A UN-sponsored group called the Alliance of Civilizations, created last year to find ways to bridge the growing divide between Muslim and Western societies, released a first report Monday that says the conflict over Israel and the Palestinian territories is the central driver in global tensions.
"Our emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not meant to imply that it is the overt cause of all tensions between Muslim and Western societies," write the report's authors, a group of academics and present and former government officials from 19 different countries. "Nevertheless, it is our view that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has taken on a symbolic value that colors cross cultural and political relations ... well beyond its limited geographic scope."
But while the authors hope their report will invigorate and create cross-cultural dialogue, its tone implies that it is unlikely to be well received by the United States and Israel, focusing as it does on allegations of double standards by those two nations while giving less time to the faults of the Palestinians or specific Muslim governments.
Criticism of US policies, though at times oblique, is a major feature of the document and hits on themes that have angered representatives of the Bush administration in the past. For instance, in a discussion of Al Qaeda's attack on the US on Sept. 11, the report states: "Later, these attacks were presented as one of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq, whose link with them has never been demonstrated, feeding a perception among Muslim societies of unjust aggression stemming from the West."
While that is indeed a common view in Muslim countries, it is unlikely to gain the favor of the current US administration, whose representative to the United Nations, John Bolton, is an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq and a frequent critic of the world body. Earlier this year, Mr. Bolton characterized the UN Human Rights Commission as packed with officials from "some of the world's most notorious human rights abusers."
The report is the result of a UN-sanctioned "High Level Group" meeting of some twenty "eminent personalities" that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed last year. The group, which was cosponsored by the Prime Ministers of Turkey and Spain and included among its authors Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, issued the final report on Nov. 13 at its final meeting in Istanbul.
To be sure, the report is also framed as a direct challenge to the notion that a "Clash of Civilizations" is imminent – a concept first popularized by Samuel Huntington's 1996 book of the same name.
In a statement, Mr. Kofi Annan said it was clear that religion is not at the root of current tensions.
"The problem is not the Koran or the Torah or the Bible,'' Mr. Annan said. "The problem is never the faith, it is the faithful and how they behave towards each other."
That sentiment was echoed in an editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday by three of the report's authors, who also said that political repression in the Muslim world contributes to extremism.
"Denying peaceful opposition movements the freedom to express their views and jailing their supporters generate anger and resentment, encouraging some to join violent groups,'' wrote Mr. Tutu, former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, and Andri Azoulay, an advisor to Morocco's King Muhammed VI.
"When Western governments lend their support – tacitly or overtly – to authoritarian regimes, they become part of the problem," the authors wrote.
The overall objective of the paper is to set out problems between the Muslim and the West as a matter of politics, and not of culture, and tends to see anger and misunderstanding as largely a problem of inadequate education.
For instance, the authors point to a recent Gallup poll that found 57 percent of Americans either responded "nothing" or "I don't know" when asked what they most admired about Muslim societies, as evidence for a need for education systems in both the West and Muslim countries to provide a "basic understanding of religious traditions other than their own."
The authors also point to another recent survey that found 30 percent of US government money for cultural exchanges go to programs with Europe – the societies with which the US has the most in common – while just 6 percent go to programs with the Middle East, arguably the place where such efforts could do the most good.
The UN's High Level Group report includes a set of concrete recommendations for the international community. Among the recommendations:
• The international community should draft a white paper to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• An international conference should be convened to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.
• Ruling parties in the Muslim world should provide space for the participation of peaceful political groups.
• Leaders and shapers of public opinion should behave responsibly and work to promote understanding among cultures.
• The UN should appoint a high representative to assist in defusing cross-cultural tensions.
• The UN should establish a forum for the alliance of civilizations under its auspices.
• Journalists should receive improved training in intercultural understanding.
• Media content should aim to promote intercultural dialogue.
• Educational materials and media literacy programs in schools should face a critical review.
• Governments should increase the number of international youth exchanges and youth-oriented websites.
• The international community should create media campaigns to combat discrimination.
Source: United Nations Fourth High Level Group, www.unaoc.org