Annan says politics, not religion, at heart of Muslim-West divide

Istanbul, Turkey - Political tensions, rather than religious differences, are the source of the rift between the West and the Muslim world, and any resolution must include an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday.

"We should start by reaffirming and demonstrating that the problem is not the Quran or the Torah or the Bible," Annan said after receiving a report by an international group of scholars that proposes ways to overcome the divide. "The problem is never the faith, it is the faithful and how they behave toward each other."

Annan, who will relinquish his post to Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 1, said violence was fueled by fear and misunderstandings, economic disparities, wars by Western powers in Muslim countries and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

His claim that religion was not the root of the conflicts that have multiplied since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States contradicted those of some theorists who believe cultural and religious identity emerged as the main source of tension following the Cold War. One of the most prominent champions of the latter theory is Samuel Huntington, author of the 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

In a challenge to that theory, Annan traveled to Istanbul to attend a meeting of the U.N.-backed "Alliance of Civilizations Initiative," which enabled a group of experts and luminaries to draft a report on how to promote peace.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are among 20 members of the group. The report said the Arab-Israeli conflict is a critical symbol of the deepening rift between the West and Islam, and calls for the resumption of the Middle East peace process.

Annan agreed that any efforts to reduce Muslim-Western tensions would be in vain without a solution to that conflict.

"As long as the Palestinians live under occupation, exposed to daily frustration and humiliation, and as long as Israelis are blown up in buses and in dance halls, so long will passions everywhere be inflamed," Annan said.

The U.N. initiative is co-sponsored by the prime ministers of Spain, a predominantly Catholic country, and Turkey, which is 99% Muslim.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have passionately sought ways to increase peaceful contacts between Muslim and Western societies.

"Either we will sit and remain spectators as the culture of terror, violence and clashes spreads across the world like an infectious disease, or we can globalize a common understanding of humanity," Erdogan said Monday.

Turkey offers a unique laboratory for studying whether Islam and the West can coexist.

It has a strong secular tradition, but faces increasing Islamic influence on its institutions. It also hopes to become the first predominantly Muslim country to join the European Union, though that effort is in jeopardy, partly because of the dispute over divided Cyprus. Turkey does not want to do business with the Greek part of Cyprus unless the EU lifts restrictions on the isolated Turkish part of the island. Cyprus is a member of the EU.