Western and Muslim leaders must unite, Austria's foreign minister says

Western and Muslim leaders must show greater courage to unite against groups promoting cultural intolerance and violence in the name of Islam, Austria's foreign minister said Monday, opening a conference of political and intellectual figures from across the Muslim world.

"We should not concede the public space to those who abuse religion ... and abuse culture to reach their aims," said Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who is hosting a three-day meeting that includes the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan. "We must speak out." Plassnik said the message of the gathering is to display "courage not to shy away from difficult subjects" such as the roots of terrorism and social tensions in Europe, most recently driven home by the riots across France and last week's triple suicide blasts in Amman, Jordan, that killed 57 people.

"We are facing challenges within Islam," she said. "The challenges of pluralism, the challenges of development, the challenges inside our own European community ... We have to listen to each other and we have to open our eyes and ears."

The conference also suggests more European Union contacts with moderate Muslim forces, as well as efforts by Austria to reshape its image in the Islamic world after raising the strongest objections to Turkey's bid to join the EU. Austria takes over the six-month EU presidency on Jan. 1.

"This conference ... really highlights not only the problems but also ways to live together and to coexist and to find the right avenues for mutual understanding and coexistence," said Ralph Scheide, director for Middle East and Africa in Austria's Foreign Ministry. The expected speakers include two leaders brought to power by U.S.-led military campaigns: Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. They were asked to talk on Islam's ability to interact with different faiths and ideologies in a world of melting borders and interwoven interests.

But they also could draw attention to a dark side of globalization: the international networks of Islamic radicals that feed insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and create a growing list of places hit by terrorism.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on Britain's ITV network, Talabani predicted that the 8,500 British soldiers in Iraq could be gone by the end of 2006 _ although he was not speaking for the government. He also said that the U.S.-led foreign troops should not remain indefinitely.

In Jordan, thousands of Jordanians joined protests to condemn al-Qaida and the alleged mastermind of the suicide blasts, Jordanian-born fugitive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in one of the most potent displays of Arab backlash against terrorism.

"There can be no doubt about the importance and also the timing of the conference on these issues," Scheide said.

Also expected at the conference was Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran. Khatami, who ended eight years in office in June, brought a period of liberalizing reforms in Iran, encouraged greater contacts with the West and challenged the near-absolute authority of Iran's ruling clerics, reports the AP. I.L.

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