Wien, 29. Juni 2009 Rede/Interview

Opening speech by H.E. Michael Spindelegger - Symposium “Identity and Participation: Cross Cultural and Muslim Youth in Europe” (nur in Englisch)

Symposium “Identity and Participation: Cross Cultural 
and Muslim Youth in Europe”, DAK 29 – 30 June 2009

Opening speech
Dr. Michael Spindelegger
Federal Minister for European and International Affairs 
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Lieber Hans Winkler!
Dear President Jorge Sampaio,
Ladies and Gentlemen! 

I welcome you to this initiative of the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs in co-operation with the Alliance of Civilizations.

The Alliance of Civilizations – under the able guidance of High Representative Jorge Sampaio – has a major task in promoting dialogue on the global level. From the outset, Austria has been an active partner in this endeavour. And this April in Istanbul, I have announced Austria’s offer to host the Fifth Annual Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations in 2012.

Last December, together with the League of Arab States, I hosted the international conference “Europe and the Arab World – Connecting Partners in Dialogue” with expert sessions and a ministerial round table in the Hofburg in Vienna. A topic of the conference, which met with particular interest, was “Promoting Intercultural Dialogue and Youth Participation in Politics and Civil Society”.

Consequently, we decided to put the focus of today’s symposium on how to contribute to the successful participation of young people with cross-cultural and Muslim background in Europe and on how to further the process of integration.

The focus is on Europe, because – with all its diversity and pluralism – Europe is still facing insufficiencies regarding effective intercultural competences on all levels.
A recent report by the Vienna based European Agency for Fundamental Rights states a high level of xenophobia as well as negative views on Islam and Muslims in Europe.

There is need for commitment and there is need for action.

1.         First and foremost there is the need for an adjusted narrative in Europe.

Immigration in the 20th century has led to a great variety of beliefs and of quite diverse Muslim communities in Europe. In 1950, about 800.000 Muslims lived in Europe. Today, the figure ranges between 15 and 20 million, representing 3% to 7% of the population of European countries.

The presence of Islam in Europe, however, is not a recent phenomenon. Islam dates back to the eighth century and has since been an autochthonous religion on our continent. But still today, people – including politicians and populists contorting facts – are operating with stereotypes and clichés, thus nurturing tension, exclusion and confrontation in our societies.

There is a need to re-think and appreciate our rich national histories and to raise awareness in our societies for the long-standing presence of Islam in Europe. This important endeavour does in no way imply giving up our identities. And fighting stereotypes and discrimination does not imply to ignore differences.

Our major intent is to foster trust. Trust is the precondition for an open and wherever and whenever necessary – critical dialogue, which addresses cultural traditions, religious attitudes and interpretations, which might not be in line with or even be opposed to common European values.

2.         Strong democracies build on active participation and ownership.

European integration has a solid foundation in the “Enlightenment” with its key elements: reason, the separation of state and religion, individual and political rights and freedoms, self-determination of the individual and equal rights for men and women.

A great challenge for current European integration is to sustain pluralism while re-enforcing unity through democratic participation.

In the interest of a democratic and in all aspects well-functioning Europe we must jointly address the complexities of identity issues in our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural societies. Only the collective management of diversity in legal, political and social terms can lead to ownership in a democratic society and to a “citizenship of the heart”.

Surveys prove that in the light of today’s overall economic and social challenges, the great majority of Muslims in Europe does not seek anything different from citizens with other beliefs. Our co-citizens want to make a decent living, to raise their children and to secure their future in accordance with our legal and democratic systems.

However, for successful societies and a successful Europe we need even more than that. We need active participationby all our citizens. We need the joint commitment to build a European identity all European citizens can identify with on the basis of our common principles enshrined in the European Charta for Fundamental Rights.

Much too often, the quest for spiritual and religious identity among young people with migrant or Muslim background meets with a harsh reality, in particular with the lack of education and jobs. The lack of perspectives meets with feelings of exclusion. There is a real danger that young people are misled and that identity and religion are turned into ‘radical alternatives’ to constructive democratic participation in our societies.

Our aim is to foster a strong, inclusive European identity on the basis of our common values. Our engagement in this regard builds on the manifold concepts and initiatives that already exist. I am sure that this symposium will contribute to the visibility of these endeavours and to a productive exchange on good practices to the benefit of all of us.

3.         There is continued need for dialogue.

Cardinal Franz König, who was one of the great personalities of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, stated in 1997: “On the way to Europe, the question for the common spiritual heritage of the past arises as a task for the future … It is about a positive force that evolves from a ‘real’ ecumenism“.

This statement holds also true for the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. There is a strong expectation of people that religions contribute to mutual understanding, to preserving a peaceful society, to conflict resolution and to peace building. We need these positive forces for the future of Europe.

Strategies for dialogue, intercultural competences and participation have to include religions. At the same time, they need to go far beyond addressing differences in religion. I am, in particular, thinking of the common challenges young people are facing, including the visions they have regarding their future in Europe.

Austria, where the legal recognition of Islam goes back to the year 1912, disposes of a sustainable framework for dialogue and tools, which are of great relevance for integration. Just a few important examples:

  • With the support of my ministry, the first and the second Conference of European Imams took place in 2003 in Graz and in 2006 in Vienna. The third Conference of European Imams is envisaged to take place in December in Linz, European Cultural Capital 2009.
  • We have religious education in Islam in Austrian public schools;
  • A study programme entitled "Islamic religious education" to train teachers of Islam for public schools in Austria at the University of Vienna.
  • The Vienna International Christian Islamic Summer University.
  • In autumn 2009, university study programmes on “Muslims in Europe” and “Muslim Community Studies” will start with the support of my ministry.

Austria is actively involved in promoting dialogue in the framework of the European Union and international organisations like the United Nations and the OSCE.

Vienna has a long and valued tradition for dialogue in Europe, even during the tragic period of the Cold War division of our continent, which the peoples of Europe overcame peacefully 20 years ago. I have the strong intent to build on this tradition and to even strengthen this commitment and engagement of Austria as a hub for dialogue and peace.

In the context of Austria’s current membership in the United Nations Security Council we intend to make use of the potential of dialogue to enhance international peace and security. We thus suggest an informal meeting in 2010 on the topic “The Dialogue of Cultures and the Preservation of International Peace and Security”.

Integration is a continuous process and all parts of society need to get sensitized. In this regard, I hope that today’s symposium will contribute to dismantle stereotypes and the dichotomy between Islam and the West.

With this symposium we also wish to send a strong signal of encouragement to our young co-citizens with cross cultural and Muslim background to use their talents and potential, to follow role models and to join the forces of commitment and participation to their own benefit and to the benefit of our European societies.

I hope that we can follow-up today’s initiative together with the Alliance of Civilizations in other countries and regions of the world, because identity, participation, religious and cultural pluralism and youth are issues of major global concern.

I wish the symposium every success.