Europe’s Dialogue with the Islamic World – a German Perspective

The following talk was given by Dr. Gunther Mulack, as part of the “Engaging with the Islamic World” conference, German-British conference at the Federal Foreign Office, on April 13, 2005.

Europe’s Dialogue with the Islamic World – a German Perspective

by Dr. Gunther Mulack, Ambassador for the Dialogue with the Islamic World

Our relationship with the world of Islam has become one of Germany’s top foreign-policy priorities. This relationship is important not just on economic and cultural grounds but for reasons of security policy, too.

Germany and the Islamic world have a long tradition of good relations, from which both have richly benefited. A traveller in the Muslim world in former times could meet scores of German traders, explorers, archaeologists and scientists – but never any soldiers, for we were never a colonial power in this part of the world. German orientalists, however, have made distinguished contributions to research in a host of different fields ranging from the history of Islam, Arabic philology and literature to Arab science and archaeology. That may be history, but we are still very active in most of these fields.

The task facing us now, in this globalized world of the 21st century, is to explore how we can go forward together, how we can harness our efforts so as to tackle effectively the challenges that lie ahead. We must ask what can be done to expand our relations with the Muslim world and help resolve its problems.

The answer to me is clear: we need to intensify not only our dialogue but also effective cooperation at all levels, including civil society. In addition, we must do more to combat Islamophobia in Europe. We need to work harder to encourage all sections of society to learn more about each other and about the faith and culture of Islam. That calls for a joint effort on both sides!

The events of 9/11 and the many acts of terrorism since – Djerba, Bali, Mombasa, Casablanca and the Madrid train bombings – sent shock waves reverberating around the whole world. In such a climate promoting cooperation and dialogue along the lines I have described is bound to be hard going. The ongoing violence in Iraq with all its negative repercussions clearly makes the task no easier, but at the same time highlights why it is so important.

Many of these terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the name of Islam or jihad. As a result, Islam is again being increasingly perceived as a threat to the West or, more precisely, to Western societies and values. In the same way, current US policies are increasingly seen in the Islamic world as a revival of the crusades or proof of America’s imperial ambitions. The violence in Palestine and Iraq is viewed as an attack on the Muslim Ummah.

The callous disregard for human life displayed by the perpetrators of the 9/11 and other more recent attacks revolted people everywhere, including the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Regrettably, however, these attacks helped reinforce Western tendencies to regard Muslims

as violent fanatics and caused even ordinary Muslims living peacefully in our midst to be viewed with suspicion. For us Germans it was painful to realize, moreover, that some of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks had planned them while living amongst us as apparently normal students.

Many people are now asking, as Bernard Lewis put it, what went wrong? We are still searching for the answers, still trying to grasp the underlying reasons. What the root causes of such extremist violence are continues to be much debated both by the specialists and by the general public. In general, I would say that interest in the Islamic world as a whole and in particular Islam as a religion and a political system has grown considerably in recent years. Numerous books have been written on the subject; discussions, workshops and seminars have focused on its many different aspects. From this debate one thing has emerged very clearly: we must engage more actively in the process of analysis and dialogue with the Muslim world and also with the Muslim communities within our own societies in Europe. It is crucial that we work together to counteract negative stereotypes and identify where we have common ground.

As far as Germany is concerned, a start has been made. In December 2004 a Muslim Academy was inaugurated in Berlin, which I believe will offer an excellent forum for serious debate and discussion. At the University of Münster a German Muslim scholar is now teaching Muslim theology – in German of course. These are just some examples of what we are doing to raise awareness about Islam and also to get across to our citizens that Islam, too, is now a European religion. The recent murder by a young Muslim of a controversial Dutch filmmaker in the Netherlands, a country known for its very liberal climate, left people across Europe shocked and stunned. This tragic incident has triggered a broad debate in Europe about immigration and attitudes towards Islam. It has also highlighted the threat radical Islamist ideology poses to our societies and the extent to which radical Muslim circles reject our social norms. In the wake of the murder there were unfortunately also some acts of revenge against Muslim institutions, which on all sides were categorically condemned. These events underline how vital it is that we intensify our dialogue with Muslim communities across Europe. That is the key to ensuring that all sections of our societies can live together amicably in years to come. The kind of multiculturalism often practiced in the past – which encouraged separate cultural development – is, as we are now starting to realize, probably not the best way to integrate Muslims in Europe into the mainstream community. What the right approach is remains a subject of debate. In the realm of the media at any rate, there is no doubt that anti-Muslim mistrust and prejudice have increased in recent years. At the same time, however, extremist views have gained ground especially amongst frustrated young male Muslims.

It is now almost three years since the German Foreign Office established a Task Force for the Dialogue with the Islamic World and appointed me as Commissioner for this dialogue and the dialogue among civilizations. To help us we have recruited a number of specialists, who work either as part of my team in Berlin or in our Embassies abroad. The key priority for all of us is to develop dialogue and cooperation with the Islamic world.

