U.N. Opens Forum on Tolerance to Muslims

Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the first U.N. seminar on confronting Islamophobia with a plea not to judge Muslims by the acts of extremists who target and kill civilians.

The daylong forum on Tuesday came six months after a U.N. seminar devoted to confronting anti-Semitism, also a first for the world body. Both were part a series entitled "Unlearning Intolerance," sponsored by the U.N. Department of Public Information.

"The few give a bad name to the many, and this is unfair," he told Islamic scholars, writers and religious leaders as well as representatives of other religions.

Annan urged people to condemn terrorist and violent acts carried out in the name of Islam but which "no cause can justify."

"Muslims themselves, especially, should speak out, as so many did following the September 11 attacks on the United States, and show a commitment to isolate those who preach or practice violence, and to make it clear that these are unacceptable distortions of Islam," he said.

Annan said "it is essential that solutions come from within Islam itself" and suggested and suggested that the Islamic scholarly principle of "ijtihad," a process of critical inquiry, could foster free debate into what is good and bad in Muslim cultures as well as others.

He stressed that Islam "should not be judged by the acts of extremists who deliberately target and kill civilians."

"We should not underestimate the resentment and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world's great religions, cultures and civilizations," he said.

"And we must make the re-establishment of trust among people of different faiths and cultures our highest priority," Annan added, saying that failure to do this threatens world peace and development.

Seyyed Hussein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, said Islamophobia was a question not only of fear but also of hatred - often by people who know little about the religion.

In the keynote address, Nasr spoke of the role of fanaticism in conflicts and said there would there would be no Islamophobia without "mistakes" made by Muslims.

Nasr said most people view Islam as an intolerant, monolithic religion bent on ruling the Western world when in reality, there are various schools of Islamic thought, the religion is not anti-Western and the Islamic dynasties over the centuries accepted both Jews and Christians fleeing persecution.

Fighting Islamophobia, Nasr argued, requires swift action from those in the West who understand that hatred breeds more hatred. Muslims must also take the lead in speaking out against extremism - steps that should be complemented by educational reforms and more effective use of the media.

Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, a law professor at Cairo University and vice president of the Egyptian Council for Human Rights, called for "an undistorted mirror" for Muslims and non-Muslims to examine themselves and others.

He said many Muslims for the first time were feeling part of a larger world and abandoning isolationism. Many Muslims also recognized their negligence in not highlighting Islam's commitment to democracy and respect for human rights, he said.

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, said that in the United States and much of Europe, terrorism had created anxiety about the vulnerability of Western societies, drawn unwanted attention to Muslims, and elicited intolerance and hatred among some Americans. This is what terrorists wanted, he said.

In the United States, Appleby said, patriotism should require a willingness to recognize differences and honest self-criticism, not condescension towards people cast as "the other."