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Secular Europe and European Muslims

16.12.2008 12:44

In September, 2006 Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, hosted International Conference “Dialogue of Cultures And Inter-Faith Cooperation” which brought together representatives of Council of Europe and religious leaders of traditional confessions in Russia. It was surely a perfect opportunity to learn how secular Europeans perceive the problem of Muslim integration in European states and to learn whether actually do they see it as a problem at all.

René van der LINDEN, President of PACE

N.V.: Do you consider the European experience of co-existence of different nations to prove Samuel Huntington’s idea of the inevitability of clash of civilizations or the refute it?

R..L.: I don’t believe in the necessity of the clash of civilizations because all human beings are in a way have the same feelings, the same desire for family lives, for a lucky life, peace. I’m really not convinced as a politician that the clash of civilizations will take place. Of course, there are pressures but they are caused rather by the misconceptions, mistrust because there is not real dialogue and neither good understanding and there is always the lack of trust. And trust is always the most important thing. With trust we can get a lot of meetings to share experiences, views among people. But on the other hand you see that some people feel excluded, feel discriminated. They live in poverty and these are conditions that inevitably create tensions. That’s why I underline here that human dignity is the first and foremost human right. To my mind it’s important that the Western world would be able to support further development plans in the regions that are underdeveloped, where people have no chance to live in dignity and who have very bad perspectives.

N.V.: But many of them tend to think that in Europe there is no future for them because people will continue live in ghettos, continue being pressed…

R.L.: I agree that they live in ghettos — not everywhere and not all of them. But I don’t agree that there is no future for them because on the one hand it’s their fault and on the other side it’s the fault of the member-states on the Western part because they have given too little attention to the conditions in which people have to integrate. You never can integrate, you never can have a job unless you can speak the language and you can communicate. Then another thing is education. It is the best instrument to make progress in integration and make progress in being and integral part of the society. And in the past in France, where I live, and in other countries newcomers came to do the very simple jobs. And for them at that time it was a progress. But they didn’t become the members of the society, they didn’t create conditions and as a result they didn’t have perspectives for their children.

To my mind now politicians and the government is much more aware that a lot has to be done from both sides to integrate — not to assimilate: you can keep your own religion, but you have to integrate into the society if you want to stay for a lifetime.

N.V.: Then why did some of the European leaders oppose to Muslim dominated Turkey enter the European Union?

R.L.: For a different reason. I’m in favour of the attraction of Turkey under conditions, of course. And Turkey has fulfilled the conditions to become a member — that means freedom of expression, freedom of religion, no torture in prisons and so on. And these conditions are equal for all candidate-states and Turkey here is no exception. So some people are hesitating about the Turkey or even opposing it because in the first place it’s a new huge country. And they have been discussing this issue for about 15 years since early 90’s. The second question here is whether European Union can adopt a new member-state of about 80 million people which on social and economic level of development is much behind. But to my mind it’s important for all reasons, for political reasons in particular, since it’s the bridge between the Middle East and Europe, since it’s the first real democracy in Muslim world to show that there are common values that are shared also by Turkey — the respect of all the freedoms and so on.

N.V.: But it’s different in Russia because the Tatars have been living in this area long before Slavic nation and Christianity came here. And now they are being oppressed, there are no Tatar national schools while Russia has adopted European convention of national minorities.

R.L.: In my country people speak different languages but in schools we teach Netherlands. But in the streets, and at home people speak their own language. I personally speak at home Dutch with my wife — only my own language. On TV we also have programs in this language and we have traditions and songs in this language. So it depends on how many Tatars there are here. To my mind the most important thing here to my mind is whether you have the feeling that you can practice your own language, traditions, your own religion, your own religion.

Mr. Thomas Hammarberg Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in Council of Europe

N.V.: Mr. Hammarberg, European community now faces the necessity to integrate Muslim immigrants. The question is whether the newcomers should strive to assimilate or rather try to keep their ethnic and religious identity?

Т.Н.: It’s not only the question of how they do it. It’s also a question of what the majority does to the newcomers. I think that there’s a phenomenon of islamophobia in Europe today which I see and which is very dangerous. And there is a great necessity today for the majority to be more open-minded when it comes to respecting Islam as a religion. In fact Islam today is the second religion in Europe and there are millions of Muslims already in Europe and it’s a question of learning to live and respect one another and solving problems when it comes to permit to build mosques. In my country, in Sweden we have problems but in other European countries there are such problems as well. It is very negative because it hurts people who come with a Muslim background. So that has to go, that has to be open-minded and respect Islamic background and that’s number one. For the Muslims coming I hope that they need not make a choice between assimilating in the majority society and their own religion.

