London, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has called for a high-level dialogue between the countries of the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) on issues of common interest. Among those issues, Cook specifically mentioned the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Cook said one of the aims of such a dialogue would be to prevent a further growth of what he called "misunderstanding and mistrust" between the West and Islam, in his view a regrettable development that must not be allowed to continue.
Cook made his appeal early this week (Monday) on a visit to the Ismaili Center in London, where he praised the major contribution to British society of its 1.5 million Muslim population. Many of Britain's Muslims are immigrants from the former British empire, particularly Pakistan and India.
Cook said his proposed EU-OIC dialogue should also include discussion of terrorism, drugs, human rights and the treatment of minorities. He said: "By talking, we can learn to understand and trust one another."
Cook noted that some have said the West "needs an enemy, and that with the Cold War over, Islam will take the place of the former Soviet Union." Some, he said, had also predicted a "clash of civilizations."
But he said this view is, in his phrase, "profoundly wrong." Far from needing Islam as an enemy, Cook said, the West could not afford to have Islam "as anything but a friend." He added: "We may have different cultures and different religions, but that does not mean we can never get along."
Cook also said the Koran teaches that mankind was made into nations and tribes so that people might know each other, not despise each other. In that spirit, he added, Islam and the West must try to improve understanding, erase distrust, and break down dangerous stereotypes.
Cook said Islam sees the West as materialistic, lacking respect for the spiritual, and determined to use its liberal values as a way of undermining Islamic societies. In turn, the West equates Islam with the actions of its most extreme adherents. In his words: "Too much of the (Western) media presents Islam not as a rich and varied culture underpinned by one of the world's great religions, but as the sum of terrorist bombings and atrocities committed by a few in its name."
Cook characterized both views as "profoundly misplaced."
He said Osama Bin Laden, allegedly involved in the terror attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August, is no more representative of Islam than the terrorists who bombed the small Northern Ireland town of Omagh, killing 29 people, also in August.
Cook said the West needs to remember the debt it owes to Islamic art, science and philosophy. He said: "From our numbers to our understanding of the stars, much of the basis of our civilization is rooted in Islamic learning."
He cited his recent meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi, who made clear that the British writer Salman Rushdie no longer faces a threat to his life sanctioned by the Tehran government. Rushdie was condemned in a fatwa, or edict, issued by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, on grounds that he insulted Islam in his book, "The Satanic Verses." Cook said the Kharazzi statement clears the way for better EU-Iran relations.
In conclusion, Cook said both Islamic and Western opinion leaders need, in his language, to "smash the stereotypes and misguided attitudes that lie at the heart of so much of the strife and polemic between our two cultures." He said: "We cannot afford to let this misunderstanding continue. Not just because it is wrong that two great cultures should misjudge each other so sadly, but also because in the modern world we have no choice but to live and work together."