Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights
Tolerance and respect: Preventing and combating anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe
Testimony on specific challenges linked to anti-Muslim hatred
“Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”. Holy Qur’an: surat al-baqarah II, 62.
His Excellency Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission,
His Excellency Minister Felix Braz, Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU,
His Excellency Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament,
His Eminence Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of COMECE,
Dear colleague and brotherly friend Rabbi Albert Guigui, chief rabbi of Bruxelles, Ladies and Gentlemen,
First and foremost, I would like to thank President Timmermans for this kind invitation and for having promoted this first important Colloquium on Fundamental Rights along with the Commissioner Vera Jourova.
Asking a European Imam to analyze and suggest work paths to prevent hatred and phobia and to promote respect for the dignity of Muslims presupposes first an awareness of the identity of both European Muslims and of phobia and hatred.
Love as an antidote of hatred
The person who is talking to you has had the honor of sharing a historical initiative of 138 international Muslim thinkers that, in October 2007, have promoted the document “A Common Word between us and you” based on the commandment that ties Muslims and Christians together in their love of God and neighbor. Through this initiative I participated to the two Catholic-Muslim Forums of 2008 and 2014 in the Vatican where delegations of Muslim leaders have encountered Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
The love of God and neighbor are thus the common commandments that link not only Muslims and Christians but also all the honest believers and all the citizens who feel coherent with this natural principle and fundamental right, a theological and civic commandment that is a real antidote to the hatred caused by religious exclusivism, ideological nationalism, individual egoism. The prophet Muhammad has taught us: “None of you has faith until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself” (Sahih Muslim , Kitab al-Iman, 67-1, Hadith no.45).
Islam and its doctrine, similarly to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, are thus religions that have always taught us love for the absolute principle and have inspired brotherhood, dialogue and cooperation between different people in the respect of plurality and of the internal differences within the same community and of the different spiritual paths and cultural expressions.
Soul illness as a cause of hatred
There have been numerous episodes of hatred, violence, conflict and disorder in the history of Islamic civilization and of different religions, but Masters and theologians attribute the cause of this disorder and this hatred to the loss of true faith and true reason, in the struggle that every believer faces between the forces of Good and Evil.
Another cause of hatred is the ignorance of the nature of religion and the ignorance of human dignity that prevent creatures from managing the mystery of the Unity of God in the multiplicity of humankind and of religious paths.
It is precisely this ignorance that instigates human beings to separation, division and secession, with consequences that range from isolation to ghettoization, from victimism to conformism, from radicalism to homogenization, from fundamentalism to assimilation. All of these are extremisms that degenerate in a distrust in oneself and in the neighbor and nourish even more the hatred in a violent and dishonest competition.
Finally, a further cause of conflict is the confusion between the dimensions of the spirit and those of the service, between heart and soul, according to the teaching of some Muslim sages, in other words, the overlapping duties of each believer of protecting and managing altogether the harmony of this world with the illusion of an exclusive possession of the property of earth, leading to a thirst for totalitarian power, a global government obsessed with selfishness and which has lost the sense of proportions and of traditional hierarchy, an ego spoiled by avarice and tyrannical pride.
According to a perspective of religious recall, it is thus the illnesses of a decayed and passionate soul that feed violence both in attempting to accomplish a holocaust (sacrifice) against a religious identity such as the Jewish one or an ethnic cleansing against a Muslim community, or in promoting a racist law that discriminates the people on the basis of their religious background, manipulating the terms of race and religion or conferring them a distorted meaning of propaganda aiming at justifying a “sacrifice” or a “cleansing” and overall a “brainwashing”.
The Dark Side of History
In the history of Europe, we have studied episodes of crusades that for three centuries have attempted to “free the Christian jurisdiction from Arab occupation” until the XVIIth Century war that, for thirty years, has confronted Christians from two different interpretations. Moreover, we have the case of colonization, which lasted for at least three centuries, and which was apparently promoted to “educate the wild” during the conquest of “foreign” territories and to “get enriched with human resources” and raw material, while in recent history we have witnessed an attempt to exterminate a European religious community, be it Jewish or Muslim.
It shall be reminded that, still in the XX century, Europeans have defeated anarchical terrorism of organized criminal groups that, in the name of their radical political ideology, have attacked national institutions while, since recent decades, we have witnessed with great worry the introduction of the same method mentality by a minority of formalists and puritans that use Islam to spread their utopia to revolutionize the “corrupted Western imperialism”.
