UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) 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 summit was announced on the same day that Annan rebuffed calls for his resignation amid allegations the Iraq Oil-for-Food (search) program is rife with corruption.
In announcing the Islam summit, Annan told Islamic scholars, writers and religious leaders that, "the few give a bad name to the many, and this is unfair."
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 (search), 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 (search) 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."
Annan Pledges Reform at U.N. Amid Corruption Allegations
Annan has come under fire recently by critics of the United Nations' role in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Annan rejected calls for his resignation from several U.S. lawmakers, saying Tuesday he will "carry on" at the helm of the United Nations for the next two years.
Five Republican members of the House of Representatives on Monday backed a GOP senator's call for Annan to resign amid allegations of corruption in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program. But outside the United States, there is no clamor for the secretary-general to step down, and he has picked up support from many of the 191 U.N. member states.
Annan said he plans to concentrate on reform of the United Nations in the last two years of his term, a process that began last week with the release of a report by a high-level panel that analyzed global threats in the 21st century and made 101 recommendations on how to tackle them.
"I have quite a lot of work to do and I'm carrying on with my work," Annan said when asked when he would respond to those calling for his resignation. "We have a major agenda next year, and the year ahead, trying to reform this organization. So we'll carry on."
Was he definitely saying no, he would not resign?
"I think you heard my answer," Annan replied.
Although President Bush refused to back Annan last week, his closest international ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave the secretary-general a strong endorsement Monday, saying he is doing "a fine job ... often in very difficult circumstances."