N.V.: Is there a way to find a compromise?

Т.Н.: They must have possibility to combine. If they are met with the respect then I think they have a better possibility to find their place in this society, become a part of this society but to have their own nerve — religion that is respected in this society. I don’t think that it’s an either or sort of thing and it’s not just the question of them and the majority society. Problem today is in the majority society.

N.V.: How do they solve this problem in Europe? Eventually Europeans are not happy with newcomers especially of those with Muslim background…

Т.Н.: No, they are not. There is Islamophobic tendency very clearly today. We see that in the possibility of Turkey being a member of European Union. And I think that the resistance against it in France, Austria and Germany — these are the tree countries objecting to it — is mainly based on a sort of a fear of too many Muslims in this society. This is based on lack of knowledge of Islamic backgrounds, prejudices which to me means that the major measure against this problem and action needed is education of the majority population what Islamic culture is about and the background of those who are coming. Education, education, education. The basic problem of xenophobia is lack of knowledge, and unfortunately leading politicians are playing with this fear of the newcomers and Islam for electoral purposes and they have to stop that. Leading politicians should agitate and preach for tolerance and mutual understanding and cooperation between people and not exploit fears. That’s dangerous.

N.V.: Should Muslim states have the right to enter EU in your opinion?

Т.Н.: There’s a geographical problem. The core of Europe are already members. Bosnia and Herzegovina is theologically Muslim, and then we have Turkey. No other Muslim candidate state has come up. But if we do, that would be not Africa for instance, that would be the widening of the concept. But the immediate problem that Europe has today is Turkey. And I very much hope that Turkey would be able to come to respecting human rights.

N.V.: How do Human rights work in European army and prisons? Do people there have a possibility to eat halal or kosher food, for instance?

Т.Н.: This is a very relevant and important question. Freedom of religion is one of the most sacred human rights. Everyone should be free to have and practice a religion. Frankly, I have the impression that there are problems on precisely this enormous issue in the Council of Europe. When this freedom is not respected there will be tensions in society; those discriminated will naturally tend to react.

It is important that we are going to grant three more religions also with the possibility to practice their religious duties wherever they are and whatever the situation they find themselves in. They can do it in institutions from hospitals and mental asylums to prisons. This is not always granted. And this is obviously one of the points that we will have to presume. When we look at the reality and it comes to technical appliance of the freedom of religion.

Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Director General of Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport and Coordinator for Intercultural Dialogue of the Council of Europe

N.V.: How serious is interconfessional conflicts threat in European countries nowadays and what part, if any, could Muslims play in it? Do you think that events in France last autumn and similar tragedies are rather a result of social and demographic processes or they yet may be linked to global intercivilization conflict?

G.D.: I don’t think that there is a problem at the level of religious leaders at all. In fact they are now being used to coming together and discuss and to see what role they can play in promoting human rights and democracy and participation etc. In European countries, as far as I can see, they are very open coming together in order to find solutions and to really make clear the message that they are all mobilized to promote the idea that they don’t want anyone against the other. I don’t see any problems coming from religious leaders. As for common people, very often there is misconception or lack of understanding of “the others”. Аnd because of this ignorance people in the streets, very simple people just because they do not know enough they tend to refuse “the other”. So what is very important is the role of education in terms of teaching religious facts, making people understand what is “the other” on the one side. On the other side it’s about the role of the media, of course. So if we focus our attention at what we can do in order to disseminate this information that is indispensable to better know the other and to appreciate.

N.V.: Is religion taught in public schools?

G.D.: Yes, of course. In a number of countries religion is taught. As a matter of fact not just one religion but there is one hour or two hours per week that are dedicated to history of religions, religious facts, traditions, etc. And this takes place in such a manner that it is not just one religion — exclusively Christianity or exclusively Islam or exclusively Judaism — but it is a classroom period that is dedicated alternatively to different religions so that the purpose is not to replace religious leaders or priests or muftis or rabbis or whoever. The purpose is to bring the information that is needed in order to even create a sort of interest in the young of religious practices of the other. Explaining for instance why one people celebrate Christmas and others do not, what is Ramadan and so on, so that the children among themselves or within one classroom don’t become biased of the others and their dignity.

