Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to begin by congratulating father Paolo
Dall’Oglio and the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian in Syria for the Euro
Med Award for Dialogue between Cultures and, more importantly, for the
inspirational work they have done to further a greater rapprochement with Islam
by ”reinventing the positive relationship that existed between the first
Muslims and the Christian monks on the borders of the Arabian deserts”, as
Father Dall’Oglio has put it.
In recent years, the search for effective means of
reconciling cultural differences has risen to the top of the international
agenda. Even in the context of the war on terrorism, it has been acknowledged
that international terrorism cannot be opposed by military means alone and that
political, social, legal and economic measures are needed for long-term
Reconciling cultural differences is a topical issue
not only in the international context – particularly between the Islamic world
and the Western World – but also increasingly within societies in different
parts of the world, certainly within many European countries. Although the road
to reconciliation is very different at these two levels, sustainable solutions
can only be found through respecting cultural diversity.
Religious differences are at the heart of cultural
differences. Whereas after World War II, religion as a social force seemed to
be weakening, since the 1980s and again since the fall of the Communist block
this trend has reversed. Religion has increasingly become both a political
force and a source of identity.
At the international level, much of the mistrust
between particularly Western countries and countries in the Middle-East which
has grown since 9/11, is due to the difficulty of the Western world to see that,
as with all other religions, Islam has a number of very different streams, only
a few of them violent and only a small minority justifying a confrontational
response. I have always stressed that our challenge to fight intolerance and
fanaticism irrespective of the ideology or religion this is associated
In order to start reconciling the differences between
Islamic countries and the West, I believe that we need a discriminating
strategy that takes account of the diversity of outlooks within political
Islamism. Many of the Islamist movements have a strong anti-western agenda,
particularly with regard to the present conflicts in the Middle-East and how
the “war against terror” is being conducted, but taking a critical view on
these issues does not necessarily make these movements anti-democratic. Indeed,
there is a diversity of movements that are non-violent, subscribe to democratic
processes and methods in politics, and advocate their policies by taking part
in elections, where possible.
At the national level, especially in the European
context, the greatest challenge for reconciling cultural differences lies in
integrating populations of immigrant origin to their new host societies and
providing them with equal possibilities.
Contrary to common belief, European populations of
immigrant origin have been rapidly and effectively incorporated to their new
host societies, but this incorporation has not necessarily led to
successful integration, as more often than not, migrants have found
their places at the margins of the labour market, faced persisting xenophobia
and their offspring (the second and subsequent generations) have partially
failed to climb the social ladders of education, professional development and
welfare – all signs of the failure of national policies regarding migrants.
Within the past fifty or so
years, a new generation of European Muslims has emerged, which has resulted in
a new way of thinking and talking about the nature of Islamic communities here.Old concepts that divided the world into two hostile camps – Islamic vs.
non-Islamic – are outdated and need to be reviewed. Religious principles should not be confused with the culture of
origin: European Muslims should be Muslim instead of forever remaining North
African, Pakistani or Turkish Muslims. Active citizenship and the development
of a European Islamic culture need to be encouraged.
European governments need to create conditions
propitious for the growth of Muslim thinking which would reflect the realities
of European democratic and egalitarian societies. To achieve this, governments
should focus on creating conditions for Muslims to build their human and
organisational capacities to represent their own interests democratically and
effectively within civil society. European governments should encourage
moderate Muslim voices by engaging especially with democratically elected
bodies that represent faith and minority groups. In other words, European
Muslims should be empowered and anchored in the European reality.
As religious identities in general, and especially
Muslim identities, have become politicized, religion has become one of the most
important arenas for social negotiations regarding integration and social
inclusion, where all kinds of issues are discussed, with or without the use of
religious language. One of the greatest difficulties in secular European states
has been the acceptance of ”religious” demands of immigrants as
legitimate, even though they might eventually not be so different, were those
claims to be ”translated” into secular language. Claims by ethnic and
”racial” groups, for example, are more easily accepted.
There are no simple solutions to complex social
phenomena, but there are several ways to improve mutual understanding and
coexistence. Strong legal means of protecting religions from insults, unless it
is a question of hate speech, do not seem realistic alternatives.
Calls and cries for dialogue over perceived
civilization, cultural, ethnic and religious boundaries have been many in recent
years. There is certainly a need to find a new status quo regarding tolerance and understanding of a changed world
through all possible means, including education for combating ignorance,
stereotypes and misunderstanding of religions.
Through the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and
Democracy, facilitated by the Governments of Finland and Tanzania, we have
tried to address this and several other global challenges through
multi-stakeholder dialogue, which I believe is the only way to find lasting solutions
to urgent problems in our globalised world. During the course of last summer,
two roundtables were organised to discuss how to promote political
participation as an alternative to extremism, and to explore the role of
religions in promoting reconciliation and sustainable peace.
The first roundtable, hosted by HRH Prince el Hassan
bin Talal of Jordan, highlighted the importance of developing inclusive
governance structures in order to find lasting solutions to the various
conflicts in the greater Middle-East region. Involving different stakeholders –
civil society, the private sector as well as religious actors and organisations
– would be crucial in order to work at the grass roots level and engage in
constructive dialogue those who dominate the streets of communities and the
minds of majorities.
The Second roundtable, organised during the World
Assembly of WCRP (World Conference of Religions for Peace), built on the
discussions of the Amman roundtable and focused in particular on the role of
religions and religious leaders in creating sustainable peace and reconciling
cultural differences. The meeting noted that the involvement of religious
leaders and organisations in peace processes may not be an instrument for
resolving conflicts in the short term, but they could help in longer term
processes such as building trust, breaking cycles of revenge, and preventing
religion from being hijacked and mobilized as a weapon in ongoing and future
conflicts. The meeting also underlined the important role religious communities
could and should have in interreligious education. The work of Father
Dall’Oglio and the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian are a living testament
to the effectiveness of such efforts.
In my view, these roundtables highlighted several
important issues we need to consider. Religious communities need to discuss
freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs within their own
community and to pursue a dialogue with other religious communities in order to
develop a common understanding of religious tolerance. Also, media
professionals and their professional organizations should discuss media ethics
with regard to religious beliefs and sensitivities, and to develop their own
codes of conduct in this respect.
European countries should seek to engage themselves in
a dialogue with mainstream Muslims both internationally as well as nationally.
If we wish our voice to be heard by the Muslims we will have to listen to
Muslims abroad as well as domestically. In the international fora, in the post
caricature world, we have to seek engagement with governments and
intergovernmental bodies, the civil society, religious and spiritual leaders as
well as intellectuals. It is also
important that we develop a non-emotive lexicon for discussing the issues in
order to avoid linking Islam to terrorism.
Many kinds of efforts are needed, but it must not be
forgotten that public conflicts and discourse over religion also reflect a
reality outside the realm of religion and freedom of expression. Dialogue may
be useful, but it does not cure the illnesses of social reality, such as
unemployment, feelings of unworthiness and marginalization. Social problems
facing many Europe’s migrant populations cannot be changed by discussion, but
With these thoughts I wish to
you all, in the Anna Lindh Foundation and all National Networks, best success
in your valuable work to increase understanding between cultures and religions
in the Euro-Mediterranean region.