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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 00:36 GMT
Mixed reception for Iran's ex-president
The former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, has begun a visit to the UK by calling for dialogue between civilisations to prevent religious wars. He is the most senior Iranian figure to visit the UK since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Mohammad Khatami receiving his degree
Mr Khatami also opened the new Institute of Iranian Studies
The BBC's James Shaw watched him deliver a speech to students and academics at the University of St Andrews in Fife as he picked up an honorary degree:

He cut a modest figure in the grey robes and black turban of a Shiite cleric. A small, bearded man, smiling at all the attention amid the gowns and mortar boards and applause in the Younger Hall at the university.

Introducing Mr Khatami, Professor Michael Bentley, of the university's school of history, gave a sense of the significance of the event.

He said the university wanted to offer its congratulations on "real and persistent efforts to reach out and engage with nations of the West".

Reforms rejected

It's certainly true that efforts were made to introduce liberalising legislation during his time as president between 1997 and last year.

The Iranian parliament tried to bring in laws for greater press freedom and to ban torture and sex discrimination.

These measures were thrown out by the Council of Guardians - the senior clerics and jurists who, along with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, govern Iran.

Protesters at St Andrews
Mr Khatami's visit has provoked fury from human rights organisations

So the reforming parties were unable to make good on their promises. A more uncompromising president is now in place and Mr Khatami continues to reach out to the wider world.

A few weeks ago Mr Khatami was in the US. It now seems to be his guiding principle to try to build bridges between Islam and the nations of the West.

Outside the Younger Hall, in the bitter wind blowing from the North Sea, a dozen or so protesters penned behind metal barriers held up placards denouncing the event.

"Shame on St Andrews for inviting a terrorist," read one.

'Violence and insanity'

As his speech drew to a close inside, Mr Khatami called for a deeper analysis of the reasons behind what he called the "re-emergence of religious wars".

He asked how there could be talk of "crusades" at the start of the third Millennium. Perhaps this was a reference to George Bush's use of the word back in 2001 to characterise how the United States would respond to 9/11.

Mohammad Khatami receiving his degree
Mr Khatami called for greater understanding between Islam and the West
Then Mr Khatami described how some people saw their own religion as true and compassionate but insisted on viewing other faiths as ones of "violence and insanity".

Was he referring to those controversial remarks by the Pope, quoting a medieval Christian ruler on his views about Islam?

With these hints and allusions, he seemed to be offering a critique of the attitudes of some Western leaders to Islam.

Finally, he spoke of the pressing need to improve understanding between different cultures and religions. He remembered the advice of one of the founders of Shiite Islam. Imam Ali, the great Imam of Muslims, told his followers to respect others, either as fellow Muslims or simply as fellow human beings.

Many people who hear Mr Khatami's thoughts over the course of his three-day visit will agree that there should be greater understanding between Islam and the West.

The question is, does he have the influence to help make that a reality?


SEE ALSO
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Profile: Mohammad Khatami
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Mixed feelings over Khatami visit
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Iran's Khatami calls for US talks
08 Sep 06 |  Americas
Iran's Khatami condemns US policy
03 Sep 06 |  Americas
Protests against Khatami US visa
31 Aug 06 |  Middle East

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