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POLITICS: Alliance Hopes to Dispel “Culture of Fear”

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 8 2008 (IPS) - Preparations for an upcoming international gathering to promote worldwide respect for cultural and religious diversity are now in full swing.

Hundreds of key figures from the spheres of politics, religion and media are expected to join the Alliance of Civilisation Forum, due to take place in Madrid, Spain next week.

U.N. officials told reporters Tuesday that the two-day meeting, starting Jan. 15, will try to explore how to “help counter the forces that fuel polarisation and extremism”.

The Alliance was formed in June 2005 at the initiative of Spain and Turkey, two countries that are widely seen as historic representatives of the predominantly Christian West and Muslim world.

Since then, a high-level group of experts, established by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has submitted several reports suggesting a variety of practical steps to address the issue of cross-cultural tensions.

In Madrid, the Alliance will be focusing on how to consolidate international partnerships, initiate media literacy projects, the role of religious leaders in shared security and youth approaches to intercultural dialogues.

“There has been some positive reporting, but it has been much less than desirable,” Shamil Idriss, acting director of the Alliance, told IPS in response to a question about the media response to the Alliance’s agenda.

Idriss and other members of the Alliance think that there is a strong need for media education and awareness because very often religious tensions flare up due to irresponsible reporting.

The publication of inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, the pope’s remarks about Islam and reporting on the Iranian president’s views of Israel are examples of such reporting, Idriss said.

The Alliance is also trying to get some Hollywood production companies involved in its projects to spread the message of religious peace and cultural harmony, according to U.N. officials.

In concluding one of its reports in November 2006, the Alliance held that the so-called growing divide between the Christian-dominated West and Muslim societies was not religious or cultural, but essentially political in nature.

Prepared by 20 leaders in the fields of politics, academia, civil society, international finance and media from all regions of the world, the report underlined the need for efforts to dispel stereotypes that have exacerbated tensions among various societies.

Currently, the Forum represents more than 75 U.N. member countries and international organisations that believe that efforts to overcome cultural hostilities are vital for maintaining international peace and security.

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

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

His counterpart in Spain, Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, also expressed similar views on the concept of the so-called clash of civilisations. “The world needs to seek common ground for mutual understanding,” he said.

Both leaders will be present at the Jan. 15 Madrid meeting, along with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

The November 2005 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 time. “It is not. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield.”

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

Idriss described the position of the European Union as “very supportive of the move”.

In December 2006, 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 EU, which is already using the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and European Neighbourhood 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.

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