Conference on Islam in Europe
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Dr. Ursula Plassnik
Federal Minister of European and International Affairs
Conference on "Islam in Europe"
Vienna, 23 March 2007
Opportunities for a European Islam
Director Jiri Grusa,
My dear colleague, Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj,
His eminence Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric,
President Anas Shakfeh,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for this opportunity to talk about a subject that is both sophisticated and complex. And I should like to begin my speech by using a metaphor.
As Europeans we have reached out both hands: one hand outwards - to our Islamic partners around the world; the other hand inwards - to our Muslim fellow citizens in the European societies.
At our Conference on "Islam in a Pluralistic World" held in Vienna in 2005, we dealt mainly with the hand stretched outwards. As foreign minister of a country committed to dialogue between religions and cultures, this theme is important to me:
- A priority of Austria’s EU Presidency therefore clearly focused on support for improved coexistence and better mutual understanding in our global village - at the edge of the universe, as Jiri Grusa put it so magnificently.
- The Middle East is a region that urgently requires peaceful and enriching coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Here too we are committed to the fostering of dialogue and pluralism.
After my visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in December last year, I decided to host a conference to be held at the end of May in Vienna that will pay special attention to the contribution of women in peace processes. I am delighted that, among many others, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, my Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni and Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the pre-eminent spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation at the peace negotiations in Madrid and Washington, will support my initiative by coming to the conference.
- Dialogue between religions and cultures also has a global component, which has to be worked upon pro-actively. Various groups and institutions, active in this field, have offered their services as a platform. Such interest and efforts are very positive, and indeed I welcome them. But all these partial initiatives are not enough:
My conviction is that it is the United Nations that is the indispensable umbrella of international dialogue between religions and cultures. We do not need a new institution. On the contrary, we must anchor the basic idea that responsibility cannot be divided in this world, still more deliberately in every effort undertaken by the United Nations. And most importantly, the universal application of human rights and fundamental freedoms for each individual - be it man or woman, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian - must, without reservation, continue to be at the centre of our endeavours. We must not allow one religion to be played off spiritually against another.
We thus also need the United Nations to avoid misleading paradigms already at the very outset. I also heartedly recommended this to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon during his recent visit to Vienna, and offered Austria’s support and cooperation for all his initiatives in this field.
At today’s Conference we want to deal with the hand reaching inwards. We will be addressing questions which - to my mind - are among the most sophisticated, but also most fascinating: the way we deal with diversity practically in a modern Europe, the direct reality of our lives in societies that have become multi-faceted, within the pluralistic core of the European way of life.
On Sunday, the concrete realisation of this way of life, the European Union, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Originally founded as an economic community, its members have developed it, step by step, into a community of shared values and a community of law as we know it today - a community strong enough to unite diversity, drawing on its strengths to shape the future.
This holds particularly true for the diversity of religions, traditions, cultures and identities that distinguishes this continent. In this context the European Union is firmly based on the solid foundation of the Enlightenment: reason, the separation of state and religion, of individual and political rights and freedoms, self-determination of the individual and equal rights for men and women. The core of this way of life is to impart and sustain pluralism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
"Islam in Europe" or "European Islam"? - The discussion as to whether a "European Islam" exists is mainly a discussion within Muslim circles. It is not the task of the majority society to impose terms and concepts on minorities. I deliberately state this also as a Protestant - not as a woman; for as women we do not constitute a minority.
I am referring to a remarkable document of Muslim self-conception, the "Graz Declaration of the Conference of the Leaders of Islamic Centres and Imams in Europe" held in 2003, and I quote:
"The conference participants hold the firm opinion that in the same way as there is no African, Arab or other ethnic Islam, there is no "European" Islam. Only the term "Islam in Europe" can aptly express that an Islam of a European nature is certainly developing out of the dynamic self-conception of the single Muslim faith."
Based on this awareness let me also point out that contemporary Islam in Europe has basically two roots - roots of people who, as you, Director Grusa, said so beautifully, have not only roots but also feet and heads: the autochthonous Islam and the Islam induced by migration to German-speaking countries particularly since the mid-sixties.
Islam dates back to the eighth century in Europe - in Spain, Sicily and southern Italy. In Greece, the Balkan states, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Bulgaria and Romania, we have Muslim communities who are today - without any shadow of doubt - embedded in Europe.
Thus Islam is an autochthonous religion on our continent, deeply rooted and grown together with Europe. And in this Europe of the future, which is again growing together, we will again become aware, to an increasing extent, of this component of our European diversity.
