Ferrero-Waldner at the Conference of Chairmen of Islamic Centres and Imams in Europe
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Address delivered by the
Austrian Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs
Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner
at the opening of the
Conference of Chairmen of Islamic Centres and Imams in Europe
Graz, 13 June, 2003
President Professor Schakfeh,
Reis Effendi Dr. Ceric,
Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Dr. Belkeziz,
Director General of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Dr. Abdulaziz Altwaijri,
Secretary General of the Islamic Call Society, Dr. Al-Sherif,
Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Dr. Schwimmer,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Europe is in the process of re-defining itself: by enlarging the European Union to include 10 new Member States on the one hand and the creation of a European constitution on the other.
However, on this continent which is characterised by cultural diversity we are simultaneously looking for ways and means of tackling the new challenges emerging around our globe: we have to get a firm grip on the scourges of extremism and terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, human rights violations, dangerous regional conflicts, poverty and despair which are haunting many regions of the world, including the resulting new threats posed to our stability and everybody's security. Today's methods of interaction with other peoples are unprecedented in history. We only have to seize the opportunities offered and use them to a positive effect for the common weal of humanity!
To this end we have to define our own, European positions and find new answers based on shared fundamental values. This is the common task each of us is called upon to fulfil, whether we are politicians, representatives of the media or religious communities or opinion leaders. Our fundamental values play an eminent role. I myself am no religious expert. But as far as I know many of the fundamental values of Christianity and Islam are very similar - which leads me to believe that we will succeed, provided that we refrain from dogmatism and look for communalities instead.
I am convinced that this approach also means that we European politicians have to listen to the Islamic religious communities in Europe and include their joint contribution to Europe and the dialogue between cultures in our considerations. Vice versa, I regard it as highly important that you are convening today here in Graz, the European Cultural Capital and first European human rights city, in order to define the relationship of European Muslims to Europe.
Therefore my thanks goes first of all to His Eminence, Reis-ul-Ulema Dr. Mustafa Ceric, and the President of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, Professor Anas Schakfeh, who developed the idea for this conference which is now being realised.
The famous Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka once said that Europe was not a geographic but a cultural part of the world.
Europe is in fact a product of its religious, linguistic and cultural diversity. Islam has been and continues to be part of this European diversity, indeed of European tradition. The period known today as the Enlightenment represented a decisive step forwards in the history of Europe because it was generally understood that Europe should not be defined by a clash of cultures but by the endeavour to promote human rights and democracy.
Thus the fact that this conference was initiated in Sarajevo, a centre of European Islam, and is now taking place in Austria is in my view an expression of historic continuity.
Austria on the one hand took an exemplary step in Europe by recognising Islam as a religious community as early as 1912. Today, almost 100 years later, our country may proudly state that she has provided the Muslim members of her population with places of worship, religious education in schools and the pedagogic and charitable institutions of the Islamic religious community. What is particularly encouraging is the friction-free relationship between citizens of different faiths. One expression of this far-sighted attitude is the Mutual Declaration of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria and the Federal Association of Israelite Religious Communities in Austria, which in the aftermath of the disaster of 11 September has been focusing on conciliation and understanding between the communities.
On the other hand Austrian foreign policy has always strived to promote inter-religious dialogue and the Dialogue among Cultures and Civilisations - two priorities which also rank particularly high on my personal agenda. The goal is to prevent the often feared clash of cultures by achieving a paradigm change, so that "being different" is not perceived as a threat but as an enrichment. In this spirit Austria has contributed actively to this dialogue, which is being spearheaded within the United Nations by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
However, it has to be clear to us that this goal cannot be achieved solely by holding conferences of politicians, diplomats or religious leaders. We need the assistance of the media because we have to bring this dialogue to the homes of the people in our countries and get them involved, in Europe and in the Islamic countries alike. For this reason, the media seminar on the Dialogue among Cultures I initiated last year within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue between the EU and the southern Mediterranean states will be continued this autumn.
We are facing new challenges which have to be tackled. As a result of the demographic movements from countries dominated by Islam, Muslims have become the second largest group among the faithful in virtually all European countries. Some global-political differences with countries which define themselves primarily as Islamic and the international fight against terrorism representing itself as Islamic-fundamentalist are developments which bring this faith, which has been an active element of culture and practised in Europe for centuries, into the headlines on a daily basis, thus creating a general feeling of uncertainty.
