UN conference tries to bridge West-Muslim divide

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RIO DE JANEIRO: A UN forum looking to dampen many of the conflagrations currently raging between the Western and Muslim worlds is to kick off in Rio this week with, for the first time, US participation.

But diplomats organizing the third Alliance of Civilizations forum said the focus will be on softer issues, rather than the military confrontations taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, or the societal ones seen in France and other parts of Europe.

"It’s difficult to say which issues are more important than others, but migration and education are of special interest," said one of the organizers of the Thursday-to-Saturday event, Brazilian diplomat Jose Augusto Lindgren.

But one topic on the agenda, that of the internet and its influence on shaping opinions, will be especially timely, given Pakistan’s blocking of Facebook in outrage at a page promoting caricatures of Islam’s main prophet Mohamed.

Launched in 2005 — four years after the 2001 attacks on New York and a year after deadly train bombings in Madrid, both attributed to Muslim extremists — the Alliance of Civilizations aims to sweep aside misunderstandings and prejudices between cultures.

The West-Muslim gap lay at the heart of that ambition, but the forum also sought a broader view, taking in all civilizations and cultures that might find themselves in opposition.

The forum was started by former UN chief Kofi Annan, along with the governments of Spain and Turkey.

The United States’ adherence makes it the 119th member of the grouping, counting all participating countries and international organizations.

Washington signed on under President Barack Obama. His predecessor, George W. Bush, snubbed the UN forum.

Lindgren said the US membership "was part of an effort to bring together more than 100 countries with a long-term goal: that the cultures get to know each other better, through initiatives big and small.

"We’ve advanced, I think, but it’s a long-haul task."

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in a pre-recorded welcome message, urged those attending the Rio conference to "overcome their fear of the unknown and to see the world differently."

That exhortation was to be heard by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and nine heads of state and government leading proceedings.

They included Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who launched the idea of the Alliance of Civilizations, and presidents Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, and Danilo Tuerk of Slovenia.

The Prime ministers Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive, Portugal, Jose Socrates, and Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan are also to attend.

Lindgren said that, in terms of the agenda point on migration, it was certainly "difficult to think of the Alliance exercising an influence on governmental policy," but he expressed hope that the forum could "encourage good practice" in the domain.

An example of such standards was Brazil’s recent legalization of undocumented immigrants, he said — a far cry from the repressive stance taken by the US state of Arizona that seemingly cracks down on Mexicans crossing over its border.

The Rio forum was to attack that issue with a round-table discussion looking at "immigrants as agents of change and development."

The education issue, meanwhile, was to insist on "encouraging teaching without stereotypes," Lindgren added.


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