(CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the appointment of Washington's first-ever special envoy to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference will help to promote principles that Muslims and non-Muslims alike "hold dear," such as human rights, liberty and the rule of law.
"These are not American values or Western values," she told OIC ambassadors in Washington on Monday. "They are universal values, values that are lived and practiced by the majority of Muslims in the world, many of whom are citizens of democracies."
Fourteen of the OIC's 57 members qualify as "electoral democracies," according to criteria applied by Freedom House in its latest report on freedom in the world. None are Arab states.
And only six of the 57 -- Benin, Guyana, Indonesia, Mali, Senegal and Suriname -- are deemed "free" according to a Freedom House evaluation that scores nations for both political rights and civil liberties, and classifies them as "free," "partly free" or "not free."
Sada Cumber, the man appointed by President Bush to serve as the first U.S. envoy to the OIC, acknowledged that he will have his work cut out for him.
"I will be advocating American interest on a range of hard issues from Iraq to Palestinian issue to nuclear issues," he told the OIC ambassadors and others gathered at the State Department ceremony.
"While I do not expect to always reach consensus on ever issue, but I do hope and pray and desire that we can foster a climate of mutual respect and trust," the Pakistani-born Texas businessman added.
Rice told the ceremony that the envoy's appointment was part of a broader administration effort to increase its engagement with Muslims worldwide.
He would combat misperceptions about the U.S. that are spread by America's enemies, she said.
"The notion that the United States is at war with Islam ... is simply propagated by violent extremists who seek to divide Muslim communities against themselves, to judge who is and who is not a pious Muslim and to commit any atrocity, even against their fellow Muslims, to impose an intolerant ideology on their societies," Rice said.
"The OIC plays a vital role in promoting moderation, dialogue and understanding and we welcome the statements that this organization has made in support of those values."
Established in 1969, and with its secretariat based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the OIC groups 56 independent countries plus "Palestine."
The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a top priority, and enhancing Islamic solidarity its stated goal, although over the decades it has also faced frequent crises within its ranks, such as during the Iran-Iraq War, a 10-year conflict between Libya and Chad, and the Persian Gulf War.
In the years since 9/11, the OIC's focus has increasingly turned to relations between the West and Islam, the campaign against Islamist terrorism, and episodes of what it calls "Islamophobia," such as the publication by Danish newspapers in 2005 of 12 cartoons satirizing Mohammed.
The OIC holds summits of heads of state every three years, with the 11th due to take place later this week in Dakar, Senegal.
OIC considers terms used by Bush, Rice to be 'Islamophobic'
One of Cumber's first tasks in his new role will be to attend the conference, which secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu says aims to prioritize Islamophobia.
Many Muslims have been angered by the republication last month of the Mohammed cartoons, earlier sketches by a Swedish artist depicting Mohammed as a dog, and a Dutch lawmaker's plans to release a short film critical of the Koran.
Since the original Mohammed cartoon furor, the OIC has led a campaign to have the defamation of religion and "prophets" outlawed.
It cites as a guiding document the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, a controversial text signed by OIC members in 1990 that says all human rights and freedoms must be subjected to Islamic law (shari'a).
/tx180"Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the shari'a," it says.
Ihsanoglu, a Turk who has headed the OIC secretariat since 2005, said the Senegal summit would discuss the inaugural report drawn up by an OIC committee tasked to monitor Islamophobia.
According to a report in Turkey's Today's Zaman newspaper on Tuesday, the committee's report will suggest ways of combating Islamophobia, including "explaining to Westerners that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and correcting bias and misunderstandings about Islam."
The report says while Islamophobia has been around for as long as Islam, it has "assumed alarming proportions" in recent years.
"Defamation of Islam and racial intolerance of Muslims in Western societies are on the rise."
The OIC's definition of what constitutes Islamophobia goes beyond sketches and critical films, however, and even includes terminology that has become widely used in recent years such as "Islamic terrorism," "radical Islam" and "Islamo-fascism."
President Bush has publicly used the expressions "radical Islam" and "Islamo-fascism," while Rice has addressed "Islamic terrorism" and Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain speaks frequently about "radical Islam."
"Slogans such as 'Islamo-fascism,' 'Islamic terrorism' and 'radical Islam' are manifestations of and justifications for provocations and systematic insults against Islam," OIC ambassadors at the United Nations said in a Feb. 29 statement.
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