UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- A soft-spoken man who bears the weight of global problems traveled from New York to Doha, Qatar, this past weekend to plea for calm dialogue among civilizations in face of deadly riots in reaction to cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw in a high-level meeting Sunday of the Alliance of Civilizations a venue for that plea in which he said the fringe -- not the mainstream -- reacts the boldest and that is not where calm dialogue can take place.
The recently-established alliance was intended "to bridge divides and overcome prejudice, misconceptions and polarization" well before recent cartoons in a Danish publication sparked protests half way round the world.
Its aim also was to "address emerging threats emanating from hostile perceptions that foment violence" and "the sense of a widening gap and lack of mutual understanding between Islamic and Western societies."
The passions aroused by the cartoons' publication and the reaction to it, showed "only too clearly that such threats are real, and that the need for a committed effort by the international community is acute," he told the meeting, even though the body was not intended to deal with "immediate crises like this."
Annan said the intensity of feeling comes from "a deep reservoir of mistrust and resentment, which was there long before the offensive cartoons were first printed" but the "present crisis can be considered an expression of a much deeper and longer-standing crisis, which is precisely the one that the Alliance was intended to address."
He faulted a trend towards extremism in many societies.
"We should beware of overemphasizing it, because extremism in one group is almost always fed by the perception of extremism in another group," Annan said. "Few people think of themselves as extremists, but many can be pushed towards an extreme point of view, almost without noticing it, when they feel that the behavior or language of others is extreme."
The secretary-general argued those who shout the loudest or act most provocatively "are not necessarily typical of the group on whose behalf they claim to speak."
While centuries ago it was possible to clearly distinguish Islamic and Western, or Christian, civilizations, globalization has changed that.
Now, "There is a great deal of overlap between the two," Annan said, adding, "many individuals today see no contradiction between their Muslim religion and their membership of Western societies."
As to whether the caricatures were intended to provoke Muslim riots, some of the reaction has in turn encouraged extremists groups within European societies who seek to "demonize Muslim immigrants or even expel them," Annan said.
At the same time, republication of the cartoons strengthened those in the Muslim world who see Europe, or the West, "as irredeemably hostile to Islam, and encourage Muslims always to see themselves as victims," further worsening the situation.
"So misperception feeds extremism, and extremism appears to validate misperception. That is the vicious circle we have to break," Annan said. "The problem is not with the faith but with a small group of the faithful -- the extremists who tend to abuse and misinterpret the faith to support their cause, whether they derive it from the Koran, the Torah or the Gospel.
"We must not allow these extreme views to overshadow those of the majority and the mainstream. We must appeal to the majority to speak up and denounce those who disrespect values and principles of solidarity that are present in all great religions.
"If they fail to do so, the essential dialogue between cultures and societies will be reduced to an angry exchange between the fringes, with each side assuming that extremists speak for the other side as a whole and -- in turn -- allowing its own extremists to frame its response," the secretary-general continued.
But, he did not see that alone as a solution to the current troubles.
"Everyone is entitled to freedom of worship and freedom of opinion and expression, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said. "These rights carry with them an inherent responsibility, and should not be used to degrade, humiliate or insult any group or individual. On the contrary, we should all exercise great sensitivity when dealing with symbols and traditions that are sacred to other people."
So how could the high-level meeting he was addressing help?
"We need to engage in dialogue (with) not only scholars, or diplomats or politicians, but also artists, entertainers, sports champions -- people who command respect and attention right across society, and especially among young people, because it is very important to reach young people before their ideas and attitudes have fully crystallized."
"Free speech involves listening as well as talking," the secretary-general said. "It must tell people of all faiths that it is too late in our common history to go back to wars of religion, and urge them to ask themselves whether they want their children to grow up in a world of hate."
Concluded Annan, "It must be a divine message - heard not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, nor yet in the rushing mighty wind, but in the still, small voice of calm."