Periodically, in moments of crisis in history, some individuals have abused “right reasons” to legitimize their own arrogance and demand to have the right to eliminate the Evil associated on purpose only to another community considered as responsible of not conforming to their manipulation of faith, intelligence, health and freedom of communication and circulation.
Citizens, believers, cultures, civilizations, religious communities, monks and nuns, masters and theologians, rabbis, priests and imams, have thus never constituted the cause of hatred or violence and neither have cities or nations, sacred doctrines and rituals, languages and behaviours, systems of life and of government, synagogues, churches and mosques, political institutions, hospitals, schools, houses, kosher or halal markets and cemeteries. In these places, throughout all European history, men and women, old and young, from different spiritual orientations have contributed to building contemporary thought and society with love for God and for the neighbor, without fear, psychosis or phobia.
Phobia of Phobia
Still, some sociologists have invented the word Islamophobia, while there has never existed a phobia for another religion, civilization or culture. Fear of Islam, islamophobia, a word that has no sense and that recalls arachnofobia, fear of spiders, or claustrophobia, fear of closed spaces. It is a psychological pathology that hits some people and has nothing to do with demonizing spiders or closed spaces. Now, building the illusion of a pathology like the fear of a religious doctrine or of the behavior of a civilizations may generate “therapies” that are even worse and that start with distrust and suspicion and degenerate in insecurity and discrimination.
The artifice of the paradigm is the following: Islam scares, in order to defeat fear, I have to defeat Islam or, as an alternative (there is a soft version): Islam scares, to change my fear I have to change Islam into a “fearless islam”.
In the first case, defeating the fear of Islam often means exasperating some stereotypes about Muslims, confusing on purpose religious diversity with cultural diversity, immigration with terrorism and generalizing individual peculiarities and attributing them to the whole fourteen centuries long Islamic doctrine and civilization. What strikes us most about among these improvised and emotive critics of the history of the homo musulmanus is the denial of the whole truth about Islamic doctrine and civilization.
In the second case, we assist to the construction of a laboratory of the moderated, secular, standardized, and integrated (in the sense of domesticated) Muslim. It is often a London businessman with a Christian Dior tie, a baker or a caregiver who have been happily integrated to the Western habit but who are still ignorant, or rather ignored about their roots and spiritual identities.
The real problem emerges thus from the fact that the European Islamic community does not correspond to these two approximate paths expected from some sociologists, and overall, has nothing to do with the artifice of a pathological premise called Islamophobia.
False fears and the solution to European Islam
Behind this pathology we have the fear that other hidden feelings are behind some violent reactions and that the real aim is to attack Islam in order to defend an ideal or a mentality that might have been put into discussion by the presence of Muslim religious people in Europe.
The ideal of a society emancipated from references to transcendence along with a flattened mentality about the culture of industrial and technological progress seem to be the basis of a model of the modern Man and of the society of well being that some Western philosophers have promoted in the last centuries.
Protestant fundamentalism, like other conservative minorities that also exist in different religions have adopted a defensive reaction in front of this «contamination of traditional values» and this revolution of traditions.
Other religious representatives or institutions like the Roman Apostolic Catholic Church have instead adopted the method of internal consultation and of public debate that would contain the excess of a certain secularist agressiveness and adapt some social innovations within the respect of religious tradition.
Purists believe these adaptations are compromises that leave unsatisfied both the ultra progressists and the ultra conservatives. But the founding fathers of Europe, Adenauer, De Gasperi, Schuman, have been able to build a juridical and cultural structure that guarantees an open dynamic to this constructive and respectful debate between religions, reason, politics, cultures and society.
In parallel, Islamist extremism was born in the last century with an indoctrination that pulls its inspiration from fundamentalism, puritanism and formalism and adds a desire of postcolonial, anti imperialist and pan Arabic revenge. The ideological consequence of this radical movement was stirring up a conflict of power and a presumed affirmation of one’s superior pride in front of the West. While the subversive consequence remains the degeneration of terrorism that finds inspiration in extreme left of right.
