Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the European Commission and President Barroso, who unfortunately could not be here in person, I would like to thank Professor Schakfeh and the Islamic Authority in Austria, Dr Haupl and Foreign Minister Plassnik for this invitation to address you. We very much support the excellent initiative to make interfaith and intercultural dialogue one of the Austrian EU Presidency’s priorities.
In fact, as you have heard, this builds on a long Austrian tradition of commitment to this issue. President Barroso was impressed to hear we put relations between Islam and the state on a legislative footing as far back as 1912.
And since I had the honour of initiating and hosting your previous conference in Graz while I was Foreign Minister, I am very pleased to be here with you today.
Particularly because this is an absolutely crucial moment in intercultural and interfaith relations in Europe. At a time when many are questioning what constitutes a “European identity” and we are reflecting on the future of the European Union, Europe’s religious communities play a more important role than ever.
The European Commission is fully committed to fostering dialogue with Europe’s major religions and communities of conviction.
It is particularly important that the Islamic communities of Europe hear that message at the moment, when there is renewed attention to the so-called clash of civilisations.
I say “so-called” because this term is a misnomer. What we are facing today is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of ignorance.
After all, we have our roots in the same civilisations. Our major religions stem from the same root, belief in one god and the revelation.
But unfortunately these commonalities are too-often overlooked. In today’s uncertain times, the need to enhance cooperation and deepen understanding between peoples, cultures and faiths has never been more pressing.
As we reflect on the meaning and identity of Europe in the 21st Century, this Conference’s reflection on Islam in Europe is extremely welcome.
Europe is home to an estimated 20 million Muslims. So it is clear that Islam is as much a part of modern day Europe as it has been part of its history.
Europeans are proud of our religious, cultural and linguistic diversity, and yet “unity in diversity”, the EU’s motto, has still to be achieved. The reaction to the cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed were just the latest example of the gulfs of misunderstanding within Europe and beyond.
Freedom of religion is non-negotiable. It is a fundamental right of individuals and communities and entails respect for the integrity of all religious convictions and all ways in which they are exercised. Similarly, freedom of expression is central to Europe’s values and traditions. It is also non-negotiable. But it does come with responsibilities and should be exercised with the necessary sensitivity to others.
Two principles should guide us. First, it is unacceptable that any one group in society – Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Secular – seek the sole right to fix the parameters. And second, respect and understanding are the keys to any acceptable outcome.
Against this background it is immensely encouraging that you are here from across Europe to discuss the key issues Muslims in Europe face today: integration, political participation, equal opportunities for women, youth, freedom of expression, mutual understanding and respect.
It is emphatically not a question of European versus Islamic values. Nor is it a question of assimilation or of any community giving up core beliefs and value which are closes to their heart. As the Graz Declaration made clear, it is about European Muslims exercising their religious identity as Muslims and their social identity as Europeans, without any contradiction.
As respected leaders of your communities, you can work with us in combating ignorance and fighting fundamentalism and extremism on all sides.
The EU is playing its part, for example by setting up the European Monitoring Centre of Racism and Xenophobia here in Vienna, to provide vital data and analysis on these problems. This allows us to formulate policies and take targeted action that works.
Directives on equality, action plans, the 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and numerous Community programmes reflect the high priority we place on integrating Muslims communities into Europe and preserving essential European values like tolerance, diversity and peaceful dialogue.
Europe’s Muslims can also act as a bridge to Islamic communities beyond our shores. We cannot deny the deep-seated resentment, anger and frustration in much of the Muslim world, but the answer lies in closer partnership, based on dialogue and trust.
Last week at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum, Sudan, I said I wanted to find ways for us to cooperate more closely together, particularly on the subject of intercultural dialogue.
We are already using the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the European Neighbourhood Policy to increase our channels for dialogue. The Commission has a new 10 point plan for intercultural dialogue in the EuroMed partnership. The Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation will play an important role and the European Commission will do all in its power to make it an effective and active institution. And next month we will hold a Euro-Med seminar on xenophobia and racism in the media, a topic which deserves a full and frank debate.
We must involve all levels of society – public institutions, religious and cultural leaders, civil society and the media - in increasing cultural exchanges, improving understanding, promoting tolerance and deepening respect.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The issues you are addressing raise more questions than answers.
But by meeting here today you are taking steps in the right direction, and I hope that these kinds of opportunities for dialogue, both within and between communities will multiply. Because that is the way for us to get to know each other, and so to achieve the mutual respect and tolerance we strive for.
As Kofi Annan said, “The problem is never the faith, it is the faithful and how we behave towards each other.” That is a problem Europe has struggled with throughout history, but together we can and will make a difference.