A word on Austria: The recognition of Islam in Austria in 1912 is the legal expression of this political and cultural reality and of concrete experience with the Hanefitic school of Islam of Bosnian provenance. I therefore thank our Bosnian guests, the Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Sven Alkalaj, and his eminence Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the leader of Bosnia’s Islamic community, for coming today to discuss this topic with us.
In addition, Islam was also induced in Europe by migration and refugees during the second half of the 20th century: from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, the Arab world, Asia and Africa. I was particularly struck by the diversity of Islam during my trip to India, the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world.
For your orientation: In 1950, there were about 800,000 Muslims living in Europe. Today the figure is somewhere between 15 and 20 million.
Longstanding Muslim communities, such as those in Bosnia and Kosovo, are absolutely prepared to defend their identity if they consider it threatened by the import of fundamentalist ideologies or extremist traditions.
At the same time, however, migrants are faced by a quasi-automatic Europeanisation of their religion in everyday life. And some are concerned that from their perspective an Islam defined as "European" may imply a loss of fundamental beliefs; so from some quarters you hear the call for unity in faith.
Does this mean there is concern on several sides?
It is a reality that faith is lived in a respective environment: in line with cultural and historical traditions, within the respective social and political framework.
Islam in Europe is a reality in the everyday life of people. As of necessity, it is thus a conglomerate of progressive, liberal, traditional and orthodox components.
Be this what it may: When questioned as to the compatibility of Europe and Islam, the European Muslim communities gave a clear answer. The final declaration of the 2003 Graz Imam Conference, from which I have already quoted, is among my favourite documents in this sphere and clearly states:
European Muslims are aware of both their religious identity as Muslims and their social identity as Europeans.
And a bit further down the declaration says:
"Within their secular structures, Muslims must also show their loyalty to the constitution and the law."
I think this provides both confidence and direction.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Europe has always acknowledged its diversity, and it is such diversity that constitutes the very wealth of this continent.
Diversity is enrichment. Diversity needs clear rules, for a lack of organisation will create insecurity. Dealing with diversity is therefore a special political challenge, and to my mind the theme "Islam in Europe" has been left to itself for too long a time.
Understanding and confidence is something all of us need more urgently with every day. In our European countries we must succeed in meeting each other in an atmosphere of open-mindedness, which ultimately makes coexistence easier for all of us.
Nobody should feel pushed to the margin of our societies.
Allow me to add here a short quotation by Amin Maalouf:
"It is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free."
We need to deal with religion in general, and Islam in particular, in a responsible manner. But in the age of globalisation we also need practical orientation, instructions for action, and a modus operandi in our global village. A theme that is very delicate not only in Austria, but also a theme that can certainly be tackled. I am stating this as a Protestant who remembers that even in Vienna it was not always a matter of course to add steeples to Protestant churches.
Integration is only successful if both sides are working on it: the framework conditions for a successful integration have to be developed and made available by the local structures of the new home country. However, this offer has to be accepted.
We view the European "majority societies" as open societies. It is also understandable that we are interested in cooperating above all with Muslims who have an analogous understanding of openness. Strict separation on our side would mean rejecting one of the best offers we can make.
Diversity is also a sophisticated management task of social policy: In European societies this above all means long-term integration into a solid community of values with full respect for the dignity of each individual.
The most updated description of this basis of European values can be found in Article I-2 of the new constitution that has not been ratified everywhere: "The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities."
Three weeks ago in Vienna we opened the European Fundamental Rights Agency precisely with this understanding. Its task will be to support the pronounced European fundamental rights structure and help to promote its further development so to speak "upstream" in the field of drawing up legislation by providing advice.
On the occasion of its opening Franco Frattini, Vice President of the Commission, rightfully claimed that in spite of all openness towards individual groups of society we will to an increasing degree have to turn to individual rights and their protection. Europe must represent its values in a self-confident manner: "A Europe that refuses to embrace its values, the values of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is a Europe condemned to lose, as it will always be weaker than those who are more secure than us in terms of identity."
In spite of my respect for religious groups and their collective concerns I have little sympathy for the idea of creating "group rights" for individual communities on a merely religious basis. The ruling in Germany, which created a big stir a few days ago, shows how delicate this subject is. Would a Europe that grants different - i.e. additional or fewer rights - to a Muslim or Jewish girl than to a Christian girl or a girl without religious affiliation be the sort of Europe we really want?
