Press Releases

    SG/SM/10209
    15 November 2005

    Secretary-General, in Message to Vienna Meeting, Urges Dialogue among Great Religions, Saying Diversity "Is a Precious Gift, Not a Threat"

    NEW YORK, 14 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's message to the conference on "Islam in a Pluralistic World", delivered by Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, in Vienna, 14 November 2005:

    I am delighted to convey my warm wishes to all participants in this conference on Islam in a pluralistic world. I thank President Fischer and Foreign Minister Plassnik for allowing me the opportunity to address you on such a timely subject.  The United Nations has always seen interfaith dialogue and cooperation as an important building-block for peace.  The need for it has never been greater than today.

    The world of Islam is a mosaic which is all too often seen by outsiders as a monolith.  Islam's long and proud pluralistic tradition includes modernizers and traditionalists, sufis who seek to synthesize diverse strands of thought, and purists who embrace only what they take to be the literal meaning of God's word as revealed in the Holy Quran. 

    Yet Islam's tenets are frequently distorted and taken out of context, with particular acts or practices being taken to represent or to symbolize the entirety of a complex faith.  Some even claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or irrevocably hostile to modernity and the rights of women.  Stereotypes depict Muslims as opposed to the West, despite a history not only of conflict but also of commerce and cooperation, and of influencing and enriching each other's art and science.  European civilization would not have advanced to the extent it did had Christian scholars not benefited from the learning and literature of Islam, including the transmission of ancient Greek and Indian learning, in the Middle Ages, and later. And there are many instances where Western and Islamic communities continue to enrich each other, or are even parts of each other.

    Clearly, there is a need to unlearn our collective prejudices; to promote a continuing dialogue among the great religions -- a dialogue based on the premise that diversity -- in thought, in belief, and in action -- is a precious gift, not a threat.  We must educate ourselves and our societies to go beyond stereotypes of the other, and to avoid simplistic categorizations that exacerbate misunderstandings and prevent real problems being tackled.

    The United Nations, whose vocation is to bring together all the peoples of the world, must by necessity include people of many faiths, and of none.  Its task is not to deny or to relativize the contribution that any faith or tradition can make to the solution of global problems, nor yet to proclaim that all faiths are identical.  Rather, the United Nations encourages followers of all faiths to make their own contributions in their own way, and to scan the contribution of others not for what is alien or worthy to be eschewed, but for what is of universal value and worthy of further study.

    As the Outcome Document of the recent World Summit has put it, "we recognize that all cultures and civilizations contribute to the enrichment of humankind.  We acknowledge the importance of respect and understanding for religious and cultural diversity throughout the world.  In order to promote international peace and security, we commit ourselves to advancing human welfare, freedom and progress everywhere, as well as to encouraging tolerance, respect, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples."

    We must also unite in our efforts to address the extremism that is, alas, on the rise, not only in Islam but among adherents of many faiths.  The great religions all contain pluralistic traditions, yet, increasingly, many of their followers are succumbing to exclusivism.  The extremist's tendency to divide humanity into mutually exclusive groups or categories, and to treat anyone who tries to cross the dividing lines as a traitor, is one of the greatest threats that we face in the world today.  Islam has perhaps suffered the most in this regard.  Extremist dogmas have gained ground, impeding the progress and threatening the security of Muslims all over the world.

    We must respond to extremists, but not in kind.  If we respond to violence with violence, to anathema with anathema, to exclusion with exclusion, we will be accepting the logic of those we seek to defeat, and thereby helping them win new converts to their ideas.

    On the contrary, we must respond to them with our own logic -- the logic of peace, of reconciliation, of inclusion and mutual respect.  We must resolve, even more firmly, to build nations within which people of different communities can coexist, and enjoy equal rights.

    And we must resolve to build a world in which no nation, and no community, will be punished collectively for the crimes of some of its members; a world in which no religion will be demonized for the aberrations of some of its adherents; a world in which there will be no "clash of civilizations", because people will strive to discover the best in each other's traditions and cultures, and to learn from it.

    Earlier this year, at the suggestion of the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey, I announced the launch of an "Alliance of Civilizations".  This initiative is intended to respond to the need for a committed effort by the international community -- both at the institutional and civil society levels -- to bridge divides and overcome prejudices, misconceptions, and polarizations which potentially threaten world peace.  The Alliance will aim to address emerging threats emanating from hostile perceptions that foment violence, and to bring about cooperation among various efforts to heal such divisions.  In this the Alliance builds upon an earlier initiative, the "Dialogue among Civilizations" one of whose principal sponsors, President Khatami, is here with you today and has generously agreed to be on the High-Level Group that will guide the new initiative.  I hope that he will remain engaged with the Alliance, which would benefit greatly from his knowledge and experience.

    We live in one world.  We need to understand and respect each other, live peacefully together and live up to the best of our respective traditions.  This is not as easy as we might like it to be.  But that is all the more reason to try harder, with all our tools and all our will.

    It is in this spirit that I welcome gatherings such as yours, and wish you a most productive conference.

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