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Clinton Seeks to Build Bridge to Muslim World

October 27, 1994|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — President Clinton, rejecting a view held by many in the Middle East and the United States, declared Wednesday that no inherent conflict exists between Islam and the values of Western civilization and that the two systems together should confront a common enemy--extremism.

Terrorist groups, many affiliated with fundamentalist religious movements, "cloak themselves in the rhetoric of religion and nationalism, but behave in ways that contradict the very teachings of their faith and mock their patriotism," Clinton said in a speech to the Jordanian Parliament--the first by an American President.

"There are those who insist that, between America and the Middle East, there are impassable religious and other obstacles to harmony, that our beliefs and our cultures must inevitably clash," he said. "But I believe they are wrong. America refuses to accept that our civilizations must collide. We respect Islam."

Clinton's words drew loud applause from the Parliament, but in an indication of the tensions that his words addressed, 35 seats in the hall were empty. Members of the Islamic Action Front, which opposes U.S. policies and influence in the region, had announced that they would boycott the speech.

With his remarks, Clinton plunged himself into the center of a major intellectual debate in the West and in the Islamic world--a debate with enormous implications for either avoiding or kindling future conflicts.

A number of fundamentalist theologians and other intellectuals in the Islamic world have argued that the beliefs of Islam and the West differ so fundamentally that they must inevitably lead to conflict.

That argument has been paralleled within the United States and Europe, where prominent writers on international affairs have developed a now-fashionable theory that an unavoidable clash between Islam and the West will replace the long fight between capitalism and communism as the central conflict of the coming century.

On both sides, those predictions draw on a history of conflict and suspicion that dates back a millennium--to the ages of the Crusaders and the wars between the armies of Islam and Christendom--and that has been deepened by the legacy of Western colonialism in the region.

White House National Security Adviser Anthony Lake has denounced those arguments in the past and has argued that the United States, with its diversity of cultures, should be able to act as a bridge between the differing systems.

Administration officials said Clinton chose to emphasize the theme in his speech in part to lend support to those who have tried to build a pluralistic society in Jordan, but also in hopes of using the momentum of the current peace process to further a basic strategy of offering support to moderates within the Arab and Islamic worlds.

In keeping with the idea that the United States can serve as a bridge, Clinton pointed out that "every day in our own land, millions of our citizens answer the Muslim call to prayer." Their values "are in harmony with the best of America's ideals," he declared.

Instead of a conflict between religious systems or cultures, Clinton said, the Middle East faces a clash between "forces that transcend civilizations; a contest between tyranny and freedom, terror and security, bigotry and tolerance, isolation and openness."

"Those forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, on poverty, on despair," he said, and he pledged additional U.S. assistance to develop the economies of Jordan and other nations that commit to peace.

The centerpiece of the economic development effort would be a new Middle East Bank for Cooperation and Development--an institution that would include the Arabs and Israel, excluding nations such as Iran, Iraq and Libya that have refused to join the peace process.

The bank would fund regional, multinational efforts such as building water projects or power grids.

U.S. officials have discussed the possibility of such a bank before and have been in negotiations with European countries and the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf to determine how much of the bank's initial capital each nation would contribute.

Officials hope that Clinton's public endorsement of the idea will move the effort forward.

Clinton's speech came near the end of an 18-hour day that began in Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, then moved on to the barren Arava Valley, north of Aqaba, where he witnessed the signing of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel. After a few hours of rest at a government guest palace here, Clinton plans to move on today to Syria for meetings with President Hafez Assad and then to Israel for more meetings and a speech to the Knesset.

The schedule, coupled with the desert heat and dust, left Clinton looking exhausted and red-eyed by day's end. Aides said the schedule had taken some toll on him, but that he was excited by the momentous events overtaking the region.

While the schedule has been grueling, it has had some comforts.

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