In this environment I regard European Islam as a huge opportunity. The European Muslims can contribute to defusing differences and counteracting any estrangement between Islam and Europe, thus forming an important bridge between Europe and the Islamic world.
This can be achieved if Islam in Europe succeeds in acquiring a clearly defined, authentic Islamic and at the same time European face.
Therefore I fully welcome the programmatic approach taken by this conference, which explicitly aims to achieve precisely this goal. Consequently your deliberations will focus on issues related to the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and pluralism within society. We require political and social solutions to prevent radicalism, extremism and thus terrorism from gaining the upper hand.
The peace and stability dividend emanating from the united Europe has had a favourable impact on the entire continent and is even showing its positive effects far beyond Europe's borders. The goal is to enable the Islamic countries to benefit increasingly from this peace dividend by closer cooperation and an open dialogue with the European Union. You as religious leaders can help us to achieve this aim.
The successful realisation of this endeavour lies within our joint responsibility, since you and your communities form part of this Europe.
The organisers of this event have asked us to describe the expectations Europe places in its Muslims.
Let me, from my viewpoint as Austrian foreign minister, briefly outline the nature of these expectations on the basis of a few issues, which I hope you will discuss in the course of your meeting and take into consideration in your "Graz Declaration":
- Are human rights merely compatible with Islam, as is written in the agenda for this conference, or do the Islamic institutions in Europe have specific ways and means of defending and advocating human rights, both actively and by initiative?
I would believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be actively endorsed by all UN member states and in particular by the religious communities in Europe.
- Which attitude is adopted in teaching and in your own media with respect to this issue?
Only a few weeks ago the Human Security Network, a group which is composed of 13 UN member states from all continents and to which, for instance, Jordan belongs, endorsed a manual for human rights education for both international and intercultural use.
- What is the attitude towards the position of women in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights, which lays down as a rule the equality of man and women before the law and makes this enforceable in court in all areas of life?
Let me tell you in this context that European women cannot understand that there should be crimes which are punished by death by stoning and that it is women in particular who are threatened by this abominable fate.
I therefore appeal to you to include a passage in your Graz Declaration calling for mercy for Amina Laval, who has been condemned to death by stoning in Nigeria, thus disassociating yourselves from such methods of dispensing justice or execution of sentences. In my capacity as Austrian foreign minister I will continue to undertake every effort and use every available means to bring an end to this atrocious punishment.
- What is the attitude Islam in Europe has adopted towards the separation of state and church, as provided for in the constitutions of almost all European countries? And what about the compatibility of Islam and democracy?
It is precisely the European Muslims who demonstrate such great enthusiasm in exercising their active and passive right to vote and stand for elections in the countries in which they are entitled to do so, thus showing us what a significant and increasingly important factor they represent in European democracies. In doing so they give the lie to those commentators in international debates who frequently seek to make us believe that there are confessions that are not really suited to democracy. I myself would have difficulties accepting such an argument and I am sure that you feel the same.
After having asked these questions I would like to affirm immediately that I do not believe that the non-Islamic cultural traditions in Europe have already found final and ideal answers to them. Today, democracy and the social market economy certainly play a much more prominent role in Europe than in other parts of the world. But a short glance back in our history reveals that Europe was in fact the fatal starting point for Fascism/National Socialism, Communism and Bolshevism, which all unleashed their full destructive force on our continent - and not so long ago, either!
Moreover, the events in South East Europe over the last few years have also shown us that Europe is no guarantee for humanity.
We thus have to scrutinise all our different cultural traditions and institutions to find out whether they contribute sufficiently to promoting solidarity and a balancing of political interests in Europe.
In my capacity as foreign minister of a EU Member State I can assure you that your suggestions are welcome and that the willingness for cooperation is there.
Concluding, I would like to congratulate you on your decision to present yourselves to the European public by adopting a declaration. May this step be followed by many more which contribute to the unity and enrichment of the spiritual in Europe!
I wish you every success for your conference.
Thank you very much for your attention.