"ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD - Introductory Remarks
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"ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD"
by Federal Minister Ursula Plassnik
Vienna, November 15, 2005
Ladies and Gentlemen,
These days we are faced with disturbing pictures:
- The Middle East:
Terror attacks in Amman where Muslims also kill their Muslim brothers at a wedding ceremony. And demonstrations in which the angered population protests against these malicious acts of violence.
- And Europe, in the suburbs of Paris:
Burning cars, schools, kindergartens, sport centers. Angry young people full of hatred, terrified parents, a helpless society. Muslim community leaders who call for prudence and an end to violence and destruction.
Both Amman and Paris do not directly relate to Islam. We are aware of this - but some people do vaguely associate them.
To an increasing extent, Muslims all over the world are suffering from this inadmissible association of Islam with violence or even terrorism. They distance themselves from this cruel abuse of their religion by assassins who despise mankind, making the death of innocent people their deviant business. We should support them in their efforts.
One of the aims of today’s Conference is to stand up against simplifications, prejudices and images of enemies. A handful of terrorists must not succeed in obscuring the view of the realities of Muslim societies in the world.
Combating terrorism is a common concern of the world community, there is a global consensus on this.
In this difficult discourse especially, we have to be on our guard against dangerous simplifications. In particular, this includes the attempt to represent terrorism as a product of a "war of cultures and religions".
From our own European past we know only too well that, time and again, there are fanatical criminals and extremists who kill people under the pretext of religious or philosophical principles, trampling on the most fundamental rights of others, yes, even waging a war against their own and other peoples.
Our invitation has been extended to many countries where there are different traditions of faith and coexistence, differences in the system of government and in social and economic development. Owing to this extraordinarily wide spectrum in particular, we hope to gain insights into bigger contexts.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Afghanistan and Iraq are both characterized by a strong Islamic tradition. People in both states have gone through many years of oppression and tyranny. With the active support of the entire international community, today they are building a democratic order. Threatened by violence, they have held elections in the most difficult conditions and have developed constitutions - with all the complex questions which need to be clarified in Islamic societies, such as Islam as a source of law or the position of women.
From their perspectives as immediate and affected witnesses, the two main speakers of today, the Presidents of Afghanistan and Iraq, will tell us about their experience in dealing with pluralism and diversity as a challenge for politics.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In our highly networked and at the same time vulnerable world, the practical approach to diversity is a highly explosive practical and political challenge of today. No matter whether in building a democratic system of government in Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, or in shaping the daily coexistence of different cultures in Europe.
In the course of this meeting we would like to discuss the question of how different Islamic societies cope today with the challenges of an increasingly pluralistic world.
At the same time, we would also like to discuss what can be done in Europe to promote Muslims and non-Muslims in living together peacefully.
The special meaning of the word and individual words was referred to yesterday in several contributions. I am convinced that we all need to be extremely careful - with regard to both facets of the questions we are dealing with. In our dealings with each other - be they between states, communities or individuals - it is unacceptable to call the other’s right of existence into question.
We will also deal with the question of how universal values common to all people and cultures can be brought into line with specific national, regional or religious traditions.
This is not a new discussion. The universal nature of human rights in their respective environments was reaffirmed at the World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993.
Our common understanding of human rights is based on an image of man to which all three great monotheistic religions are committed: Christians, Jews, and Muslims are united by the conviction of the uniqueness of man; they are also united by the awareness that the dignity and value of man is not determined by any external violence, government or state authority, but that it is directly rooted in man’s nature.
In practice, in many parts of the world and particularly in Islamic states, there are very different approaches and positions concerning many of those principles and systems of order to which our society feels committed. We also want to include these differences in the dialogue, for a sort of "superficial" description of our differences of opinion does not help. Not surprisingly, theologians and experts find common ground rather quickly. Between the three world religions, which are related to each other, there are common traditions.
However, the social and cultural practice of religions does not always correspond to their fundamental principles. This practice determines general religious understanding more often than high theology.