In this case, the alternative to Islamic fundamentalism is represented by a first generation of European Muslims, indigenous or by adoption, that have known, like the Catholic Church, how to develop an internal consultation with the authentic wisemen of the Oriental Islamic community who are not contaminated by politics, and how to promote traditional adaptations that would take into consideration the historical, intercultural and pluralistic religious context in Europe.
The intellectual contribution of this first generation of European Muslims is illustrated in the testimony of a sensibility to public debate on social and philosophical challenges, of universal values of global citizenship, in an active involvement in interreligious dialogue as a path of brotherly cooperation and occasion of spiritual progress.
It seems evident for the heirs of the principles and politics of European integration which interlocutors should be supported in order to avoid the ambiguity of a political tendency of radical Islam that aims at proclaiming itself as the fundamental, and often exclusive, interlocutor of Muslim immigrants or refugees from the crisis of Arab nations and, overall, in order to avoid the dialogue of Eurocentric fascisms that deny Muslims from equal religious and civic dignity as every European believer and citizen.
Hatred towards every Muslim may be fed by the fear of fundamentalism and extremism or by the ambiguity of certain persons looking for media affirmation, but it could be repositioned since, even for the European Muslim community, as it is the case for the most antique and noble Christian and Jewish communities, we recognize the representatives and leaders who are able to decline harmoniously an authentic religious identity, interreligious brotherhood, intercultural education and civic responsibility.
It is never a religion or a civilization or a culture that is at the origin of fear or hatred, even less so Islam and the Muslims who have been in the West for centuries of art, intellectual and intercultural exchanges and profound spirituality. What really scares the Muslims, all believers, all European citizens, is the chaos of ideological suggestions that foment civil disorder and the revolution of traditions, taking advantage, on the one hand, of the crisis of values in postmodern society and, on the other hand, the obsession against a specific culture or a religious identity that, actually, is only the hostage and coverage of a profane and uncivil power struggle.
It is only this narrative that should scare us and is the cause of hatred. Religious believers who are faithful to their own spiritual vocation should react with a greater awareness about this instrumentalization and find the internal antidotes that would be an efficient prevention for the youth against betraying coherence with their European education and their religious identity.
In this work, European Muslim religious authorities hold a special function: that of precisely communicating the synthesis of a new cultural model between religious authenticities and European perspective, the encounter between modernity and the patrimony inherited from the traditional history of the people, the fundamental opportunity of interreligious dialogue and cooperation with institutions.
The value of citizenship should be experienced with the awareness about respect and solidarity and expects that whoever is offended or affected will find hospitality and brotherhood in any national religious community of the European Union, exactly as it has been happening since years ago in Paris, in Brussels, in Rome when our delegation of European muslims wanted to express not only their condolences to the victims of a cowardly attack, but also extend our concrete proximity to the Jewish community, and, in a simple way, to Birman Buddhist monks and to the persecuted Christians in the East.
In order to answer with wisdom and intellectual honesty to this common challenge of European citizens and of our institutions together towards believers we need to build a new working method and a professional and communication training.
This answer to hatred and to fear has to be coordinated by an interdisciplinary European Platform made of institutional leaders, trustworthy religious representatives and wisemen from different civil society sectors, with a deep experience in democratic education, economic development, international relations, intercultural education and social cohesion.
The constitution of such a team of counselors that hold the function of holistic connection between specific sectors that act as a bridge between the Eat and the West, civil society and secular institutions, religious culture and integration and security policies, will allow overcoming old schemes and preconceptions that are by now too far from reality, from the needs of the people and from the faithful and updated declination of the noble principles of “unity in diversity” of Europe.
It is important here to stress that active and constructive participation of religious communities and their leaders in society at different levels is the natural antidote to an increasing risk of fundamentalism and related security problems.
Best practice concrete steps in Italy
I would like to draw your attention to a few examples of educational activities at different levels which COREIS is promoting in order to encourage interfaith and intercultural values and prevent exclusivism, religious ignorance and ignorance of the religions, with regard to the monitoring and prevention of violations of the dignity of Muslims living in Europe.
