President Mohammad Khatami of Iran last week branded as extremist Osama bin Laden's version of Islam and said it did not represent the majority of the world's 1.2-billion Muslims.
"I don't believe that his message really resonates strongly in the Muslim world," Khatami said in an interview with the New York Times, his first with an American publication since assuming the presidency in 1997. "Public opinion in the Muslim world in general wants peace, security and stability and the right to defend their religion and their freedom."
Khatami, who is in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, made his remarks less than a week after bin Laden issued a videotaped message in which he attacked the organization and denounced as infidels Muslim leaders who cooperate with it.
Heedless of the threat, Khatami addressed the General Assembly Friday.
"The horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States were perpetrated by a cult of fanatics who had self-mutilated their ears and tongues, and could only communicate with perceived opponents through carnage and devastation," he said.
The Iranian leader, a mid rank Shiite cleric who has studied philosophy, has harshly criticized those who have sought to portray Islam as a religion of hate opposed to the West.
Islam should not be blamed by what he called "extremist movements and terrorist movements around the world," Khatami said in the interview, adding that "Islam brings a message of peace for humanity."
He is also eager to promote Iran's Islamic republic as proof that Islamic government can be, in his words, "a good model for all Islamic countries."
"There are two ways to look at religion," he said. "One is the extremist, narrow-minded approach to religion which is inhumane, and the second is an interpretation of Islam based on wisdom. God willing, as God has wanted for us, all of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, everyone, can interpret religion in a free manner based on wisdom and foresight to protect our religion as well as to provide peace for our region."
He blamed "dirty hands" that "want to stir negative feelings against the West in the Muslim world and against Muslims in the West," adding, "So we must strongly prevent a clash among civilizations and religions and the spread of hatred."
But he stressed that Iran had not been provided with proof of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11.
"We have not been given any clear or written evidence in this regard," he said. "Some activities attached to these people or these groups have carried out acts no doubt that can be interpreted as acts of terrorism, but in this particular respect we have no evidence except this speculation that has been made and statements made about having the evidence."
Khatami faces an uphill battle in criticizing others for promoting terrorism. Iran is listed by the State Department as the world's most active state supporter of terrorism, largely because of its arming of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah and its material support for the Palestinian groups Hamas and for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Khatami categorically rejected charges that Iran supports terrorism, as he has done consistently in the past. "This is one of the injustices of the U.S. against us," he said.
Despite his condemnation of bin Laden, the Iranian president also called for an end to the military campaign in Afghanistan "as soon as possible," warning that a long war would "lead to more suffering and pain for the people of Afghanistan."
But he made no attempt to deny Iran's military, logistical and financial support for the Afghan Northern Alliance, which the United States has backed militarily in its war against the de facto Taliban government. Iran is opposed to Taliban rule, which it considers a perversion of Islam, and Khatami said the Northern Alliance was the "legitimate transitional government" that is recognized by the United Nations and has diplomatic representation in many countries.