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POLITICS: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 19 2006 (IPS) - Key political figures from the West and the Muslim world, as well as the outgoing U.N. chief Kofi Annan, urged the international community Monday to seriously examine ways to promote greater dialogue among civilisations and cultures.

“It is not enough to publish an insightful report, and applaud great ideas, unless then we do something about them,” Annan said at the General Assembly’s informal discussion on a U.N.-sponsored report to advance an “Alliance of Civilisations”.

The report, which was launched in Turkey last month, stresses that the growing divide between the predominantly Christian West and Muslim societies is not religious or cultural, but essentially political in nature.

Prepared by a high-level group of 20 leaders in the fields of politics, academia, civil society, international finance and media from all regions of the world, the report points to the need for greater global efforts to foster tolerance and dispel stereotypes that have exacerbated tensions among various societies.

“In this period of rising tensions, none of us should simply call from the sidelines for peaceful coexistence, and then go on with our life as usual,” Annan said. “We should make an active effort to learn from each other to understand the source of our differences.”

Like Annan, the sponsors of the report, the Turkish and Spanish prime ministers, also made renewed calls for further discussions and actions on the project for the Alliance of Civilisations.

“The time has come to start acting and take the responsibility,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Our actions in the implementation phase will be the concrete evidence of our will on this subject.”

Rejecting the notion of a “clash of civilisations”, Erdogan said that “increasing disparities and injustices, as well as exaggerated fears and suspicions, feed into mutual hatred, prejudice and intolerance prevailing all over the world.”

He said no ideal for peace can be realised in full without first achieving it in peoples’ hearts, adding that the real confrontation is between “volunteers of love and soldiers of hatred”.

Quoting Rumi, the great 13th century Muslim philosopher-poet, he said, “The core of all pure faith is love. Peace must first take root in the hearts of human beings.”

Describing the report as “a tool of hope”, Spanish Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in order to disprove the concept of the clash of civilisations, the world needs to seek common ground for mutual understanding.

“We are here today for the formal christening of the project. Today we are fulfilling a new phase, with the objective of strengthening alliances, adding up to efforts that can translate into concrete actions to contribute to peace, and to enhance a dialogue amongst civilisations,” Zapatero added.

The report acknowledges that the rift between Muslim and Western societies has been worsened by military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lack of progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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

The report puts forward a range of concrete proposals in the areas of education, media, youth and migration, including film and television programmes co-produced across religious and cultural boundaries and showing diversity as a normal feature of society..

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Kristi Lintonen, the Finnish envoy, said the European nations welcomed the report as “an important contribution to the common platform of unity at national, regional and local levels.”

Lintonen said the international community must develop “a public momentum that rejects extremism”, with commitments and a “very active policy” to increase mutual understanding.

He indicated that some constructive contributions to the Alliance of Civilisations might also come from ongoing work in the European Union, which is already using the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and European Neighborhood Policy to increase channels for dialogue.

The regional bloc has designated 2008 as the European Year of Dialogue. Further examples of useful initiatives include the Helsinki Process on Management of Globalisation led by Finland and Tanzania since 2003, and the Danish Coexistence of Civilisations initiative.

To Lintonen, these initiatives reflect “the high priority we place on integrating people of all faiths into societies, while preserving essential universal values like tolerance, diversity and peaceful dialogue.”

As part of the U.N. efforts to do more, General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain said she intends convene an informal interactive debate of the General Assembly next summer.

The expert group has proposed 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.

“We expect that the high-level representative will be a person of renowned capacity, with the ability to start to work in what will be a very passionate job, very quickly,” she said.

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