2015 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue“Building inclusive societies together”
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It is with real pleasure that I introduce our keynote speaker:
Dr Ismail Serageldin – Founding Director of the new Library in Alexandria.
I am also delighted to welcome Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Professor Francesco Ragazzi…
…who will be presenting on each of our sub-themes, later on.
I will let these distinguished guests speak for themselves…
…but I do thank them for speaking here today…
…and I thank them for speaking out in the name of tolerant and inclusive societies.
Let me extend also my warm welcome to all the eminent religious and non-religious leaders who have joined us today. You wisdom and authority on these topics will be invaluable.
Dear friends, these days, too often, the loudest voices are the extreme, the angry and the hateful.
Xenophobes marching through the streets.
Populists playing on people’s fears.
Radicals spreading hate speech online.
Their messages are powerful because they are devastatingly simple:
Whatever your problems: blame Muslims; blame Jews; blame liberals.
More and more we see religion abused.
By the radicals who pervert Islam to wage war…
…and to brainwash young people into becoming terrorists and murders.
And by irresponsible politicians who seek to benefit from division in our communities.
We are seeing this right now in France…
…where a number of Mayors have banned non-pork alternatives from school canteens.
So, on the days when pork is on the menu…
…Muslim and Jewish pupils will be offered just the side dishes, instead.
They say it is to preserve the neutrality of the state.
But it is a deliberate misuse of French secularism…
…to stigmatise Muslim children in particular…
…and to capitalise on an anti-immigrant mood.
It hurts religion when it is distorted and politicised.
And it hurts politics when it is hijacked in the name of faith.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was wrong to demand that the country’s government turn away Syrian refugees…
…in order to prevent an ‘invasion’ which would cause the Bulgarian people to ‘disappear’.
For one thing, no refugee should ever be refused asylum on the basis of religion:
It is in direct conflict with international law.
And in democratic society we make decisions on issues like migration based on reasoned debate – not dogma.
We weigh up the needs of all individuals, beliefs and groups.
Religion is personal: it is something you have; something you are.
But democracy is about compromise and about finding ways to live together.
And it is this idea – of living together – which is the key point.
In Europe, diversity is here to stay.
Those who seek to banish Islam or any other religion put us on very dangerous territory indeed:
It is the surest way to stoke anger and extremism.
I want to praise the many religious leaders who have condemned acts of terror and violence, in Europe and elsewhere.
Your words carry immense weight in these debates.
Earlier this year, I participated in the Whitehouse’s counter-terrorism summit.
Sheikh Yakoubi, a Syrian scholar, made the point that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share a problem.
Historically, he said, their followers have always been considered “people of the book”.
Their paths were lit by teachings that were embodied in great texts…
…and which were passed down from one generation to the next.
Yet, these days, far fewer people have, actually, read the book.
Most likely they have heard bits and pieces, some accurate, some not.
And that includes the radicalised.
Last year, two British men were intercepted after travelling to Syria to join Da’esh.
What reading material had they bought for their trip?
‘Islam for Dummies’.
We are not dealing with the devout.
So our words and teachings matter.
And we need some devastatingly simple messages of our own.
It is time for all of us…
Rabbis, imams, priests, politicians, civic leaders, international institutions…
…to say in the clearest, plainest, terms:
God does not sanction murder.
No religion commands you to issue a death sentence.
In Europe we have outlawed capital punishment – no faith permits you to bring it back.
It sounds elementary – but it is crucial.
In our societies we spend a great deal of time on debates about Burkas and headscarves, Halal meat and crucifixes in our schools…
…and these are important issues, of course.
Indeed, I’m sure they will be discussed today – and I hope they are.
But perhaps we have lost sight of the need for simple messages…
…delivered with one, resounding voice.
Simple messages which we assert over and over again…
…in the places where the young and marginalised are most vulnerable:
Schools, deprived communities, prisons, online.
And – as Dr Serageldin says – as we challenge extremist propaganda…
…let us teach our citizens to respect each other’s differences…
…but let us also teach them about what makes them the same.
When Dr Serageldin came to Strasbourg to address the Council of Europe… …
…he talked about the need to “emphasise pluralism and inclusion…
…by presenting a coherent historical narrative that gives all the citizens of Europe something to feel proud of…
…and to recognise themselves in the magnificent enterprise that is the construction of Europe.”
Europe today is built on the achievements of our ancestors from the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions.
Our history is a shared one – and our future is too.
This is the story we must tell.
I was therefore very pleased to discuss with our keynote speakers yesterday my proposal to form a new group of eminent thinkers…
…from within the Islamic world and outside of it…
…who will help us put this story together.
Alongside the group’s analysis, which will look at the history of relations between the Muslim world and the rest of Europe…
…it will recommend concrete actions…
…targeted towards different groups…
…including Muslim communities, non-Muslim communities, schools and pre-schools, and other places where young people form their views.
The emphasis will be on action from an early stage…
…and with special attention paid to tackling extremism on the Internet.
Now let me introduce our next speaker.
Dr Serageldin has published hundreds of books and papers…
…on topics ranging from biotechnology, to freedom of expression, to the roles of religion and science in society.
He has received 34 honorary doctorates, alongside his own degrees from Cairo University and Harvard.
He is an economist; an advisor to world leaders; a great thinker – and even a successful television host…
…and the Council of Europe is honoured to welcome him today.