From my long experience especially of Arab countries, I am convinced we have to do more to bridge the growing gap between the West and the Islamic world. We have to analyse the root causes of the growing hatred, violence and animosity between civilizations across the world.

Why is it that radical fundamentalist or Islamist groups are finding ever more adherents especially among the frustrated youth of Muslim countries? Why is it that the values of the Western world have become tarnished in the eyes of many Muslims? It goes without saying that fundamentalism is a phenomenon not specific to the Islamic world. Fundamentalist Protestantism, for example, is part of the American heritage and still very much alive and flourishing. Let me be quite clear on this point: it is not fundamentalism itself but its radical or extremist political manifestation that we object to.

It is important to understand, moreover, that this political radicalization is largely due to the total suppression of opposition in most Muslim countries – at least in the Arab world – and the tight control exercised by the powers-that-be over the political process. Social injustice, weak economic performance and glaring corruption are further contributing factors. The perceived injustice in the way Muslims in general are treated by the rest of the world also has a powerful influence.

There is no doubt that in the Islamic world especially people are deeply troubled by the ongoing violence in the Palestinian territories, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The many civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda as well as the daily
killings in Iraq have caused a further rift between the West and the Islamic world. Both sides feel threatened and victimized. In the media negative clichés abound. The images reaching homes all over the world via satellite television have an enormous emotional impact.

Whether the impressions created by the coverage of CNN or Arab satellite TV channels are correct does not really matter. The point is that these impressions shape the outlook and perceptions of millions – even hundreds of millions – of Muslims around the world. For many Muslims, perhaps for a majority in fact, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and US occupation of Iraq are seen as proof that there is indeed a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. That is something, however, which from a European point of view must be avoided at all costs. Yes, in the political domain we do indeed have a clash. But we are not yet facing a clash of civilizations.

The impression that the West applies double standards has deeply embittered and disappointed many Arabs as well as Muslims around the world. They ask whether human rights, for example, are something only people in the West are entitled to; they ask whether the West invokes human rights merely as a means to put pressure on other nations, not to better people’s lives. The events in Iraq, the sickening pictures from Abu Ghraib prison have deeply undermined the trust that is essential for successful dialogue. Without trust no real dialogue is possible.

In the face of this dilemma we have only one choice: we must strive actively to build trust. This means we must listen more carefully to our partners, we must take their concerns seriously and we must intensify contacts at all levels. It is important, too, that we bring things out into the open and call problems by their true name. However, we do not want to impose our view of the world and our philosophy on our partners. Here I have the feeling there is a big difference between the American and the European approach. Europe is no longer interested

in power games; the world we want to see is a world of lasting peace based on justice and the rule of law. While Americans tend to see the world as divided between good and evil, friends and enemies, we in Europe see a more complex picture. We are convinced of the value of multilateral negotiations and cooperation as well as the importance of resolving conflicts by peaceful means and in accordance with the law. I personally believe that if principles of justice and the rule of law played a more prominent role in international relations, this would be a tremendous boon to world peace and stability. Here human rights and internationally agreed norms obviously have a key role to play.

I am sure we can agree on the importance of conducting a serious dialogue of civilizations along these lines. Such a dialogue can serve to rectify negative stereotypes and build the mutual trust that will help us find peaceful solutions to the many conflicts we see around the world. Of course we must fight terrorism with the utmost vigour, but it is crucial, too, that we intensify our dialogue. How we respond to this challenge will decide whether we will live in future in a world of escalating cultural and ethnic conflict or in a world in which different civilizations coexist and cooperate peacefully. The frightening scenario of escalating conflict in a world of almost 7 billion people should be a powerful incentive to all of us to look for practical ways to foster understanding and cooperation. What we need, as Minister Fischer has put it, is a culture of tolerance. This cannot be a one-way street, however, it has to work both ways.

True tolerance requires that we learn to know and understand better those who are different from ourselves. We have to accept the fact that people have different traditions, religions and values. In the Muslim world, for example, religion is a prime source of identity. Pluralism, on the other hand, is crucial to the notion of tolerance. We need to seek a common understanding of those values that will guide us through the 21st century. There are values and legal principles to which we can all subscribe. Clearly nobody, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or non-believer, wants to be tortured. To agree on a set of shared values is certainly a very ambitious goal. To make any progress, we have to start work at home, within our own societies. We have to learn and practise tolerance vis-à-vis other communities living in our midst. Real dialogue is only possible if there is a solid consensus on those values and norms we share. Concepts of justice are bound to play a very prominent role here, especially in the Muslim world. The just ruler prized by tradition is unfortunately very rare in reality! Social justice is one of those principles to which lip service is paid but is often disregarded in practice.

In any dialogue and fruitful interaction there must be mutual respect for the religion, culture and civilization of all participants. We do not insist that our own values and philosophy are the only way to live in peace with one another. We believe, however, there must be a readiness to listen and to discuss all points – whether we agree with them or not – that may be raised. Otherwise only monologues will be possible.

