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Speech by Mr Thorbjørn Jagland,

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

2011 Exchange on the religious dimension of the intercultural dialogue

Luxembourg, 28 November 2011

 
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Minister,
Distinguished Ambassadors,
Honourable Guests and Dear Friends,
 
I am very pleased to be here today to open the 2011 Council of Europe Exchange on the Religious Dimension of Intercultural Dialogue, organised under the auspices of our Committee of Ministers.
 
Let me thank warmly Minister Asselborn and the Luxembourg authorities for their generous invitation to host this event in the beautiful surroundings of Neumünster Abbey.
 
The theme of your Exchanges over these two days is especially welcome since it brings together key issues to the Council of Europe’s work, namely inter-religious dialogue, and the role of media in fostering dialogue, tolerance and mutual understanding. As well as the balance we need to strike between fundamental rights - the right to freedom of expression and the right to religious freedom, including the right not to be subject to violence, hatred or discrimination on the grounds of one’s religion. 
 
Dear friends,
 
Let me start by recalling a fact which is sometimes forgotten in debates today – Europe has always been a place of diversity, including religious diversity. Europe has never been static in a cultural or demographical sense. The French historian, Jacques Le Goff, once defined Europe as a continuingly changing place, a place always in motion, never a closed circuit. 
 
We only have to glance through the history books of any of our member States to see the major role played by religion and religious beliefs in shaping our continent, both for good and – we cannot deny it – sometimes for the very worst that mankind could imagine. 
 


 

But this is what we must remember: that Europe is a place where nations, religions, cultures and people meet, mix and develop.   This constitutes our true identity. Properly managed, this diversity gives us great strength. Mismanaged, it risks weakening us greatly.
 
In the Council of Europe, this approach, based on respect for cultural and religious identities within a common framework of human rights values, is at the heart of the work we have been carrying out for some years on the question of inter-religious dialogue.
 
To give you some examples: we have translated this principle into our manuals on intercultural teaching in educational curricula, which are now being used in many schools, in particular in the Intercultural Cities network, and into a series of seminars organised between youth of different religious backgrounds.
 
Dear friends,
 
I am extremely concerned by the rise of intolerance and discrimination in Europe. Minorities like Roma, as well as Muslims, are being marginalised and stigmatised. Anti-Semitism is also on the rise in several countries.
 
It is generally accepted that such tendencies increase in times of economic difficulty, but even before the current crisis, xenophobic parties had been gaining popularity in many European countries. Our societies are becoming increasingly polarised. If this trend continues, it will soon present a very real and concrete danger to stability and security in Europe.
 
I note that there has been an significant increase in the number of cases before our Court of Human Rights concerning freedom of religion over the last decade. In particular issues related to the regulation of religious dress has given rise to much debate and tense discussion.
 
One issue of particular importance to the Council of Europe has been to protect the rights of religious minorities, which generally enjoy the same rights as ethnic minorities and the Roma people.  A fundamental issue for religious minorities concerns the manifestations of one's belief. There has, however, been an increasingly worrying trend throughout Europe of convictions for inciting hatred against Muslim communities and immigrants over the last few years.
 
This is the reason why I last year asked a group of nine experts, academics and former politicians under the leadership of Joschka Fischer to identify the threats to open societies and to put forward recommendations about how we can truly live together.
 

The conclusion of the report is very clear on two, basic points.

 
One, that our societies are very diverse; and two, that we are not very successful in managing that diversity.
 
The report aims to initiate a fundamental debate among 47 European states on how to transform diversity from a potential threat to a real benefit for our societies.
 
And what is of particular relevance to the conference here today, is that the report also recommends that the Council of Europe, on the basis of our highly influential 2008 White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, launches a process which will help the establishment of intercultural dialogue in all our member states. It also calls for a "junior edition" of the White Paper for use in primary and secondary schools, as well as in youth work.
 
I also note with interest that the report suggests that we establish a platform to improve our relations with high-level representatives of religions and non-denominational organisations.  Your Exchanges - of which this is the fourth - are a good model in this direction on which we can build.
 
As a concrete follow-up to this recommendation, I intend to attend the Council meeting of the European Council of Religious Leaders, which is part of the Religions for Peace, in Sarajevo, in May next year. Religions for Peace is the largest international coalition of representatives from all the world’s great religions, that try to get religious leaders to work more closely together to fight intolerance, discrimination and racism, as well as help stopping war and ending poverty.
 
To end up where I started, Europe’s diversity is multi-dimensional – religion is only one line of cleavage, sometimes coinciding with others (e.g. ethnicity), sometimes intersecting with them.
 
Where it does coincide with others, it can still be a source of division and conflict. The most flagrant recent examples in Europe are in the Balkans, but let’s not forget Northern Ireland, or the religious background of anti-Semitism. That gives a special obligation to religious leaders to work together to overcome such divisions and to stress what they have in common.
 
In western Europe we now have a large Muslim population, mainly of recent immigrant origin. This is a novelty for the countries in question, and the non-Muslim population is having some difficulty adjusting to it. Hostility to immigrants overlaps with specific prejudices against Islam and Muslims. The result is that, along with Roma and undocumented immigrants (and of course sometimes overlapping with the latter), Muslims probably face higher levels of hostility and discrimination than any other minority in Europe today.
 

This is aggravated by the fact that some Muslims react by placing greater emphasis on the religious elements in their identity, and affirming their faith in ways that seem to challenge some European traditions, or even universal values to which many Europeans are deeply attached - e.g. equality of men and women; freedom of expression, including even “blasphemy”; separation of religion from the state. Also, a very few Muslims have resorted to violence/terrorism to express their anger, which has provided an enormous backlash of media coverage and security precautions, often giving the impression that Islam as such is being equated with these actions.

This situation gives great urgency to the topic under discussion – the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe need to get to know each other much better. Non-Muslims, especially, need to get beyond stereotypes and discover their Muslim fellow-citizens as three-dimensional human beings, not statistics or stereotypes. Muslims need to gain greater confidence in their European as well as Muslim identity, and to show – not just say – that they feel fully comfortable in both. Both sides need to recognise the great contribution that Islam has made, historically, to European culture, and the myriad ways in which Muslims can and do contribute to the success and vibrancy of European societies today. And Muslims must not only accept, but also understand that Christendom is an important part of European culture.

 
Dialogue is very important, but perhaps for it to be really fruitful we need to go beyond it. Dialogue is to understand other people, and accept that they are different. Political debate is very much about winning points over others, but dialogue aims to overcome stereotypes and prejudices. Dialogue is not only a nice thing, it is hard work; it is demanding.
 
The Europe we have today has been shaped by conflicts and wars. The peace agreement in Augsburg in 1555 came as a result of the terrible religious wars.
 
Actually this was the beginning of the 30 years war that ended with peace in Westphalia in 1648.
 
From then on, European politics was based on the sovereignty of the nation state, which has been the basic principle for international politics to this very day.

The nation state still exists, but it has to redefine what citizenship is in the context of the diversity that now exists.
 
And again religion plays an important role. Members of religious communities, in particular their leaders, have to play an important role in defining what a nation state means today. The starting point could be based on the logic of a brochure from the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland with the title: “Klarheit und gute nachbarschaft”.