A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna today with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance.
Vienna, 16 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "Islam in a Pluralistic World."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination.
Several referred to the Prophet Muhammad as an example, including Karzai.
"One of the closest companions of -- peace be upon him -- Prophet Muhammad was Belal, a man from Africa and a former slave," Karzai said. "The differences of racial and social background did not stop the holy prophet -- peace be upon him -- to bestow upon Belal the greatest honor of being Islam's first muazzin, the man who calls people to prayer."
Karzai said the story reflects the true values of the faith: "Put in the context of an era where slavery and racial segregation was the norm, Belal was a powerful embodiment of the values of Islam."
Lakhdar Brahimi is an adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. As the first Muslim speaker, he summed up the appeal by Muslim leaders to the rest of the world.
"We must educate ourselves and our societies to go beyond stereotypes of the other and avoid simplistic characterizations that exacerbate misunderstandings and prevent real problems being tackled," Brahimi said.
The long list of speakers included Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran, who discussed the meaning of religious pluralism, as well as the Egyptian and Moroccan ministers for religious affairs and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos.
Iraq's new government was strongly represented in Vienna. In addition to President Talabani, the delegation from Baghdad included the former president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, and the deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Husayn al-Shahristani.
In his remarks, Talabani praised the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
"That's why the war that coalition forces waged against the dictatorship was the only way to deliver the Iraqi people from the crimes [of the dictatorship], its atrocities, and evils," Talabani said.
Talabani gave the conference a detailed description of the country's newly adopted constitution and emphasized the democratic rights now available to all Iraqis.
Al-Shahristani said Iraq could become a "standard-bearer for openness, tolerance, and a multicultural society once terrorism is defeated."
The secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, discussed how European countries could begin to foster a peaceful relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims on their territories. He said it would make a difference if Muslims played a greater role in public life. "In this way," he said, "Europe would become a truly pluralistic continent."
Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, gave a passionate address about the continuing rejection of basic rights for women in some Muslim countries. Without naming names, she sharply criticized some governments that "hide behind the shield of Islam and justify their tyranny by presenting a distorted interpretation of Islam."
Several speakers were critical of Western attitudes toward Islam. Some noted that the word "crusade" had occasionally been used in relation to the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the war against terrorism. They said this shows insensitivity to the Muslim world's rejection of the European-led Crusades of the Middle Ages.
Egypt's minister for religious affairs, Mahmud Zakzouk, said some Western countries appear to believe that Muslim countries are in a "barbaric condition" and that democracy needs to be spread in order to "civilize" them. He said any program of this sort will be resisted.
Zakzouk also charged that some Western countries do not understand the underlying problems that foster terrorism. "The so-called struggle against terrorism led by Western governments," he said, "ignores the basic roots of terrorism: subjection and poverty."
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who organized the conference, concluded the gathering by saying that she considered the broad exchange of views in the meetings and in private talks to have been a success. She said improving relations with the Muslim world will be one of Austria's priorities when it takes over the chairmanship of the European Union in 2006.
She said one of her plans is to convene a meeting of European imams. It will take up the work of a similar meeting of imams in the Austrian city of Graz in 2003.
(Wade German contributed to this report.)
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