Muslim Youth and Women in the West: Source of Concern or Source of Hope?
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Dr. Ursula Plassnik
for European and International Affairs
Muslim Youth and Women in the West: Source of Concern or Source of Hope?
Salzburg, 15 May 2007
Secretary General of the OSCE Marc Perrin de Brichambaut,
UN Special Envoy Iqbal Riza,
Director Mustapha Tlili,
Vice-President of the Salzburg Seminar Edward Mortimer,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I cordially welcome you to Salzburg.
Muslim youth and women in particular are often in the forefront of discussion over integration and the relationship between Islam and the West.
Often they become the "yardsticks" for successful or failed integration policy, and often they are styled as "victims" and see themselves as "discriminated against". At the same time, however, young Muslim men and women partly change the old hierarchies in gender relationships, and are thus agents of change in the transformation of Muslim families and communities.
Quite apart from the respective religious background it is generally accepted that in today’s world the great theme "identity and integration" poses many new and sophisticated challenges particularly for women and young people.
Reason enough to look into their basic situation, concerns, threats, problems, expectations and opportunities, and to devote due attention to it.
Often we lack - and I say this with self-criticism - a differentiating approach, and we must look behind reproaches and stereotypes if we want to develop concrete solutions to current problems.
After all, we want to talk frankly about problem areas and approaches to solutions in this event.
- Too many young people with a migration background have no education, no job, little or no perspective for economic independence and social ascendancy. To put it concisely: for a life as they would like to envision it. And - if you believe in statistical data - this applies to a greater extent to male youths than to female youths.
We know that a lack of perspective and a feeling of exclusion or of being deliberately excluded leads to a propensity for religious and political radicalisation.
- In the diversity "of forming an Islamic identity" there are many young people and women who consciously and actively develop a European-Islamic identity.
Muslim women, the way they dress, the question as to whether this is a visual sign of non-integration and non-acceptance of European values, have been discussed for years. The fact that even clothing is a delicate subject, and one which is not strictly private but involves aspects of legal and social policy, has already been appreciated prior to the Sahin vs. Turkey case and the respective judgement set down in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which dealt with the subject in a very careful and conscientious manner.
At the same time Muslim women are increasingly successful in their strive for equal education and professional training, as well as equal opportunities in the labour market.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A few words on Europe.
In modern Europe diversity is a reality which had been ferociously fought for until it was finally achieved. Meanwhile it has become the recognised - even the energising - core of our European self-conception. The daily application of pluralism is the truly successful "management concept" of our specific European life model. Europeans are turning out to be masters in the management of diversity.
The European Union is home to over 15 million Muslims - estimates reveal astonishing numerical differences, sometimes the figure is set at 20 to 30 million. They are either fellow citizens who represent Europe’s autochthonous Islam, or they are people who have come to us as refugees or migrants since the second half of the last century.
Europe, its politics and decision-makers are committed to diversity. This holds true for both the people and their countries: each single state, each community should recognise itself in this new European amalgam. And the final goal is that each individual man and woman, each human being contributes their roots, head and heart, and that they recognise themselves in this new Europe.
In this endeavour, the European Union stands - and this is the very starting point for me - on the firm foundations of the Enlightenment: reason, the separation of church and state, individual and political rights and freedoms, self-determination of the person and equal rights for men and women. The core of this life model is to impart pluralism, to live pluralism. By the way, Article I of the European Union’s constitutional draft contains a good summary of this objective.
To this quotation from the foundation of values I should like to add another remarkable quotation from the final declaration of the Conference of Leaders of Islamic Centres and Imams in Europe held in Graz in 2003: "European Muslims are equally aware of their religious identity as Muslims as they are of their social identity as Europeans." Diversity is based on a firm foundation of values. Europe has a carefully formulated acquis communautaire for the protection and promotion of this diversity, for the furtherance of equal opportunities and as a foil against discrimination.
But in our actual dealings with diversity, have we also known how to make the best of it in our everyday life together? Looking more closely, do we detect cracks and gaps? Are there vague areas? If yes, what are we doing about them?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Integration is an ever-new challenge.
Integration is a sophisticated social policy management task requiring a great deal of creativity. The new home country provides the framework conditions, although - and this is something I should like to emphasise - a lot remains to be done on all sides.
It is not a one-way street laid out by a majority society. On the contrary, integration means not only being a guest in a society but rather living in this society to the full, leading a life where everything revolves around it, participating in and co-shaping this society, having rights and obligations, and - in emotional terms - sharing in its happiness and sorrows. And finally, finding a home.
