have a very good life and good future. But lack of education, being marginalized under society, being pushed to the back, they come with anger and hatred. We want to find themselves, where they fit and how all the society can hear their voices.

‘We see today many accusations against Islam. But in reality what we see around the world today [is] religious intolerance. It’s not only against Islam. It’s against other religions.’

Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser

How do you address that problem? How does the U.N.? How do Muslim countries and even Western countries? Because many of these extremist Muslim clerics are recruiting in Europe. How is that problem addressed within Islam?

I think today the responsibility — I always say religious leaders anywhere, not only in the Muslim world, they have a big responsibility to address this issue and to promote tolerance, to promote respect, to promote that religion leads to peace, not lead to blood. And I think this is very essential. And I see today around the world so many initiatives coming from religious organizations or institutions to address this issue.

But also, we cannot only blame religious leaders. Of course, government, they have responsibilities. Civil society, they have a responsibility. Scholars and private sector, you know? The private sector makes a lot of money, but in return they have to support the society. They have to help, to eradicate poverty around the world. So this is a very, really challenging issue, and I think there needs to be collective efforts by the international community.

In your role as the high representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, you have really pointed out that while in the West, we focus on the consequences of terrorism here and the threats it may pose to us. You have really called attention to the tremendous suffering it is causing around the world, and from Africa to the Middle East to the Asian continent. How bad is the problem?  

On the United Nations' agenda today, maybe No. 1 is the terrorism. And I'm sure we will need still a lot of cooperation, a lot of collective efforts and work between countries, between religious institutions, between academia, civil society, to work together. And that's where the alliance we are organizing — meeting not only at the United Nations here in New York but around the world — where we see, like one of the issues that sometimes causes a problem is migration. Sometimes migrant people in the West are accused that they are the cause of the problem, those people that left their homes. Nobody wants to leave his country and home unless he's facing difficulties. They left because of conflicts. They left because of corruption, poverty. They left because of many other problems, looking for a better life. So they go to their neighbor. And not all migration is a negative thing. Because many migrant people left their homes and went to the U.S., went to the West, went elsewhere, and they contribute to the development.

If you receive them, you respect them, you help them to be integrated in their society and you educate them, they can be a surplus. But the picture is always — we look at the people like a threat or negative. They bring with them their problems. They become terrorists, of course, if you marginalize them, you treat them like criminals. Not maybe this generation but the next generation will carry this kind of hatred and fear, and they will not contribute to their society in a positive way.

Other than Ban Ki-moon or Kofi Annan, you're probably as important a representative of the United Nations as there is, because you have been working there now for decades. And the U.N. has so many responsibilities. What's the main priority now?  Is the main priority stopping conflicts, stopping terrorism?

Yes, of course. This is a very important issue. But you see, let me go back a little bit about when people talk about the United Nations. They always say, "Oh, this is a giant monster, huge bureaucracy," but they don't know. This organization is a member-state-driven organization. When there is no consensus, the United Nations cannot do anything. When there is consensus, you see great results. So I'm not here to try to defend the United Nations, which I've been working and representing my country and leading — very important.

This is today the most important organization to maintain peace and security in the world. But we need collective efforts. We need to create consensus. That's why the Security Council with the Syria situation couldn't do anything.

Right, but that's the problem, is we don't seem to be able to ever reach consensus. And you bring up the Security Council in Syria, but you could also talk about the Security Council in Ukraine and how even a condemnation of some of the violence ended up being vetoed by Russia. You have the five permanent members who can veto things that are against their interests. So if you can't even get those five to agree, how do you get a broader consensus at the U.N. to achieve the goals it needs to achieve?

I think the United Nations, Security Council, General Assembly or United Nations as a whole, through the U.N. charter, should be reformed. Seventy years ago, the world was different from today. Almost 50- to 60-member states at that time. Today, 193.

And we look at the world today as different from that time. Today the world is turning to be a global village with all technology, and we live in a very small global village. So the more we come close to each other, the more we've got to face challenges.  

So should the U.S., Russia, China, France, England, not have veto power anymore?

I cannot decide for them to have or not to have. That's what the United Nations member states agree on one solution. And then reform, not reform, how we want this United Nations organization to be effective, active and effective, or just giant monster with big bureaucracy. I think we have many challenges that's not political, it's not war, it's not terrorism. We see today even diseases. Ebola — the world went crazy for one disease, you see? And what about tomorrow? What about the future? I think we should strengthen this organization to deal with all challenges.

Antonio Mora and Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser

Not only were you president of the Security Council for a month, but you were the head of the General Assembly for a year. And that, sort of your crowning achievements of a career in diplomacy that began when you were 18 years old.  So you must have a very deep-rooted love of diplomacy and belief in what it can do.

I thank God that I end up like the way I am today. When I was young, I was dreaming to be in the military. And I was asking my father, "I want to join this college." And my father kept quiet. So when I was ready, I finished secondary school. He said to me, "Now, what exactly you want? And don't ask me. It's your future. And I don't want to be there."

He said, "Now you have a chance to go to work, to study and work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or to be a member of the army. And the choice is yours. Don't ask me for advice. It's your future. If you did very well, I hope you will thank me. If you fail, please don't." And he gave me 24 hours to choose. I couldn't sleep that night. Next day, I woke up. I said, "I think I'm going to take the Foreign [Affairs route], to working for them." And it wasn't easy. I was young, but I was full of ambitions. And so I worked hard, but also I was lucky. Luck sometimes is very important.

And I worked very hard. And I ended up working different areas. But my love for my work, when I joined the United Nations, is multilateral. For me, it's more important than bilateral. Bilateral I did, and I succeeded. But the challenge and the sky is the limit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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