Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue – a Tool of Security Policy

An Intervention by Walter Schwimmer, Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” made at the “Democratic Security Based on European Unity and Cooperation” Conference of the Chairpersons of Parliamentary Committees on Foreign Affairs of the Council of Europe Member States on February 8-10, 2016 in Sofia, Bulgaria

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Immediately after the horrendous terrorist attacks of 9/11 I initiated as Secretary General of the Council of Europe in remembrance of the victims a special service which took place in Strasbourg Cathedral. It was a moving service, jointly celebrated by the representatives of the main Christian churches, and also addressed by leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities of Strasbourg. This was a most impressive demonstration of unity against those who by committing these crimes not only sought to kill but also wished to shatter our confidence in our values. It demonstrated also the spirit of tolerance and mutual respect which we need when we are faced with nearly the same challenges.

Europe and its neighbors face of course similar challenges in this fast globalizing world and we need to prepare our societies to deal with them. The right answers are essential. The challenges to our future – global terrorism tries to hi-jack religion, the poverty gap is growing, financial mismanagement in one country has suddenly global impacts, the threats to environment and climate and not to forget migration flows that get out of control – require a collective regional, international and global response. Facing these challenges, if we take our responsibility seriously, leaves no space for what was called by an American author “the clash of civilizations”. On the contrary, civilizations are jointly challenged. Terrorism is not the result of one civilization opposing or attacking another one, no, it is an attack on all civilizations. The problem of poverty is not only a problem of poor regions or countries, no it’s a problem of the prosperous countries too and keeping the economy moving concerns not only the developed countries. The threats to climate and our natural resources are threats to the future of all of us. And migration flows need joint action of the countries of origin, transit and destination in a spirit that goes beyond the mentality of a besieged fortress. This all needs global thinking and global solidarity.

Yes, we are still sometimes divided on the responses to common challenges. The refugee wave to Europe does not only create mercy and compassion but also selfishness, stereotypes and prejudices. Some of us are tempted to find convenient enemies, thereby feeding all sorts of phobias and hatred. But we should not be distracted from the pressing challenges of ensuring peace, sustainable development, human dignity and democracy, because they are the keys to any effective answer. We need each other and probably more so than ever in these difficult times since “9-11” which seem to culminate in terror attacks from Djakarta to Sinai, from Istanbul to Paris.  

Therefore I am grateful to the organizers for having invited me and for giving me the opportunity to speak on “Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue - Tool of Security Policy”.  This topic is very close to my heart since my days as Secretary General of the Council of Europe and now particular in my capacity as Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, an international NGO dedicated to the promotion of mutual understanding and respect, to dialogue as a tool of security, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. 

Terrorist acts violate our most fundamental rights, just as they offend our deepest religious beliefs. They must be condemned and repressed with utmost vigor. But we also have to ensure that our response to terrorism upholds our values. There is the need to avoid undermining or even destroying our values on the grounds of defending them.

I am very proud that in that spirit the Council of Europe issued on my initiative “Guidelines on human rights and the fight against terrorism”. While stressing States’ duty to protect citizens from terrorist assaults on democracy and human rights, they recall that certain rights may not be derogated from under any circumstances. They further call for reasonable and proportionate measures. These guidelines are more topical than ever and they are still unique until today.

It is further important for states to refrain from actions, which are likely to further fuel terrorism, such as using quasi-terrorist means or closing all avenues for negotiations. In my view it would also be wrong to fall into the trap of terrorists by declaring war on them. First of all, terrorists and their illegal entities are never on equal footing with democratic states.  Declaring war on them is to some extent an official recognition of their illegal and criminal entity. Secondly, the terminology of war helps the terrorists who are in need of an enemy to finding legitimization. “They are declaring war on us, therefore you have to join our forces in this Holy War”. We should refrain for giving them this argument for their satanic propaganda. 

And it is essential that the root causes of terrorism be addressed. In this respect,  I started in the Council of Europe an ambitious program for intercultural and interreligious dialogue and I still do not get tired to appeal to invest in education, confidence-building, action against social exclusion, integration of migrants, etc., and also and in particular to fight stereotypes, all kind of xenophobia, anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia, intolerance and discrimination. And I have been convinced, that Europe cannot do this alone and on its own only. I was the first Secretary General of the Council of Europe, today a 47 member states organization, to attend and to address the Summit of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, I invited the then Secretary General of the Arab League, my friend Amr Mussa, to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and we started cooperation with ISESCO, an organization which builds like the Council of Europe so much on education, science and culture.  Now I have joined the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” which is globally promoting inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue through mutual respect.  Education and work with young people is also high on the agenda of this organization.

Looking to our common challenges and also opportunities it is my deep conviction that we have much more in common than many people in our countries think. Unfortunately people too often look first at differences and what may divide us than to what may unite us.

Diversity within and between our societies should be seen as an asset, not as an obstacle. We must learn to learn from each other.

Europe itself contains a wide diversity of nations, cultures, religions, minorities. Europe this is 48 states, 200 languages, several religious denominations Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, even Buddhist, Latin, Germanic, Slavic, Ottoman traditions and others. Since 2004 a Semitic language, Maltese, is one of the official languages of the European Union. There has been always an interaction with our neighbors in the East and in the South. During the time of the Roman Empire the Mediterranean was called “mare nostrum” – our sea.  The Arabs, who came to Spain and ruled the major part of the peninsula as “Al Andalus” brought a very valuable legacy back to Europe, the heritage of the great Greek philosophers. 

