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Now is the time to reach out to the Muslim world

Friday, May 14, 2004 - Page A19

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In recent years, the impact of terrorists exploiting Islam as a pretext for violence has shaken the world and cast unwarranted suspicion on hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims around the globe. In turn, responses to this violence have aroused concern and mistrust among some Muslims about Western motives and principles. The present instability in Iraq, revelations of prisoner abuse and the killing of Western civilians there, only serve to raise tensions further.

If we are to take wise international actions for the sake of our security, prosperity and a more peaceful planet, we must understand the forces at work in the Muslim world. To do that, we must build bridges of understanding and co-operation between that world and the West. Canada has distinctive social and diplomatic assets that give us a unique potential to be a constructive force for engagement with Muslims around the world.

The impetus for progress will ultimately have to come from the leaders and citizens of Muslim countries, but the West must reinforce its efforts. At today's G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Washington, my colleagues and I will consider collective measures to support reform and development in the Middle East. Beyond today's meeting, however, there is much Canada can do in its own right to support the forces of moderation and reform.

As the standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade noted after conducting hearings in Canada and 15 other countries, the Muslim world is extraordinarily diverse. Its 1.4 billion people live not just in Arab countries of the Middle East, but also in predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, in countries such as India with significant Muslim populations, as well as in Canada and other Western countries. Within these countries, as in many regions of the world, there is religious extremism. But within these countries there are also currents of moderation, popular support for democracy and civic freedoms, and movements toward political and social reform, including the advancement of women.

An invaluable asset we can draw on for moving forward in our engagement with the Muslim world is the presence within our country of diverse and flourishing Muslim communities, whose knowledge and skills we must further draw on to help spread messages, shape relationships and inform policies. The potential in these communities complements Canada's well-established linkages with many Muslim countries through trade and through our development programs in support of human rights, civil freedoms, gender equality and good governance.

Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to prospects for further co-operation between Western and Muslim countries. While Canada's influence here is limited, we can draw on some distinctive diplomatic assets. Our recognized status as friend to both Israel and the Palestinian people, and our balanced position on the conflict itself, give us a broad regional credibility that allows us to undertake bridge-building initiatives both diplomatically and within civil society.

Canada's position on the Iraq war has reinforced our credibility throughout the Muslim world, giving us many willing partners for dialogue and shared projects.

In addition to using the tools of diplomacy and trade and development assistance to promote progressive change in the Muslim world, we must also uphold Canada's credibility by showing that the ideals we endorse are ones we genuinely work to advance in our own societies, as well as beyond our borders. This means that when we fight terrorism in the name of freedom, we must ensure that fundamental civil and political rights, such as equality and freedom from discrimination, are upheld just as strongly as the determination to protect our security.

That is why the government's new National Security Policy calls for an advisory cross-cultural roundtable on security to be composed of prominent members of Canada's ethno-cultural and religious communities.

Above all, we must ensure that our society is one in which Canadians from all parts of the world are treated in accordance with the ideals of equality and respect for diversity. For decades, our citizens and political leaders have been deepening a commitment to pluralism through our immigration and social policies, our legal framework and our political institutions. While we are far from perfect, Canada is widely regarded around the world as a uniquely successful pluralistic society characterized by equality and mutual respect. By safeguarding this success domestically, and sharing our expertise abroad, we can help like-minded progressives in Muslim countries pursue similar goals within their own borders.

Bill Graham is Minister of Foreign Affairs. See Exploring Canada's Relations with Countries of the Muslim World at

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