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World: European, Muslim Countries Vow To Fight Racial, Cultural Prejudices

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Foreign ministers from European and Islamic countries today ended a conference in Istanbul aimed at fostering harmony and dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. Although the forum -- the first of its kind to bring together members of the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- provided no concrete results, participants vowed to fight racial and cultural prejudices and reiterated their conviction that terrorism is not synonymous with any one religion.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday and today, delegates representing the 15-member European Union and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) vowed to overcome what host country Turkey described as the "deep-rooted prejudices" that surfaced in the Western perception of the Islamic world after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S.

In this respect, there could have been no better venue for the forum than Istanbul, on the shores of the Bosphorus linking Europe to Asia.

OIC member Turkey, which sees itself as a bridge between Western and Islamic civilizations and hopes to start membership talks with the EU soon, had proposed the conference -- the first of its kind -- in the wake of the September attacks.

Addressing the assembly gathered in the hall of the luxurious Ottoman Ciragan Palace, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said the forum was aimed at bringing Christians and Muslims closer in order to prevent the ongoing war against terror from turning into a clash of civilizations.

"We believe that the political dimension in the dialogue between cultures, civilizations, and geographies needs to be further promoted. The two political organizations -- the EU and the OIC -- have a joint responsibility to contribute to the quest for a better understanding." The United States has repeatedly said the war on terrorism launched four months ago in Afghanistan is not an attack on Islam. But this assessment has met with skepticism in the Muslim world.

The secretary-general of the 22-member League of Arab states, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, yesterday echoed the concerns of many Muslims, saying, "Let's call a spade a spade: this is not a clash of civilizations, this is a clash against Islam."

In his opening remarks, Cem said terrorism could not be identified along cultural and religious lines because "terrorism has no religion."

He also noted that the September attacks "have shown how vulnerable the basic understanding among different cultures and civilizations is, how easy it is for deep-rooted prejudices to surface."

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer delivered a similar message, saying "harmony, tolerance and dialogue" were essential to the continuation of civilization.

"The common determination shown by ICO and EU countries -- which are getting together at the start of the 21st century -- to find a solution to the long- and medium-term problems that face mankind, will greatly contribute to universal peace and prosperity."

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency, said similarities between Christian and Islamic civilizations exceeded their differences by far.

Pique said Muslim culture has greatly contributed to the building of Europe throughout history. "Our past is linked, just as our future is linked," the Spanish foreign minister added.

Speakers at the forum also included the secretary-general of the OIC, Morocco's Abdelouhed Belkeziz; EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana; and Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer.

Afghanistan's interim foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, represented the new Afghan administration that took over from the toppled Taliban regime in December.

Some 100 bilateral meetings were scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the conference, which was also attended by top diplomats from Iran and Iraq. In his State of the Union speech last month (29 January), U.S. President George W. Bush accused both countries of sponsoring terrorism as part of an "axis of evil" that also includes North Korea.

In addition, Washington accuses Baghdad of developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of an international embargo and demands that United Nations inspectors be allowed to return to Iraq after almost four years of being barred from the country.

Most European countries -- including the U.S.'s closest ally, Britain -- are opposed to any military action against Iraq. Although they fully support the Afghan campaign, providing the U.S. with logistical and intelligence support, they recently voiced alarm at what French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine denounced as Bush's "simplistic approach" to the issue of terrorism.

Addressing the EU-OIC forum yesterday, Spain's Pique reiterated that the EU favors a peaceful solution to the U.S.-Iraq dispute. But he also said time was running out for Saddam.

"We are ready to help Iraq reintegrate into the international community and normalize relations [between] Iraq and the rest of the world. But Iraq has [its] responsibilities and [has] to answer very, very quickly to these demands."

NATO member Turkey publicly opposes any military action against its Arab neighbor, for fears that unrest in Iraq's predominantly Kurdish northern provinces would spread to its own restive Kurdish southeast.

