Rejecting the notion of a clash of civilizations or religions, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for better education and opportunities for youth, as well as the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, to stem mounting mistrust and violence between Islam and the West.
“I believe it is imperative to work on both fronts at once – seeking both to improve social and cultural understanding between peoples, and at the same time to resolve political conflicts,” Mr. Annan said in Istanbul, Turkey upon accepting the final report of the High-Level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative he launched last year to tackle fear and suspicion between communities following a proposal by the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey.
The report puts forward a range of proposals in the area of education, media, youth and migration to build bridges and promote a culture of respect. It also calls for a UN High Representative to assist the Secretary-General to defuse crises that arise at the intersection of culture and politics, along with measures aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process and encouraging political pluralism in Muslim countries.
Religious differences were not at the core of the problem, Mr. Annan stressed. “We must start by reaffirming – and demonstrating – that the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah or the Bible,” he said.
Legal measures to ensure freedom of religion, to end discrimination and enforce rights of minorities were also not the total answer, he added.
“Any strategy to build bridges must depend heavily on education – not just about Islam or Christianity, but about all religions, traditions and cultures, so that myths and distortions can be seen for what they are,” he said.
In addition, he called for increased opportunities for young people, offering them a credible alternative to the hate and extremism. “We must give them a real chance to join in improving the world order, so that they no longer feel the urge to smash it,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Annan cautioned that such measures would have little impact if fear and suspicion continues to be fuelled by political conflicts in which Muslims are seen to be the victims of military action by non-Muslim powers – particularly the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
“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,” he said.
Referring to the controversial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper earlier this year and the violent reaction to them, Mr. Annan also reiterated his view that freedom of expression must be exercised with sensitivity, especially when dealing with symbols and traditions that are sacred to other people.
The High-Level Group is co-chaired by Mehmet Aydin, Minister of State of Turkey, and Federico Mayor, President of the Culture of Peace Foundation.
Participants include such international figures as Mohamed Khatami, the former Iranian president; Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s former Foreign Minister; South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the religious historian Karen Armstrong.