Religious leaders, therefore, also face the very practical challenge of having to counteract this gap between spiritual basis and social practice. This can be an important contribution to the strengthening of an identity which has an integrating rather than an isolating effect.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our meeting is much more than a meeting of two different worlds: here the Western world - there the Islamic world. Islam has long been a part of the new realities of our European life. As a result of the migration movements of the past decades, the position of Islam in the European countries is a theme that we are experiencing in everyday life.
We therefore must lead the dialogue of cultures in a more realistic way, with better "grounding" than has been the case so far. Theological debates do not always give us the practical answers for the urgent and highly specific problems of everyday life together. Suspicion and mistrust must not eat their way deeper into our society, leading to invisible trenches or building walls between the communities. We share the responsibility of creating the everyday life of cultural diversity in a realistic way: at school, in housing, in exercising religious beliefs, in the integration into the host country, but also in the acquisition of a sense of community and responsibility.
In Austria, the Islamic community has had the status of a recognized religious community since 1912. In 2003, it organised a conference for Imams and heads of Islamic centres in Europe, which took place in Graz and which was devoted to the position of Muslims in Europe in particular.
In the final declaration of the meeting, the spiritual leaders of 20 million Muslims in Europe expressed their commitment to the following principles:
- Rejection of any form of fanaticism, extremism and fatalism
- Human rights are a central component of Islam
- Loyalty towards constitution and law
- Pluralism as a principle of Islam as desired by God
Furthermore, allow me to quote:
"The European Muslims are equally aware of their religious identity as Muslims and their social identity as Europeans."
These statements provide orientation, and I think they make the combination of a religious affiliation with Islam and a positive identification with Austria possible; we all will continue to build on it. Under our EU-Presidency we therefore plan to hold another joint conference of European Imams in 2006.
As a woman, allow me to make a remark which basically concerns both components of our sophisticated theme: the role of women. Exactly 100 years ago, the great Austrian and Central European Bertha von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In her famous book "Lay Down Your Arms!" she fought for overcoming war. She also appealed to women directly to participate in the social and political decision-making processes. Only when the experiences and insights of women are directly taken into account in the construction and functioning of society will this society be able to satisfy the needs of all.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At any rate, it must be our aim to do everything possible at a global level to disprove those extremists’ lies that want to make us believe that a peaceful life together is not possible between Christians, Jews and Muslims.
History teaches us the opposite: Christians, Jews and Muslims frequently achieved remarkable cultural and spiritual feats particularly in the regions - and in the very epochs - when they lived together in peace. Ages which were characterised by openness and pluralism.
But what was the secret of positive examples of a successful life together? It was a climate of uninterrupted dialogue, of togetherness and respect.
Today, we are not able - nor do we want - to revive the models of the past. To be able to live in peace in the pluralistic society of today’s global village, we need new thoughts, new feelings and new actions:
- We have to look for open dialogue and a considerate life together still more intensively than has been the case so far, at all levels, across all networks, above all in places where people of different cultures and religions meet in everyday life: at school, at work, in the local community.
- We have to stand up against extremism and fanaticism in words and in deeds. And we have to reject the abuse of religion or culture as a "basis of reference" for terrorism, preaching the contempt of mankind.
- We have to endeavour to find new forms of living together. Nobody should withdraw to a sort of ghetto, nobody should be pushed into such a ghetto.
- Everybody should also be willing to grant dissenters at home those possibilities - e.g. in the exercise of religion - which he rightfully demands for himself in another culture.
- We have to set ourselves sophisticated phase targets: as a minimum standard: peaceful life together; in the next stage: a flourishing life together, and as a target in the distance: living for each other in one common society, in one common world.
- And we also have to look to the future to support our youth. Young people must not end up in self-denial or in the denial of others.
The fuel of the future is hope - hopes for opportunities, hopes for being perceived and above all hopes for living the many facets of one’s identity without complexes and in line with one's neighbours.
In this spirit I wish you fruitful discussions and express my thanks to all participants: With your presence you set a personal sign of the importance of the dialogue between cultures in our time. Your observations, analyses and suggestions enrich the process of reflection which is being pursued in many countries and international organizations on questions of Islam.
If I may have a wish, it is the wish that as many stimuli as possible will emanate from our discussions, stimuli for each other that lead us on and help us in the solution of the very specific problems.