Integration is not a process which aims to endanger or make people lose their religious or cultural identity. A precondition for successful integration is also to deal honestly with the lives of Muslim women and youth - their life in our society, their concerns and objectives, and also their problems - in order to find solutions together.
Many themes raised at the Conference - Muslim identity, European Islam - relate to Muslim communities themselves, constituting a challenge for the internal dialogue between Muslims. In this effort, Muslim organisations and religious authorities have to fulfil an important orientation function.
At the same time we must aim for precision at the political level: not every issue relevant to integration is related to religious identity. The situation of, for example, Muslim women and youth is considerably more multi-faceted, and we should beware of discussing problems in the limited context of religious affiliation.
The concrete task is to make European values attractive for young people and to win them over without calling their religious identity into question. This also includes avoiding a situation in which groups of young people lose themselves in frustration and a lack of perspective, that in their circle of friends and families they fall into an ever-deeper and more rapid downward spiral in which everything appears hopeless. No young person must end up in the dead end street of self-denial or defamation of others.
So it is our common task to convince them that there must be no situation from which there is no way out. We have to encourage young people in this. Let’s get personalities who have asserted themselves in society, and let them talk in public about how they have made it. Successful examples may provide confidence.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We know that the youth of today will determine the Europe of tomorrow.
Language proficiency and education are crucial to the participation of young people in our society, and shall open the doors to their contribution in the social, cultural, economic and political milieu.
They are a key to their sharing in this co-shaping of our common future - being inside, rather than having to remain outside.
Austria promotes language courses at many levels. Let me mention but a few examples:
- There are courses for young "newcomers", male and female, who arrive in Austria shortly before compulsory education starts or after it has ended to assist them in becoming integrated
- There are "language" integration vouchers for new migrants, male and female, who come to Vienna within the framework of family reunions
- Or there is the "Mom is learning German" programme - language courses for mothers of school-age children.
The problematic future perspective of young Muslims can be most clearly observed in the labour market. If unemployment of young people constitutes a challenge in general, it is young people with a migration background who are especially affected. We need targeted measures that deal with this problem.
Let me give you an example: On 9 May, a position paper formulated by the Federation of Austrian Industry - with some 3,500 members it encompasses a weighty part of Austria’s entrepreneurial world - was presented in Vienna. Under the title "Creating common spaces for life - the future of migration and integration in Austria" it is designed to optimise framework conditions for people with a migration background who are already living in the country: by acquiring a good knowledge of the language, by becoming increasingly better qualified, by supporting children at an early stage, as well as through local and regional measures.
There is a "Muslim elite" developing in Europe - men and women who participate in society and who have made it both economically and socially. They can and should be credible role models, especially for young people.
But we also want to invest more in education about Europe and the formation of a European identity. After all, we live in the age of multiple identities. Patchwork identity - I think this is an appropriate term, since identity is nothing that is carved in stone but rather something that develops and is created during the course of life.
Participation requires being informed and having the necessary tools. I have therefore called for a new subject - "Europe" - to be introduced into Austrian schools from the first grade onwards. Its objective should be to allow recognition of that which is unfamiliar and instil confidence. Perhaps recognising what Arthur Rimbaud articulated in saying "Je est un autre" - "I is another", words which express being European in its roots, the pluralist basis of values in the European life model.
To me it is secondary what children discuss under the label "Europe", whether they talk about the Chinese wall or Turkish fellow citizens. The important thing is to recognise that which is different.
Integration may be promoted successfully through cooperation with Muslim educational facilities. Let me mention a few examples from the Austrian perspective:
- Provision of Islamic religious instruction which meets European standards with regard to the basic and further training of teachers, the quality of teaching aids as well as educational concepts for children and adolescents.
- Introduction of a European curriculum for religious instruction. With the introduction of the "Islamic religious education" university study programme Austria has taken an important step: this is where Austria’s secondary school teachers of Islamic religion should be trained.
- Establishment of Muslim theological faculties and educational programmes for Imams at European universities and teacher training colleges.
- Support by society for Muslim initiatives that resolutely reject doctrines and traditions which contradict European basic values and are not rooted in Islam.
- Another theme is increased awareness in dealing with questions of media globalisation. The Internet entails the danger of radicalisation. On the other hand it offers the opportunity to lead an open debate across borders. The state and Muslim organisations should face the challenges of this medium by engaging in co-operation and providing orientation. They should also clearly warn against content that could endanger co-existence in Europe.
