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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 22:51 GMT
Myth and reality feed West-Muslim gulf
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan called for ideas for a concrete action plan
It was an appropriate venue: an Ottoman Palace on one bank of the Bosphorus, with a view on to a vast bridge linking East and West.

"If we are to build bridges between civilisations, what better place to begin!" UN Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked in his opening address.

He was speaking to a group of 20 prominent world figures meeting in Istanbul to present him with the findings of more than a year of work.

The high-level group includes Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

It was convened to produce a report examining the root causes of a growing gulf between the Muslim world and the West.

The secretary general also requested recommendations for a concrete action plan.

'Political divide'

"This report is important because it debunks certain myths about an increasing polarisation between the West and Islam," explained Ali Alatas, former foreign minister of Indonesia and one of the authors of the 40-page Alliance of Civilisations report.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
There are tensions, there are even hostilities but they are not caused by religion, by culture or by civilisations
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

"One of our major conclusions is that the divide is not religious or cultural but political."

The authors of the report, who were drawn from a wide variety of religions and cultures, argue that divide can be closed. They reject the theory of an inevitable clash of civilisations outright.

"That is a total misnomer. There are tensions, there are even hostilities but they are not caused by religion, by culture or by civilisations," Archbishop Desmond Tutu insisted.

"They are political causes: when people are poor, when people are hungry or humiliated. But religion is morally neutral."

Palestinian conflict

The report talks of a modern-day climate of mutual fear and suspicion, which it says is exacerbated by occupation and acts of terror.


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It argues that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is fuelling widespread anger and hostility among Muslims.

But it pinpoints the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the chief cause of resentment.

"No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield," Mr Annan argued from the podium.

"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."

Flagship for terror

So the authors of the report have called for an international conference to be convened as soon as possible to breathe new life into the Middle East peace process.

Palestinian boys watch smoke rising from Beit Hanoun
The group says it is vital the Middle East peace process is revived

They also propose a white paper offering "dispassionate analysis" of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, setting out why previous peace efforts have failed and producing a plan for moving forward.

"We have to accept that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who see this as their cause," said Andre Azoulay, adviser to the king of Morocco and an Arab-Jew.

"If we continue to ignore this reality we are giving the best possible chance to those who want to use it as a flagship for terror and confrontation. I don't want to give them a chance."

He told the BBC the group had initially focused on cultural projects.

Mr Azoulay introduced the idea of a political white paper, arguing that addressing the ongoing conflict in the Middle-East must be key to any attempt to bridge the divide between Muslims and the West.

"The price that's paid for global failure [in the Middle East] is not only in Israel or Palestine. We are all the hostages of this failure. So we can't be silent and passive, we have to speak out and be creative," he said, recalling that the initiative for the Alliance of Civilisations came in the immediate aftermath of the Madrid train bombing.

'Powerful start'

But can a process, sponsored by the UN, make a difference?

"I believe very strongly that the UN is the only universal body we can turn to, to resolve this kind of problem," said Ali Alatas - dismissing the suggestion the UN has lost credibility following the invasion of Iraq in particular.

Muslim protesters in London
The report calls for youth projects to bridge the gulf of understanding

"We have tried direct negotiations and negotiations through the quartet [of Middle East mediators - the US, EU, UN and Russia]. We have to go back to the UN and hope it can bring all the stakeholders to the table."

The Alliance of Civilisations report also calls for a series of cultural, educational and youth projects to help bridge a growing gulf in understanding between the West and the Muslim world.

It addresses questions of immigration, too - and warns against the use of inflammatory or insulting language.

But the report's authors argue any proposal will have limited impact if the core political issues that fuel divisions between Muslims and the West are ignored.

"Once this report is translated into an action plan, I am sure it will be implemented with the adherence of all," said Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, Consort of the Emir of Qatar. She was one of just four women in the high-level working group.

"There is a lot to achieve, this is a drop in the ocean. But we needed to start from somewhere. This was a very good and very powerful start."

Khatami labels US policy 'a joke'
02 Nov 06 |  Middle East


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