Task Force "Dialogue of Cultures"
The importance of intercultural dialogue for Austria
“Dialogue of Cultures” has been a priority of Austrian foreign policy for many years. On the one hand, this is due to an Austrian society characterised by cultural diversity. In order to tackle the resulting challenges and to capitalise on the enormous potential of this diversity, dialogue serves as a promising instrument.
On the other hand, this priority is marked by tensions among different cultures. In the age of networking and globalisation these tensions are magnified by pseudo-knowledge of other cultures, conveyed by the media, coupled with the rapid spread of information and content via mainly electronic media. This results in the growing need to anticipate further polarisation and a hardening of positions, to relieve tensions and learn to understand and accept cultural differences. Here again, dialogue has proved to be a successful approach.
Against this backdrop, Austria has become a hub of intercultural and interreligious dialogue and has therefore taken an active pioneering role. In order to further strengthen this position, the Foreign Ministry has not only committed itself to multilateral and bilateral initiatives but also to national projects in the area of intercultural dialogue. It thus makes an on-going contribution to global trust building and peaceful co-existence.
Austrian tradition in dialogue and priorities
Initiatives of former Foreign Minister Alois Mock in the 1990ies can be considered as important milestones in the Austrian dialogue tradition. Rapprochement and exchange between the world’s major religions was promoted through events on both bilateral and multilateral levels. These included events of the Religious Theological Institute of Saint Gabriel, such as the “International-Christian-Islamic Conference” that took place under the title “Peace for Mankind” (1993) and “One World for All” (1997) and the Round Tables in Teheran and Vienna in a three-year-interval (the last one held was "Peace, Justice and Their Threats in Today’s World", February 2003, Teheran).
In order to further strengthen dialogue as a soft power tool, which has gained considerably in importance within international diplomacy, the Task Force “Dialogue of Cultures” was founded in July 2007 under Federal Minister Ursula Plassnik. Consequently, the intensification of dialogue and the development, support and implementation of national and international initiatives have become the centre of attention.
The aim of dialogue is to foster understanding. Strengthening pluralism within society and eliminating stereotypes and prejudices – in Austria, Europe as well as in the Muslim world - also play an important role in this context. Therefore, dialogue must be open to different views and be challenging in order to explain its complexity and enable a differentiated perception. In this context, it is indispensable to refer to the universal application of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The main aspects of the preparation and implementation of dialogue initiatives may be summarised as follows:
- Political, cultural, social and economic dialogue projects are addressed mainly but not exclusively to predominantly Muslim countries (including their non-Muslim societies), and to Muslims as well as Muslim communities in Austria and Europe.
- Inclusion of interest groups, i.e. the civil society, people coming from non-urban areas and participants that have usually not been taken into consideration for dialogue projects and have not yet been exposed to "the West".
- Tackling concrete social and political challenges in a solution orientated and practical way and promoting co-operation with civil society activists, including the media.
- Dialogue as an important aspect of social, regional and global conflict prevention, conflict management and peace building also includes aspects of development co-operation.
- Strengthening the role and participation of women in society and the integration of young generations (multipliers).
- Co-operation with key partners on a national and international level in order to strengthen and expand existing networks.
- Regional priorities: the Mediterranean area and the Middle East, the Balkans, Turkey and Islam within Europe.
These priorities are implemented through a combination of various funding methods: internal projects and external projects. Furthermore, the team works actively on the extension of the network of dialogue partners and experts. The provision of information and the establishment of contacts with key partners as well as sponsoring institutions and foundations through Austrian representations shall be supported.
Islam in Europe – Chances and Challenges
The relations between Western or European and Islamic societies were characterized by conflict as well as understanding and fruitful co-operation enriching both sides. In addition, this historic relationship has substantially contributed to the development of society and science, philosophy, arts and culture, to mention but a few. Global and regional political, economic and social developments have troubled the relationship between Western, European and Islamic societies strongly and fundamentally in recent years.
Due to its long history and presence in Europe since the 8th century (especially Spain and Sicily), Islam now has a central role.
Already in 1878 during the Berlin Conference, the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy was faced with challenges and chances of a large Muslim population. Unlike other European countries, those responsible created a necessary legal framework which defined and therefore protected rights as well as obligations. In 1912, Islam was already recognized as an official religion in Austria and the fundamental right of religious freedom – in its individual, collective and corporative form – was further strengthened. This recognition also entailed the establishment of an independent administration of internal affairs, the Muslim Faith Community in Austria (IGGiÖ), and the right of the Muslim community to religious instruction. Against this backdrop, Islam can be considered as an autochthonous religion in Europe and Austria.
Counting approximately 500,000 adherents of Islam, it represents the second largest religion in Austria today. The Muslim community recorded a considerable growth which is vastly due to birth rates and not immigration.
Those demographic developments are strongly linked to legal and social questions and have preoccupied the political and public sphere in Austria for several years. The key issue of the compatibility of state, religion and identity is widely discussed. The future challenge is to integrate those two to three generations of multiple identities, strongly differing in motivation, history and experience, in a way which complements but does not replace values.
Among young people from a migrant background the natural question of their own identity also seems to become one of their religious affiliations. It is certain that political, economic and social challenges of integration can only be met by efforts on both sides and that these challenges are not necessarily linked to religion in the first place. Holding an integration debate only with regard to Muslims would be wrong and counterproductive. However, we have to understand the link between the opportunities of Muslims on the labour market in our society and the development of a new European identity, which can have several different, even religious, components.
For the great majority of young Muslims in Europe a multiple identity and the compatibility of Islam and European modernity is a living reality. However, a challenge can be seen in the prevention of young people becoming radicalized. For many young Muslims globalised internet and therefore global Islam seem to have become a substitute for a homeland they cannot find in the societies they live in. Non-Muslims and Muslims alike, state and religious organisations are equally challenged by these developments. Pluralism and the opportunity to develop and live multiple identities are an essential characteristic of the European model of life.
Dialogue on an ínternational level
The European Union and its Member States actively support dialogue activities by means of existing instruments. The year 2008 was declared the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue . With the establishment of the Anna Lindh-Foundation (Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures) headquartered in Alexandria/Egypt, intercultural projects focussing on issues such as human rights, democracy and political participation, civil society, sustainable development, training and education, information society, responsibility of the media, women’s rights, youth and others, are in the process of being implemented in the framework of Euro-Mediterranean partnership (27 EU Member States and 12 Southern Mediterranean states).
In the light of the global challenges, the United Nations constitutes an essential partner for international interfaith and intercultural dialogue activities. In this context, the Alliance of Civilisations is a highly valuable initiative with a wide network. As a committed member, Austria organised the 5th UNAOC Global Forum in Vienna in February 2013 and thus supported the strategic advancement of the Alliance. For more information visit the UNAOC subpage.
Another initiative which fosters dialogue is the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – short dialogue centre – an international organisation operating in Vienna since November 2012. The main objective of this international initiative is the provision of a dynamic, international platform which enables regular exchange between religious leaders, experts and representatives of the civil society. For more information on the dialogue centre visit the KAICIID subpage.
Bilateral dialogue initiatives
Furthermore, dialogue activities have proved to be a successful tool for the rapprochement and reinforcement of bilateral relations in the last years. In the framework of bilateral co-operations with Indonesia (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013), Iran (1996, 1999, 2003 and 2008, 2010), Singapore (2010) and Saudi Arabia (2012) an exchange between academics is paramount. Our representations in the respective countries actively co-organise and support these initiatives.