Ecevit's government also fears that a new full-scale conflict near Turkey's borders, 11 years after the Gulf War, would compromise its IMF-backed efforts to extricate the country from a 14-month-old economic crisis. Earlier this week, renewed tension over possible U.S. action in Iraq sent tremors through the country's volatile domestic markets, adding to pessimism over Turkey's economic woes.

Ecevit recently sent a letter to the Iraqi leader, urging Saddam to allow UN inspectors back into the country to avert U.S. military strikes. But the Turkish premier said the answer he received from Baghdad showed "no change of attitude" on the part of the Iraqi leader.

Yesterday, however, Ecevit hinted that Baghdad might eventually agree to an unspecified compromise. Speaking to reporters after talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, he said: "I cannot go into details, but the impression I have is that Iraq might try to find a way out of this dispute [with America]. But I cannot say whether it will be something decisive."

Upon his arrival in Istanbul yesterday, Sabri said Baghdad expected Ankara would work to prevent any U.S. military action against Iraq because "peace and stability in Iraq serves peace and stability in Turkey."

Analysts generally believe that should Washington decide to strike Iraq, NATO member Turkey would have no other alternative than to offer logistical support, as it already has in helping the U.S. implement an 11-year no-fly zone over Iraq's northern and southern provinces.

The White House yesterday dismissed recent media reports that strikes against Iraq were imminent.

But regional analysts and media speculate that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's upcoming Middle East tour could be an attempt to gain diplomatic support ahead of possible military action. Cheney is due to visit 11 countries next month (10-20 March), including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Turkey.

Addressing the EU-OIC forum, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said any attempt at resorting to military force in the region would cost Washington its international support against terrorism.

Bush's recent comments linking Tehran to Baghdad and Pyongyang within an "axis of evil" have irked both conservative and reformist government circles in Iran. On 11 February, hundreds of thousands of Iranians staged demonstrations throughout the country to protest the U.S. stance against Tehran.

Washington recently accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan's domestic affairs by providing military support to local warlords opposed to the new interim administration and by allowing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters to flee across the border.

The U.S. administration also claims Tehran is providing weapons and ammunition to Palestinian militants in the Middle East. Both the Iranian government and the Palestinian leadership have denied the charge.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was among the main topics discussed at the EU-OIC forum, with Islamic nations calling for greater European involvement in the search for a solution to the armed confrontation.

Participants discussed a specific French proposal calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that would be immediately recognized by Israel and admitted to the United Nations -- a position at odds with Washington's views on regional security.

Both the U.S. and Israel insist that a cease-fire in the Palestinian territories and a crackdown on Islamic militants should precede any political discussion.

Addressing the forum, Solana reiterated Europe's support for the creation of a Palestinian state. The EU foreign policy chief also expressed some regret that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who remains confined by Israeli tanks to the West Bank city of Ramallah, was unable to attend the conference.

"Our determination [is] to end the old, too-long, conflict in the Middle East. I cannot forget -- and I do not forget -- that President Arafat is vice president of the OIC conference. We should help bring about a political solution to the problems of the Middle East. I think [that] we are united in this belief that the two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis is the only solution."

Despite a general consensus to push for the creation of a Palestinian state, some disagreements emerged among forum participants.

Media reports say EU foreign ministers rejected a demand put forward by their Islamic counterparts to formally condemn Israel for its rough handling of the Palestinian uprising. European countries and Turkey -- which has military ties with Israel -- were apparently opposed to condemning a country that was not present to defend itself.

Frictions also surfaced over a final declaration that would have included a common definition of terrorism. Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud's calls to differentiate between terrorism and what he described as "the legitimate struggle of people against foreign occupation" -- a direct reference to the Palestinian uprising -- apparently remained unheeded.

Instead, participants adopted a final communique in which they reiterated their condemnation of terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations" and vowed to fight it "in conformity with the charter and resolutions of the United Nations."