Pointing out that Islam and the West are not inherently contradictory or monolithic, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Doha, Qatar, today called for replacing the loud shouts of extremists with the calm voice of reason.The crisis over the recent publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is being fueled by extremism, Mr. Annan told the second meeting of the High-Level Group for the Alliance of Civilization, an initiative set up last year to bridge divides between Islam and the West and to overcome prejudice, misconceptions and polarization. But he cautioned against crediting extremists with representing widely held views. “Those who shout loudest, or act in the most provocative ways, are not necessarily typical of the group on whose behalf they claim to speak,” he said. “I think one can safely say that most non-Muslims in western societies have no desire to offend the Muslim community, and that most Muslims, even when offended, do not believe that violence or destruction is the right way to react.”He added that neither ‘Islamic’ nor ‘Western’ societies are homogeneous or monolithic. “In fact, there is a great deal of overlap between the two,” he said, noting that many individuals today see no contradiction between their Muslim religion and their membership in Western societies. “Whether or not those who published the caricatures were deliberately seeking to provoke, there is no doubt that some of the violent reactions have encouraged extremist groups within European societies, whose agenda is to demonize Muslim immigrants, or even expel them,” he said. “Similarly, the republication of the cartoons, and the support for them voiced by some leaders in Europe, have strengthened those in the Muslim world who see Europe, or the West as a whole, as irredeemably hostile to Islam, and encourage Muslims always to see themselves as victims.”He stressed that the vicious circle whereby misperception feeds extremism, and extremism appears to validate misperception, must be broken.The Secretary-General said extremist views must not dominate the debate. “We must appeal to the majority to speak up and denounce those who disrespect values and principles of solidarity that are present in all great religions,” he said.“If they fail to do so, the essential dialogue between cultures and societies will be reduced to an angry exchange between the fringes, with each side assuming that extremists speak for the other side as a whole and – in turn – allowing its own extremists to frame its response,” he warned. Mr. Annan acknowledged that his own potential contribution is limited. “Incidents like a caricature of the Prophet, or a death threat to the artist who drew it, make far more impact on the popular imagination than pious statements issued by foreign ministers and secretaries-general,” he said.The High-Level Group must help, going beyond loft ideas to develop “sobering, but equally compelling counter-narratives.” The Group, made up of experts in various disciplines from across the world, must come up with specific, concrete suggestions for carrying this dialogue forward “so that it can really catch the popular imagination; so that we are not just a nice group of people agreeing with each other, but people with a message that can echo round the world.” That message must be heard “not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, nor yet in the rushing mighty wind, but in the still, small voice of calm.”
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