Offering "the opportunity of finding a home" - I think this objective best describes the desired goal for which we should be working together.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
No matter which individual course Muslim women follow in their lives and no matter whether they wear a headscarf or not, they are facing specific challenges and are exposed to specific tensions in Western society, as well as in their own religious communities.
Our legally guaranteed social and political freedoms offer protection and encouragement. At the same time they may increase the pressure on how to shape Muslim female identity.
The Conference of European Imams and Ministers in Vienna in 2006 clearly addressed the question of what remains to be done: the responsible religious authorities have to take clear positions on such issues as the defence of women’s rights and women’s image in which the Muslim woman has a full and equal share in all spheres of society.
And the same Vienna Imam Conference formulated the following groundbreaking statements with regard to participation: "Men and women are equal partners in Islam; they carry mutual responsibility and are equal in human dignity. The right to study and teach, the right to work, financial independence, the right to vote and the eligibility for political office and the participation in the social discourse are pillars which are to guarantee this status."
In my opinion, the active participation of women in decision-making processes - at an equal level with men and not only with regard to so-called classic women’s issues but in relation to any subject - in internal dialogue and in the dialogue between cultures, is the very core and basis. I am convinced that no society can do without the strength, experience and expertise of women.
The training and education of young people is also affected by the position of women. A modern, open-minded mother will strive to give her children confidence, open up opportunities for them and do everything to ensure their successful future.
Muslim women in our societies - I have already addressed this point and we are all aware of it - are by no means a homogeneous group. They are characterised by diversity - not only by different countries of origin, different kinds of education, their situation in society and in their family, but also by their personal and highly different life patterns.
Carla Amina Baghajati, the media spokeswoman of the Islamic Faith Community in Austria, is getting to the point when she says that Muslim women - particularly if they wear headscarves - are the subject of more or less any discussion related to the theme of "Islam in Europe" ranging from the issue of integration to questions of security. She says that "this is usually done without asking them and by talking about them rather than with them."
Regarding the wishes Muslim women voice with regard to politics, I should like to have Ms Baghajati express them. She sees two levels of what remains to be done:
1. Necessary action on the Muslim side: Responsible religious authorities should take a clear stand on the defence of women’s rights and women’s image based on equal rights:
- Cases in which women are wronged should be openly reviewed on a self-critical basis. And there should be no rejection through the claim that "this is not Islam." In Carla Amina Baghajati’s opinion this is the only way of achieving positive awareness within the Muslim community.
- Networking with facilities of civil society and other organisations supporting women’s rights and human rights should be increased. Pointing out that which concerns us all, such as violence against women. "As if there were no other beating husbands in Austria," (end of Baghajati quote).
2. Necessary action in society and politics in general:
- The topics should be dealt with honestly, without simplification, populist effects or self-complacency.
- Effective anti-discrimination measures should be taken, including the creation of possibilities for stronger participation by Muslim women.
- Awareness should be raised with regard to contradictions and dependencies: When women cannot go to work to become financially independent from their husbands, this is caused by the difficulties involved in getting foreign certificates acknowledged, by problems concerning access to the labour market, also on account of the Act governing the rights of foreigners, and not "by Islam", as is often generalised. When wives do not end a marriage although it is on the rocks, this attitude may be due to fears of losing their residence permit, which is linked to the husband.
These are some of Carla Amina Baghajati’s comments.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Terror caused by people who pretend to act in the name of Islam. Anger and radicalisation of marginalised groups. These pictures give rise to tendencies towards negative generalisation in our country.
The dangerous thing about stereotypes is that they paralyse. They threaten to take hostage the positive potential of entire societies - both in the Muslim world and in the Western world. We should - and must - identify stereotypes, unmask and dismantle them.
Two current European initiatives which are facing this challenge are the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All (2007) and the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (2008).
One principle of the European life model is committed dialogue - based on mutual curiosity and interest, not on toleration, for "tolerating means offending" (Goethe), not on indifference disguised as tolerance.
It is particularly the Austrian model of dealing with our Muslim fellow citizens that has proven successful. The "Memorandum by the Islamic Faith Community in Austria on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of European unity" describes it as "a well-balanced relationship between the state and recognised religious communities," including Islam, which has been recognised in Austria since 1912. We have a climate in which issues are dealt with constructively at an equal level, and in which solutions can be found.
We are trying to keep both hands stretched out. The one hand is stretched out inwards - towards our Muslim fellow citizens - the other hand is stretched out outwards -towards our Muslim partners in the world. In this, we are aware of the crucial role of European Muslims, men and women alike.
I wish the Conference, its initiator Director Mustapha Tlili and his "Dialogues" team, a most successful event.