In times of rising xenophobia and intolerance we have to recall the positive experiences with the wide diversity of nations, cultures and religions in Europe and the Mediterranean. I am convinced that it was exactly this diversity which helped to create a European cultural identity, to achieve so much in sciences and arts and finally to develop step by step also a European political identity. Council of Europe as well as the European Union are based on this new European political identity, are based on the concept of “Unity in Diversity”. And this very specific identity includes the obligation to share the achievements and to get friends with the neighbors.

Europe has learned to some extent, often after tragic historical experiences, to develop responses to today’s challenges based on a joint commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I do not hesitate to admit that this is sometimes still not very easy and for sure not yet completed. In particular, certain events and developments, such as terrorist attacks but also the refugee wave, provide fertile ground for nurturing extremism, intolerance and racism which take hold insidiously, like an illness which is diagnosed only after its effects have become visible – i.e. too late. Therefore we have to speak out before in due time!

The responses, which we learned from this experience and which are increasingly elaborated together with civil society, build on universal values reflected in fundamental texts of the United Nations which are our common heritage.

So the European commitment to these global responses should include good neighborhood and a real partnership with our neighbors in facing common challenges.

I mentioned already the title of Samuel P. Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations” which is frequently quoted, but as I realized, very often by people who did not even read it. Time and again, I have repeated my own conviction that the current problems do not reflect a clash of civilizations but a clash of ignorance. I strongly believe that we can together afford bridging the understanding gap between Islamic nations and the so-called West. That is a prerequisite for starting our joint efforts to build a better world. Fundamentalism is not limited to one religion only. We should pay special attention to the danger of an increase of Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and simple xenophobia and fight fundamentalism and intolerance wherever we see it.

Of course, I did not claim that this diversity never poses problems. Problems do arise, such as incidents of Islamophobia, and issues concerning fundamental freedoms, equality between women and men, as well as failed integration of migrants.  But it is my deep conviction that our societies are strong enough, our democratic system is strong enough to respond to these challenges, to solve these problems.

There are other pressing issues too.

Increased attention to unsolved conflicts may be deemed an important priority in the fight against terrorism. We should attach particular importance to the restoration of human rights and the rule of law that should in turn facilitate any political settlement in various conflict areas around the world.

The Iraq war is – as we can daily realize – not over.  Syria is nearly totally destroyed by a war of everybody against everybody. Afghanistan is still day by day the source of bad news. Unfortunately, I could continue this list with many other countries too, in particular in Africa.

As regards the Middle East, I would recall the steady support of Europe for the “road map” and that we see the return to the rule of law and the respect for the legal authorities of the Palestinians as part of the democratic and peaceful alternative to violence and terrorism. Fighting brought only suffering and no solution. There can be no military solution. Only reconciliation and mutual recognition will bring an end to this conflict.

What can we do in this sea of troubles beside keeping our optimism and sticking to our ideals?

We, our partners and neighbors and the Europeans, can jointly re-examine history teaching in order to overcome ignorance and prejudice.

In the same spirit, we should assess the way young people are made aware of religious diversity as a contribution to the intercultural and inter-religious dialogue as the alternative to the clash of ignorance. Education plays a key role in inculcating basic knowledge and promoting empathy about religious diversity as well as democratic practices. Let us engage in the development of standard curricula that should help teachers all over our globe to do precisely that. Becoming aware of the existence of other faiths and of their main features must become an indispensable part of any education in order to limit prejudice and hostility.

Religion and democracy have in common the goal of peace and the concept of recognition and respect for others.  In today’s world it should mean all the others, without any further categories, distinctions or discriminations.

Let me stress another important aspect of this topic before I come to the end of my speech. We all are in favor of the dialogue of civilizations and the inter-faith dialogue. So usually at such conferences we are preaching to the already converted. But let me ask a question to you: who shall be the partners of this dialogue? The intergovernmental organizations and states that are organizing such conferences and sending their representatives? The high authorities of the religious denominations, Muftis and Imams, Cardinals, Metropolitans and Chief Rabbis? Of course, I welcome their participation and their support for the intercultural and interreligious dialogue.  But what will be essential for a success is the strong involvement of civil society and in particular of the youth. To coordinate civil society activities is a particular mandate given to me by the President of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, Vladimir Yakunin.

Let me repeat here what I used to say frequently to my fellow Europeans: “The European project cannot be defined along narrowly construed cultural, religious, historic, geographic or even ethnic lines.

The project of political Europe is first and foremost based on values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, of mutual respect for equality and human dignity.” The same applies in a more and more globalized world to our common project of a better world.

I would like to see such an enlarged global project of shared values of democracy, tolerance, mutual understanding, human dignity and human rights and the rule of law, national and international law. 

By concluding let me stress once again my conviction, that valuing diversity and linking diversity through a shared commitment to fundamental values are keys to stable societies, free of fear and free of terrorism.

The observation, the practice of these fundamental values are in the long run the best tools for safeguarding security. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. Let us defend and protect freedom, equality, dignity and rights together.

Thank you for your attention.