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POLITICS: Ideology Widening Muslim-West Divide

Mithre J. Sandrasagra

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 13 2006 (IPS) - The key reasons for the growing divide between Muslim and Western societies are not religious but political, concludes a report presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday in Istanbul, Turkey.

“We need to get away from stereotypes, generalisations and preconceptions, and take care not to let crimes committed by individuals or small groups dictate our image of an entire people, an entire region, or an entire religion,” Annan said upon receiving the report.

Violence is fueled by fear and misunderstandings, economic inequality, wars by Western powers in Muslim countries and the Arab-Israeli conflict, according to Annan, not cultural and religious identity.

Although religion is often cynically exploited to stir passions, fuel suspicions and support alarmist claims that the world is facing a new “war of religion”, the root of the matter is political, according to the report.

The report was prepared by the High-Level Group of the Alliance of Civilisations, an initiative launched in 2005 by Annan and co-sponsored by Spain and Turkey. Its aim is to respond to the broad consensus across nations, cultures and religions that all societies are interdependent, bound together in their development and security, and in their environmental, economic and financial wellbeing.

“The primary political force that has served to widen the rift between Muslim and Western societies is the widespread perception that there is a double standard as to when universal principles of human rights are championed and when they are ignored,” Shamil Idriss, deputy director of the Alliance of Civilisations, told IPS.


Eloquent statements in support of democracy lose their relevance when democratically elected governments are shunned and sometimes subverted by powerful countries, according to the report.

“Western political and military intervention in Muslim societies is another cause of the widening rift,” Idriss said. “Many Muslims believe that Islamic society is under attack.”

Events of recent years have exacerbated mutual suspicion, fear and misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies and this environment has been exploited by extremists throughout the world, according to the High-Level Group, composed of 20 prominent leaders in the fields of politics, academia, civil society, international finance, and media from all regions of the world.

The Alliance of Civilisations seeks to counter this trend by establishing a model of mutual respect between nations and cultures.

Secular political motives were responsible for some of the most horrifying reigns of terror in living memory, such as the Holocaust, the Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union, and more recent genocides in Cambodia, the Balkans, and Rwanda, all perpetrated by state powers, according to the report.

“We should start by reaffirming – and demonstrating – that the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah or the Bible,” Annan said. “Indeed, I have often said the problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other,” he stressed.

In its report, the group maintains that, “a cursory look at the twentieth century indicates that no single group, culture, geographic region, or political orientation has a monopoly on extremism and terrorist acts.”

One of the major obstacles to bridging the rift between the Muslim and Western societies is the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“We may wish to think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as just one regional conflict amongst many,” said Annan. “It is not. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a critical symbol of the deepening rift, according to the report.

“As long as the Palestinians live under occupation, exposed to daily frustration and humiliation, and as long as Israelis are blown up in buses and in dance halls, so long will passions everywhere be inflamed,” Annan said.

Along with Western military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, the group argues, this conflict contributes significantly to the growing sense of resentment and mistrust that mars relations among communities. The report also suggests that the repression of non-violent political opposition and the slow pace of reforms in some Muslim countries are key factors in the rise of extremism.

In order to address the issues outlined in their report, members of the High-Level Group offer a number of practical political solutions.

The group proposes that the secretary-general appoint a high representative to assist in defusing crises that arise at the intersection of religion and politics and to oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

They suggest that a white paper be created, analysing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “dispassionately and objectively, giving voice to the competing narratives on both sides,” reviewing and diagnosing the successes and failures of past peace initiatives, and establishing clearly the conditions that must be met to find a way out of this crisis. In addition, the group calls for the resumption of the political process, including the convening of an international conference on the Middle East peace process as soon as possible.

The group also supports the expansion of political pluralism in Muslim countries. They call on ruling parties in the Muslim world to provide the space for the full participation of non-violent political parties, whether religious or secular in nature, and call on foreign governments to be consistent in their support for pluralism by, for example, respecting the outcome of elections.

The report also puts forward a range of concrete proposals in the areas of education, media, youth and migration to build bridges and promote a culture of respect and understanding among Western and Muslim communities.

With respect to the news media, “political leaders must react quickly to frame potentially inflammatory stories in their proper perspective,” Idriss told IPS. A slow reaction by government leaders led to the controversy and violence that erupted after the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting Islamic prophet Muhammad, according to Idriss.

The group proposes the development of film and television programmes co-produced across religious and cultural boundaries and showing diversity as a normal feature of society.

“A broader range of characters must be encouraged,” Idriss said. “Muslims should be portrayed as something other than terrorists.”

“At a time when the increasing polarisation between major cultures and belief systems throughout the world urgently needs to be addressed, the presentation of this report and its recommendations to the international community constitutes a hopeful and exciting step in efforts to sow the seeds of respect and understanding,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said, “We cannot stand idle in the face of claims that a clash of cultures and civilisations is inevitable. In our efforts to counter them… we can count on international law, on the U.N., on human rights, and, above all, we can count on the equal dignity of all men and women and on our unique capacity for dialogue and conflict resolution. From now on, we will also count on the Alliance of Civilisations.”

Annan, who will be ending his term at the end of the year, said he would work with his successor, Ban Ki-moon, to help implement the recommendations of the report.

 
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