That's one of the main findings of a United Nations-backed panel of scholars, politicians, and other experts from around the world. The group -- part of the "Alliance of Civilizations" -- presented its report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Istanbul today.
"We must start by reaffirming and demonstrating that the problem is not the Koran, or the Torah, or the Bible," Anan said today after receiving the report. "Indeed, as I have often said, the problem is never the faith; it is the faithful and how they behave toward each other."
In particular, the experts said resolving the conflicts in the Middle East would be key to stopping people from turning to extremism.
The report is the work of 20 experts including former Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
For the past year, they've been discussing how to narrow what they say is growing "polarization" between Western and Islamic societies.
Their chief conclusion is that politics -- not culture or religion -- is the root cause, and that urgent action must be taken to bridge the divide.
Emmanuel Kattan is a consultant for the group.
"They focus particularly on the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of the symbolic issues that has caused a lot of resentment and anger in the Muslim world and is driving the rise of extremism," Kattan says. "Western military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan [were] also [identified as] very primary factors in the present polarization."
Looking At The Palestinian-Israeli Dispute
One of the group's main recommendations is for a White Paper that would analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a "level-headed" way. That would allow both sides of the conflict to set out what the group calls their different "narratives," the sharply different ways Palestinians and Israelis see their recent history.
But the report also looks at the factors within some Muslim countries that it says are driving extremism. It says one is the repression of political movements in the Muslim world, and it calls on foreign governments to be consistent in their support for democratic processes and not to interfere when the results do not fit their agendas.
The group also acknowledges that until problems such as Israeli-Palestinian conflict are resolved, no amount of cross-cultural dialogue or educational efforts will be successful at bridging the gap between the West and the Muslim world.
"They recognized of course that the actions and recommendations in the report will have limited impact until the political issues can be resolved, but that doesn't mean one must wait and see and not act at the grass-roots level when one can," Kattan says. "That's why they propose a range of action, in education for example, where they propose to promote cross-cultural and human rights education."
Other recommendations include voluntary codes of conduct for media on covering religion and politics responsibly, and a call for expanding Internet access in Muslim countries.
The initiative was co-sponsored by the prime ministers of predominantly Catholic Spain and Muslim Turkey, where the report was presented today.
The group is due to deliver its final proposals at the end of the year in New York.
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
READCONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)
LISTENListen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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LISTENListen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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