At this point I should like to make a short comment on a subject that I personally consider to be of pre-eminent concern: the contribution of women. The full participation of women is a source of strength for any society, and their active and also visible contribution is decisive for its development.
I am therefore convinced: We have to encourage measures which strengthen the active participation of women in all fields of political, economic and social life.
The Conference of European Imams and Pastors held in Vienna in April 2006, which attracted more than 200 participants, devoted a whole chapter of their final declaration exclusively to women:
"In Islam men and women are equal partners who are mutually responsible and who have equal human dignity. The right to learning and being taught, the right to work, financial independence, the active and passive right to vote and participation in social discourse are pillars that are to safeguard their status."
And it continues very clearly:
Any kind of violation of women’s rights should be criticised and fought. Forced marriage, genital mutilation, honour killings and violence within the family have no foundation in Islam.
I am particularly delighted that your Conference will devote a separate contribution to this theme, and I hope that it shall also be repeatedly addressed in the general debate.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A few remarks on the subject youth.
Successful integration in Europe and in Austria is a central issue of the future for young people in particular.
The challenge of how politics deals with this question at the domestic level is a big challenge:
- Muslims in Europe, above all Muslims of the younger generation, often live with historical images that are fed rather by conflict than by common interests.
- Young people of a migrant background seem to be turning to Islam to an increasing extent. Symbols, such as the headscarf, are experienced as something that creates identity. Occasionally one gets the impression that such symbols are becoming of an ever increasing value.
Together we are responsible for turning the notion of cultural diversity in everyday life into a reality, with our feet planted firmly on the ground, more than has been the case so far. We owe this to the younger generation.
Here, education is decisive: I am deeply convinced that we can make young people a credible offer for a positive future which will be accepted if the framework conditions in the fields of basic and further education and training are ensured.
Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the fact that many Muslims in Europe unfortunately do not have more than basic education, which ruins further career prospects in the labour market.
We must prevent groups of young people from losing themselves in frustration and a lack of perspective, from exacerbating these bad feelings in their circle of friends or within the family, and thus from entering a spiral that gives them the feeling there is no solution or way out of this social dilemma. No youth must reach the dead end of self-denial or the denial of other persons.
It is thus our task to convince young people that there is no situation from which there is no way out. For this we have to encourage young people. Let us get those people who have asserted themselves in society and let them talk publicly about how they did it. Let us give confidence through giving successful examples.
State and society can support the long-term integration of Muslim youth in many ways. Let me mention a few examples:
- By ensuring the provision of religious education in Islam which meets European standards with regard to basic and further training for teachers, the quality of the means of instruction, and educational concepts for children and youth.
- Through the introduction of a European curriculum for religious education. Austria has taken an important step by establishing a fully-fledged university study programme entitled "Islamic religious education" to train teachers of Islam for secondary schools in Austria.
- By establishing faculties of Islamic theology, as well as Imam training programmes at European universities and teacher training colleges.
- Through society’s support of Muslim initiatives which emphatically and determinedly speak out against teachings and traditions that contradict fundamental European values and do not have any roots in Islam.
- And lastly, but by no means least, through addressing questions of media globalisation to an increasing extent and in a more deliberate manner. The Internet entails the danger of radicalisation, we are aware of that. But it also offers the opportunity to hold a trans-national debate. The state and Muslim organisations should counteract the challenges of this media through orientation and cooperation. They should also clearly caution against contents that might endanger coexistence in Europe.
Let us invest in the education of our young people. In this way we invest in a more successful future for our continent.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dismantling bogeyman stereotypes and building friendly images is a modern European quality - spawned through painstakingly overcoming centuries of conflict across our small continent.
The European way of life respects faith in its manifold forms. It is the basis for tolerant and successful coexistence in Europe.
The enhanced and more effective integration of Muslims into this life model shall be a rewarding challenge for all.
On this occasion I would like to express my explicit thanks to Professor Anas Shakfeh for his work. He is an outstanding personality who has always tried to achieve mutual and common understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Thank you, Professor!
We know that dialogue becomes credible only if it is engaged in by all sides. Such discourse is not ritualised talking at cross-purposes, but genuine dialogue, with necessary deliberation and readiness to become involved.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We, on the Austrian side, are prepared to redouble our efforts to foster and engage in such dialogue every day anew.
If it succeeds, the effect will be twofold:
- a better understanding of our common European identity that will in turn confer confidence,
- an example in Europe and far beyond of a contemporary and future-oriented European-Islamic life model that draws its strength from a successful combination of Muslim religious identity and a solid foundation of European laws and values.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.