The dialogue we seek will help us explore whether we really share the same understanding of the importance of individual liberty and other fundamental rights and freedoms, including the rights of women. We in the West must also accept that many people in the Muslim world want to pursue an Islamic path to a better future. There are shared values but also values that are different. Obviously we cannot export democracy in the way we export Coca Cola or jeans. It is up to societies everywhere to develop their own modes of governance, their own approach to freedom and pluralism, albeit on the basis of internationally recognized legal standards and norms. In Europe, I have to admit, there are certainly Muslims who suffer from isolation and social exclusion, yet they are free to practise their faith. In some Islamic countries, however, the freedom of Christians to practise their religion is still severely limited. Tolerance has to work both ways, however, it is a principle that is valid for everyone.

With whom do we conduct our dialogue with the Muslim world? Certainly with the cultural and political elites and also with civil society. But since these elites are mostly in their fifties or sixties, it is clearly crucial to involve young people and future leaders in the dialogue as well. After all, 60% of the population of the Muslim world are under the age of 25! Who speaks for them? In future we must focus much more strongly on how to reach the younger generation. In this connection cooperation with universities is definitely very important.

There is another aspect whose importance has become increasingly apparent over the past few years: this dialogue can only succeed with partners who are also committed to dialogue within their own societies. So clearly we for our part must do whatever we can to encourage

efforts to nurture dialogue and pluralism within Muslim societies. After all, the golden age of Islam of which many people dream was also an age of pluralism and tolerance. That was the basis of its success in science, technology, trade and the world of learning. Today I see too much emphasis on narrow interpretations of Islam and too much infighting in the Islamic world (between Sunni and Shi’a, for example). The Islamic world should be proud of its pluralism!

My impression from many years of living and working in Muslim countries is that young people there basically have the same dreams as young people in the West. They would like to lead a life of freedom, dignity and prosperity, a life free of repression and violence. So it is clearly in the interest of the great majority of people all over the world that we seek a dialogue and better understanding with all sections of society. If we want to help overcome some of the frustrations existing especially among the young – and which in many ways contribute to violence – then we have to assist countries everywhere in their efforts to combat poverty, raise education and social standards and encourage their citizens to participate fully in the life of society.

It is important, too, that we in Europe should try to better understand the outlook and perceptions of people in the Islamic world. There is a strong longing for justice and a widespread feeling of having been wronged and unfairly treated by the West. How should we react to this? The way forward, I believe, is to be honest and straightforward in our dealings with the Islamic world, to give nobody any cause to accuse us of double standards. Only if we seek dialogue with our partners on an equal footing and respect our cultural differences will it be possible to gradually dispel the very negative sentiments which have received an enormous boost in recent years and generate new momentum for building mutual trust.

I agree of course there are also many question-marks that remain. Is the Islamic world prepared to contribute to this joint effort? Is there a readiness to seriously discuss the tensions and contradictions that arise from a strict interpretation of the Sharia on the one hand and universal human rights as we understand them on the other? Are our dialogue partners willing to recognize that there are manifold reasons for the frustration running high across the Muslim world, which cannot be attributed either to the Middle East conflict or to Western imperialism or the legacy of colonialism?

We Europeans are direct neighbours of the Middle East and have many excellent contacts with the larger Muslim world. We realize that our neighbours have complicated problems, which often directly affect our own security as well as our relations with them. Hence political cooperation and engagement with the Muslim world are for us a key priority. What shapes Europe’s strategic culture today are not the traditional tools of power – military might – but the so-called soft-power tools such as economics, trade, cultural relations, education and dialogue. So let us intensify cooperation in these fields. We have to be more frank in our dialogue with governments in the Islamic world, we have to press for progress on good governance and respect for the rule of law, including press freedom and freedom of opinion, we have to call for a liberalization not only of the economy but of political life as well. The long-term stability of societies throughout the Muslim world depends on more political participation, more freedom and democracy. Here we can offer our help and our experience.

In the 21st century the knowledge society will be trumps, as we are all well aware. The spread of knowledge has long been one of Islam’s noblest goals. Against this background, we must make it our task to help our Muslim partners improve standards of education and develop language and other skills. That is not only in their interest, it is in our own interest, too.

To sum up: the lessons to be drawn from the tragic events of 9/11 are manifold. The globalized world of the 21st century is facing a host of challenges and problems which can only be mastered if we reject violence and work together with a sense of common purpose. We are keen to intensify dialogue and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance. We are willing to listen more attentively to the views of our Muslim partners and friends. However, this also requires that all sides are frank, open and self-critical, that we put our relations onto a more honest footing and clearly define our respective interests. Of course there may be different ways to achieve our common goal: to live in peace with people throughout the world as well as with all communities within our own countries. It is vital, however, that we all do more to make headway towards that goal!


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