N.V.: Are any other religions taught along with these three traditional religions?

G.D.: For the moment I would say that these are three major monotheistic religions that dominate in Europe. But if we are able to deal with the three monotheistic religions, if Buddhism, for example becomes an important, a significant religion in Europe nothing exclude from the principle of admitting that Buddhism should also be included. So I would say that it’s a matter of statistics since three monotheistic basic religions are predominantly present. And also there are small examples here and there in some of our countries there are other religions that are taught as a matter of history. But Buddhism has not received at the moment in Europe that much attention like monotheistic religion and that is clear.

N.V.: Would it be right to say that Russia can show Europe example?... while in London there are 300 mosques…

G.D.: We are very interested to find out what are the premises, prerequisites that enable a country like Russia manage its ethnic diversity, with its more than 150 ethnic groups, with their different languages, different religions, to define that these people were living, working together on a daily basis without having hatred or hostility towards other ethnic groups, or linguistic groups or religious groups etc. This is exactly what we are after, but we have to start it all over. Your experience is indeed a very interesting subject for our society today. And the fact that Russia has succeeded for a long time to manage with all these differences and take benefit of it, it is certainly a must learn. And in Europe today where we get more and more migrant workers we have diversity and the issue is how to integrate this diversity and how to manage and be respectful to them without having this tension in the society. So we are really enjoying very much this opportunity at the legal level but also at the cultural one, and with religious leaders and with Russian authorities.

N.V.: Do you think that events in France last autumn and similar tragedies are rather a result of social and demographic processes or they yet may be linked to global intercivilization conflict?

G.D.: For my perception it is clear that these events were rather linked to the fact that these young people did not share the kinds of the society in which they live. And what they were showing and saying is not that they do not want to live with the others. But the question is in the integration model of the society nowadays, and in France in particular. They indicated it very clearly that they do not share the values of the society that they find themselves in because this society as it seems to them is excluding them and putting them aside. And recently after these events the French government has taken a number of measures in order to counteract this situation in order to show to these people that they are indeed French people and that they have the same rights and that everything has to be done to proliferate access to basic rights also for these young people and not to exclude them. So I believe that it was not linked to religion it was more linked to incapability of integration model to integrate them.

Rosa Guerreiro, UNESCO Coordinator of Inter-cultural and Inter-religious Dialogue Programme

A.P.: Do you think that the theory of Huntington upon the clash of civilizations is the way for Europe?

R.G.: I believe in the future of all the people: of all ways of life – being them believers or nonbelievers or what ever they are if they genuinely willingly want to live together. The first and most important I would say resolution that everybody has to take together is that they have to act as responsible citizens of the society where everyone is equal and therefore they have responsibilities and also they have to learn now to have respectful knowledge of each other. If we come together with all these conditions I think I’m very hopeful for the future of Europe.

A.P.: But is integration a way of ghettoes or still assimilation?

R.G.: I think that Muslims should not live in ghettoes because they are part of the society and they need to feel that they are part of it, of the mainstream. That doesn’t mean that they are going to forget what they. I think it is very important to remember your roots, your ancestors. Important also because in Europe we have a chance of freedom of choice, a freedom of conviction: a person can change his conviction or religion and choose something else. The definition of the person that you are and the way of your psychological evolution is very important. But the most important of all is that everybody is equal. That means that everyone is responsible for the wellbeing of everybody. And this is a real way of avoiding all this getthoesation which finds place all over Europe. No communities should be forced to be marginalized because they are poor, belong to this or that faith or have different cultural traditions.

A.P.: But should they be supported by the state? Can migrants from Arabic states learn in their own language, for example?

