Reacting to the furor spawned by the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed widely considered to be offensive, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Doha, Qatar, today joined his voice with key Arab and Muslim leaders to urge restraint and to pledge action to foster tolerance.
Mr. Annan, along with the leaders of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the League of Arab States as well as the foreign ministers of Qatar, Spain and Turkey, warned that the present climate “threatens to sow deep discord between communities, societies and countries.”
They voiced deep regret at the offence given by the caricatures, as well as the loss of life and damage to property in several countries.
While reaffirming the universal right to freedom of expression, they appealed to all to exercise that right responsibly, and not to use it as a pretext for inciting hatred or insulting the deeply held belief of any community.
The statement also reaffirmed the right to peaceful protest, “especially where deep hurt has been caused, and we acknowledge that Muslims do indeed feel deep hurt over the caricatures.” The leaders hailed the fact that the vast majority of the protesters and demonstrators throughout the world expressed their indignation in an orderly and peaceful manner.
“We urge everyone to resist provocation, overreaction and violence, and turn to dialogue,” the statement said. “Without dialogue we cannot hope to appeal to reason, to heal resentment or overcome mistrust.”
The statement emphasized that all rights should be exercised responsibly. “Neither media, publications, nor places of worship should be used for incitement, or to spread hatred.”
Calling for a tolerant international society which recognizes both rights and responsibilities, the leaders emphasized that this will require “respect for the right of all people to freedom of worship, and of opinion and expression, and appreciation of diversity as an asset, not a threat.”
The statement was issued on the eve of a meeting in Doha of the High Level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative set up to bridge the gap between Islam and other cultures. It looked forward to the Alliance's proposals for encouraging broader and deeper mutual respect and understanding.
“We intend, as a group, to follow up this joint statement, and commit ourselves to formulate a joint strategy and agreed measures that will contribute to overcome the current crisis and to prevent its recurrence, and promote tolerance and mutual respect between all religions and communities, in Europe and elsewhere,” the statement said, adding that the Secretary-General would bring the text to the attention of the General Assembly, Security Council and EU.
After reading the communiqué to reporters, Mr. Annan said the initiative and the meeting of the Alliance “should be seen as part of a wider effort to try to create dialogue, improve respect among different cultures, beliefs and civilizations.”
He anticipated that the Alliance would be putting forward “concrete suggestions as to how we can educate, as to how we can bring people together and as to how groups develop mutual respect and avoid any attempts to humiliate each other.”
The Secretary-General also noted that all people have the power to effect change. “Obviously, we need to hear the other voices. We need to hear the other voice and the mainstream voice of Islam and the Christians will have to speak out. We all need to speak up and reach out to each other.”
Today's statement in Doha follows one issued earlier this month by the UN, the EU and the OIC urging restraint in response to the cartoon controversy.