Islam and the West: Reaching Intercultural Understanding

In engaging the Muslim world, Western leaders must not gloss over differences or duck hard issues. Superficial courtesy is easy, but the path to agreement on the application of moral principles is arduous.
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The signatories below and I welcome the many initiatives that are underway among governments, in civil society, and within the religious community to expand areas of cooperation between the Muslim community and other actors. President Obama's trip to Indonesia this week is an important example of the high-level attention that must be given to these relationships. Despite such efforts to enhance communications, serious obstacles remain. In almost every part of the globe, there continue to be people who have chosen -- whether out of ignorance, fear, or ill will -- to sow conflict where reconciliation is needed. It is up to responsible voices on all sides to make the case for constructive action based on shared interests and values. This is a duty that extends beyond governments alone, to include decision makers and other people of influence from all sectors of society. The standard we seek to achieve is not mere tolerance, but a widespread attitude of genuine mutual respect.

As former foreign ministers, we have a particular interest in solving practical problems. We favor policies and initiatives that will improve the environment for cooperation across the boundaries of nation and creed. We recognize, of course, that the present state of relations between Muslims and the West must be viewed within an historical context and that the terms "Muslim" and "the West" refer to entities that are resistant to easy generalization. We also acknowledge that the prospects for success will be profoundly affected by the future direction of events in such areas of conflict as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by progress in the Middle East peace process. We believe, however, that certain broad steps can and should be taken to strengthen the foundation for intercultural understanding.

First, we must be willing to conduct an honest self-examination that does not gloss over differences or duck hard issues. Superficial courtesy is easy, but the path to agreement on the application of moral principles is arduous. A dialogue that matters will examine, among other topics, the legacy of imperialism, women's rights, freedom of worship, the criteria for just war, educational standards, and the appropriate relationship between religious and civil law.

Second, we must communicate better by eliminating from our vocabulary terms that recall past stereotypes or that reflect ignorance or disrespect. The idea that the West has singled out Islam as an enemy is nonsense; so is the allegation that Islam provides a rationale for terrorism. On whatever side, the actions of a few cannot be used to condemn the many.

Third, we must emphasize the firm connection that exists between democratic and Islamic values while also heeding the lesson of Iraq, which is that democracy must find its roots internally. Neither Islam nor any other religious faith should be used to justify despotism or to validate the suppression of civil society.

Fourth, we must establish common ground on questions of immigration and integration in all of our countries and others. Leaders in and outside of government must search for answers that take into account economic and demographic realities, while discouraging reactions based on prejudice or fear. Here, as elsewhere, a balance between rights and responsibilities must be maintained.

Finally, we should continue to expand business, scientific, academic, cultural and religious contacts that provide a social bridge connecting the Muslim world to non-Muslims in the West.

There exists no single instrument for transforming relations. There are, however, a number of tools that can be used by political, religious, business and academic leaders to generate progress. These include official policies, educational initiatives, and public-private partnerships of all types that reinforce certain basic precepts, such as:

  • The common moral foundation of the three Abrahamic faiths;
  • Respect for human rights based on the legal equality of persons and the inherent dignity and value of every human being;
  • A rigorous commitment to truth - in official pronouncements, in the media, in the classroom, and on the Internet;
  • Support for broad-based economic development so that young people everywhere are able to look to the future with hope; and
  • An honest effort to view the world - historically and contemporaneously - through the eyes of the "other."

Improving the overall relationship between Muslim communities around the world and the West is a task that has political, religious, intellectual, social, cultural, and economic components. It requires the best efforts of leaders from all sectors and from both sides of the divide.

Governments must not shy away from a leading role in this process but rather constantly strive to guide and develop mechanisms for integration in their societies. It will take time and require patience, but the objective is vital if we are to learn from, not repeat, the mistakes of the past.

Madeleine Albright - United States
Halldór Ásgrímsson - Iceland
Lloyd Axworthy - Canada
Shlomo Ben Ami - Israel
Erik Derycke - Belgium
Lamberto Dini - Italy
Alexander Downer - Australia
Jan Eliasson - Sweden
Rosario Green - Mexico
Igor Ivanov - Russia
Marwan Muasher - Jordan
Ana Palacio - Spain
Niels Helveg Petersen - Denmark
Lydie Polfer - Luxembourg
Malcolm Rifkind - United Kingdom
Adam Daniel Rotfeld -- Poland
Jozias van Aartsen - The Netherlands
Hubert Védrine - France
Knut Vollebaek - Norway

Last month, these nineteen former foreign ministers met in Madrid to conduct a far-reaching assessment of the relationship between the West and the "Muslim World." This post reflects their conclusions.

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