By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2006
TEHRAN, March 4 -- Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, whose foreign policy was defined by a quest for what he called a "dialogue between civilizations," warned Saturday that tensions between the Islamic world and the West are taking the shape of a new Cold War.
Khatami, speaking at a government conference promoting interfaith dialogue, said the West was largely responsible. Islam was being cast as the "enemy of humanity" by governments reverting to the polarized worldview that divided the planet for 50 years after World War II, he said.
The West "needs an enemy, and this time it is Islam," Khatami said. "And Islamophobia becomes a part of all policies of the great powers, of hegemonic powers.
"We are not very far from the era of the Cold War that inflicted a lot of damage on the world."
The bleak assessment drew a bold line under the damaging difference in perceptions that drove the controversy over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper last autumn.
Depiction of the prophet is banned by most schools of Islamic thought, and many Muslims interpreted each successive publication of the cartoons as a deliberate insult. But many Westerners interpreted those objections as tantamount to censorship, insisting the core issue was not the feelings of Muslims but freedom of expression.
Khatami said he took deep offense at that insistence and contended that defining the question as one of freedom amounted to brushing aside the sacred dignity that stands at the core of any religion.
"The affront to the prophet was an act, not an idea," he said. "The tragedy is that this inhumane act is justified in the name of freedom."
"Defilement is an action, not an idea, and therefore it is not freedom of expression. It does treachery to freedom of expression," Khatami said. "Secondly, it is a part of a trend that enrages Islamism around the world. Therefore it has to be interpreted in this context."
Khatami suggested that the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, last month was an extension of the trend. "If we go behind the idea," he said, "it leads to the destruction of holy shrines and killing of human beings."
Khatami spoke at a state-sponsored conference on "respect for religious sanctities and divine prophets." The hall where the conference was held, appropriately enough, stands on a fault line.
The headgear around the tables suggested a genuine diversity of faiths: the black and white turbans of both Shiite and Sunni Islam; the peaked cap of an Orthodox archbishop; and, in a prominent place near the front, the extravagantly fur-lined hats of four ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were flown in for the occasion.
"We are Jews but not Zionists," said Rabbi Ahron Cohen, of Manchester, England, invoking the distinction between those who follow Judaism as a faith and religious Zionists who believe the Jews have a Biblical right to Israel as a homeland.
"The root cause of the problem in the Middle East is the Zionists," Cohen said. "But really, the whole concept is flawed, and that's what the people in this country believe, too, and we're with them."
In recent months, Iran has faced widespread accusations of anti-Semitism since Khatami's successor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and dubbed the Holocaust a "myth."
Cohen said he was not bothered by Iran's plans to hold another conference, this one to publicly ask how Nazi Germany could have killed 6 million Jews before and during World War II.
"I don't find it offensive at all," Cohen said. "If people want to debate the details of the Holocaust, they're welcome to.
"We happen to know. We were involved."