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Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010

Flying the humanitarian flag among Muslims


NEW YORK — What's the one major issue the West absolutely and totally must get right in the years ahead? If the obvious answer is not peaceful international relations with an increasingly assertive China, then it has to be the West's ever-more complicated relationship with the world's Muslims.

Certainly the would-be "clash of civilizations," as the famed late Harvard professor Sam Huntington dubbed it, seemed all but inescapable in the wake of the horrific leveling of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, by Islamic hyper-terrorists.

Sensible people on both sides of the Islamic line accept that demented terrorists of all stripes will always exist, whether in the mountains of Pakistan or in the flatlands of Oklahoma. They can be contained but not eliminated.

It is also vital to contain our own misconceptions and prejudices when dealing with the worldwide Islamic community of more than a billion people. If all Muslims are extremists, then we should have to say that all Christians are crusaders and all Protestants are Christian fundamentalists.

To cope with different challenges, it is especially important that our leaders avoid demagoguery and embrace humanitarianism without exception. The few standouts can provide invaluable standup examples for many.

Recently, two of New York City's most prominent public figures did just that. By rising promptly to the occasion, they offered us the opportunity for wider reflection on how we can best relate to the Muslims immediately among us — and across the globe at large. The standouts were New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Beset with the raging controversy over the proposed establishment of a Muslim community center within throwing distance of the 9/11 site, Bloomberg has stuck to the high ground. The easy course for the mayor would have been to give way to the fierce opposition and rack up the populist ratings by opposing the facility. But on the principle of American tolerance for religious diversity, Bloomberg refused to alienate the city's many Muslims by catering to emotion.

That mosque is no danger, and its existence would speak volumes about our strength as a truly tolerant society. Its distance from the former Twin Towers site is but a few blocks, but in Manhattan a few blocks is a dense impossible forest of concrete and steel. In no way would the center impinge on the tragic ground.

The other notable move for sensitivity on Muslim issues came from Ban. This workaholic, world-traveling diplomat is something else again: He is practically a one-man refutation of allegations that the United Nations is inefficient!

As reports came in from Muslim Pakistan that the cataclysmic flooding has not waned but worsened, Ban abruptly scotched long-settled weekend plans and, instead, flew to the scene of the devastation. The decision was made late in the week; neatly linking commercial flights were hard to find (unlike the U.S. president and many other heads of state, the U.N. secretary general, astonishingly, is not provided a private plane).

But there in Pakistan by the weekend was the doughty former South Korean foreign minister, rain hat in hand, boots in mud and water, aides at his side, showing the U.N. flag, and letting the country's 170 million Muslims know that people all over the world truly did care.

Ban's trip was hugely appreciated not only in the region but also beyond. Observed Nimmi Gowrinathan, director of South Asia Programs for Operation USA, a privately funded disaster relief group, "I think the hope is that the secretary general's humanitarian trip to Pakistan raised awareness about human suffering, which helps the public move beyond political prejudices."

In fact, the tireless Ban had not even returned to New York when several donor countries upped their contribution to Pakistan, most notably the Japanese. Suddenly private U.S. aid organizations shifted into higher gear. Ban's trip garnered an extra jolt of major international news-media attention, especially from the BBC and Al-Jazeera.

The use of the U.N. secretary general's office to highlight humanitarian crises is hardly new with Ban. No secretary general has started his first term doing more of this. He was one of the first in Haiti after the horrendous earthquake, and was one of the first to Chile after another terrible earthquake hit.

This is not political grandstanding but humanitarian flag planting. Ban's message is clear: If we do not care about others when they are hurting badly, we forfeit a part of our humanity.

It may be that the Muslim community center in the end may not get built on that site near the 9/11 tragedy, and Pakistan's recovery from these epic floods will prove slow. But Bloomberg and Ban gave it their best the week before last. In this time of great worry about our relations with the Muslim world, their efforts need to be more widely noted, applauded — and emulated.

Veteran American journalist and syndicated Asia columnist Tom Plate is the newly appointed Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He is currently writing Volume 2 of the "Giants of Asia" series, on former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Volume 1 — "Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew"— is a best-seller in Asia. © 2010 Pacific Perspective Media Center


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