R.G.: That’s a crucial question for every member of the human society wherever they come from is to learn from each other and to learn specific particular intercultural interfaith consequence which needs exactly first of all openness of the schools. Exactly something that in UNESCO we are trying to do — it’s for all schools to teach religious facts. We teach children religions but not as a credo or a faith but as a fact of knowledge as everything else. Historical, art, economic and social aspects of religions are taught in order to win religious ignorance illiterate that is a way for not understanding each other. In Europe – in Council of Europe and other governmental bodies — we have to think about that how to without gethoesation of the schools to get a really good balance and make know each other and stay schools far all and schools teaching all religions with their specific cultures. And than I think all the students will fill better and they will learn what Holy Scriptures stand for. And it’s a very big challenge because then you have to find a place to create certain curricula, courses, to have the right teachers training. We try to do some of these things in UNESCO and all over the world so that there could be true basic knowledge of religions.

A.P.: This year Russian Orthodox Church is pushing its initiative of tuition Orthodox culture in public schools. What would you comment upon this?

R.G.: I don’t think that only Russia has such problem and I’m sure that there is a need to rise awareness of discrimination. Ithink that intercultural and interfaith education is extremely important. Why it should be streamlined in our schools? Because otherwise since there are a lot of things taking place there can be anti-Semitism, islamophobia, chrisitanophobia. In many parts of the world, not only in Russia there is very much concern with these phenomena and how to fight against them.

I think they have to introduce all cultures, not just Orthodox because you have a very multicultural background in all Russian cities. Of course it’s very important not only to visit the heritage of each other going to mosques, churches and synagogues but also to have the understanding and the knowledge of the other religions. For instance, for Orthodox children it would be important to know of Islam, of other religions. And vice versa. It is important to learn how different religions interacted together in the past and how can they possibly interact at present.

As for education upon the whole, it’s exactly one of the issues that they were discussing that it’s absolutely necessary to teach religious facts which are not about the credo or the belief itself but it’s the religion with its culture around us. So it has to be on the same basis, not a single religion can be inferior or superior towards any other religion. Some countries were able to teach all religions and in some countries it’s simply impossible like in Middle East it’s quite impossible to even refer to another religion. But of course it’s quite different in Russia where there are so many Muslims alone. And besides you have come a long way. And I think that these conferences should contribute more and more to help solving these problems

A.P.: Being a European citizen, an expert on interfaith dialogue what would you advise to Russian people in terms of this particular kind of dialogue?

R.G.: I am bound to formulate it in a very hopeful manner because if you think about it some 5 or 7 years ago it wouldn’t be possible. People were still very much into the 70 years of atheism, they were just discovering their roots, their traditions and it was taking a long time. Now we are free to do what we feel we should be doing. So you’re catching up, you’re in the middle of the process of catching up but while this process is taking place you should act as one people, and not separate ones. You’re very fortunate to have all this religious diversity in Russia but you don’t have to use it to make one or another look different. You have to work for common goals, for the common well-being. We all are the citizens and that’s the first thing. We have people that come from different ways of life — Muslims, Jewish people, Orthodox and I think that it’s a very hopeful message.

A.P.: One more question concerning religious education. What is the particular UNESCO approach to teaching religious facts to children in schools?

R.G.: The course of the history of religions is no doubt very important because you have to know how they originated and what they borrowed from each other. So, it’s a very important element to have in mind. But it has a broader sense because we give guidelines and we have published some books with our regional offices, for example in Lebanon and already with some of our UNESCO chairs we have issued special games for children. And there was one of our chairs in Israel where they produced a fantastic game for children based on the 12th century Spain where each child had to put himself in the place of the other, meaning that a Jew had to play for a Muslim or a Christian and so forth. And they have to act and memorize historical facts and how they would behave if a mosque is being burnt or a church being thrown away or a synagogue or something like that. And that’s really very pedagogical and it has been translated into several languages — in German, in French, in Italian, in Spanish and even in Norwegian — because all schools should have possibility to benefit from it.

A.P.: Is it only for children?

R.G.: Of course it can be played be played by teenagers, even by ourselves. During the Oslo meeting a year ago we played among the participants and the experts and there were several people of different confessions, there were teachers from Israel, Iran, Palestine, and we sat in circles to play the game and for us it was more difficult than for the children because were are already grown-up people. And Iranian representatives said that they were going to take this game back to Iran and have it translated into Farsi because they have the same problems in their schools. So in Europe, in Africa, everywhere we have to have the same tools for understanding each other. Everywhere there is a lack of pedagogical tools because not everywhere they think about the needs of the children. And it’s important for the children to learn and at the very same time to also have fun; these things have to go together.

Interview by Natalya Vasilieva, Asya Plotkina

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