During the last years COREIS took part of international training programs for the leaders of Islamic communities from all over Europe:
● in Warsaw, in November 2013, at a seminar entitled Training of trainers for Imams and Community Leaders on hate crimes against Muslims, with the intent to train 20 representatives of Muslim communities from across Europe, who, in turn, are now able to train other leaders in their respective countries to prevent and manage in an intelligent and effective manner situations of hatred and crimes undermining the security of Muslims;
● in Vienna, in April 2014, at the international meeting entitled Enhancing Community-Law Enforcement Relations in Combating Hate Crimes against Muslims, where the leaders of the Islamic communities and organizations worked together with international and national institutions, with the police, with the academic world and also non-governmental organizations, assuming as their objective a broader form of cooperation for the protection of Muslims in the West and of all minorities, and promoting on their part a positive contribution to society.
● In Treviso (Italy), two weeks ago, at the European meeting on the role of religious leaders in preventing incitement that could lead to atrocity crimes, organized by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. In this meeting, representatives and leaders from religious communities along with religion oriented organizations, international and national institutions, experts in prevention and activists in the fields of education and cultural education have worked together in order to deepen the phenomenon of discourses of hatred and incitement. A plan of action was developed on the basis of a network of religious leaders which is coordinated by the United Nations and which will aim at addressing the damages of the current situation and, overall, preventing similar or even worse situations in the future. Amongst the key points of this action we distinguish the following: denouncing these phenomena as a responsibility of leaders, communities and individuals; brotherly intra and interreligious cooperation and institutions, a serious program of interreligious and intercultural education that would consolidate or start the basis of a society that is truly aware of the richness of pluralism.
A second level at which it is possible to take action is that of religious education in the true sense of the word, and, in particular, the training of religious leaders and ministers. Together with ISESCO, we are working on the training of imams in Italy. For example, in March 2013 we organized a training seminar for Muslim religious leaders, focusing specifically on the Region of Sicily in the south of the country. Organized for imams, cultural mediators and community leaders and Islamic associations, the seminar had 30 participants from 12 different Islamic centres and 6 Sicilian provinces, with 7 different nationalities represented (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Italy).
With the scientific supervision of Prof. Abdelilah Benarafa from ISESCO in Rabat, teaching focused on two main aspects. On the one hand, adequate doctrinal, religious, ritual and linguistic training – thanks to the exceptional presence of Prof. Hassan Azzouzi, president of the Ulema Council of Fez and professor of Shariah at the Al-Qarauoiyyine University – and, on the other hand, the importance of integration in Italian society, relations with the institutions and inter-religious dialogue, highlighted by lectures given by other teachers of the CO.RE.IS.
Besides the necessary base concerning the ritual duties of imams, guidelines for cultural mediation with society and instruments enabling recognition and the prevention of any manifestation of fundamentalist tendencies within the community, the seminar mainly focused on the importance of knowing how to combine concentration on the Sacred world with a knowledge of the local context, the importance of moderation and the “middle way” (al-wasatiyyah), the ability to communicate effectively, the priority of the essence of the religious message and faith in one God, with all of this occurring in harmony with the historical and geographical context in which we live.
From our experience in Italy, I would like to emphasize a few points that have emerged and which I propose as a contribution to this Colloquium:
● The training of imams and religious teaching aimed at believers, seeking to preserve orthodoxy and the authenticity of religious doctrine, is the most important factor which contributes towards the vitality of the Islamic presence in Europe and its active participation in society, and it is also the natural antidote to ideological deviations.
● Once this dimension has been preserved, elements such as a knowledge of and integration in the community where we live, dialogue between the various components of society, recognition of and the cooperation occurring between religious authorities, law- enforcement services and government institutions at the cultural, economic and commercial levels, are natural and logical consequences. The Quran teaches that believers themselves should act as a “mercy to all mankind”, rahmatan li-l-‘alamin (Quran XXI, 107).
● Interreligious dialogue and spiritual recognition among the representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are crucial elements to be integrated in a truly universal, educational perspective, to be able to reverse the current mentality tending towards exclusivism or relativism.
● A key role may be played in Europe in the integration process by the autochthonous Muslim communities, as natural mediators and capable of being cultural bridges between the East and the West, and between the communities of Muslim immigrants and European society.
● The official recognition by European and national authorities of Islam through its representatives both orthodox and “moderate” – in the non-radical sense – is a further key element for an active participation of Muslims in European society, as well as for the recognition and prevention of the spread of radical and fundamentalist tendencies and their presumed legitimacy. We need to educate the new generations, ensuring they are able to discriminate between the authentic faith and religious integrity on the one hand and political manipulation and violent ideology on the other.