Volume 18 Number 5
Europe is not for the Lazy-Hearted
01 October 2005

What does it mean to be European today? Mary Lean reports from Caux.

The eight staff in the European Commission (EC) office where Peter Rundell worked until recently come from six countries, speak nine languages and include Christian and Muslim believers, left- and right-wing economists.

This diversity—so typical of Europe today—generates creativity, says Rundell, who was responsible for poverty reduction strategies in the office of the EC’s Director- General for Development.

Unlike him, many Europeans today see the continent’s increasing diversity as a reason for fear, not rejoicing. Immigration and asylum issues, the enlargement of the European Union (EU) in May 2004, the draft constitution—recently rejected by French and Dutch voters—are often seen as a threat to national identity.

But what if, as was suggested at the conference in Caux where Rundell was speaking, Europeans opened their minds to embracing a new identity, rather than defending an old one? As one French participant said, ‘We all share the identity of living in a multiracial society.’

The conference, in July, took place during the week of the second wave of bombings in London, and the devastating attacks in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. It drew participants from 63 countries, both within and outside Europe. ‘Beyond political structures, geography and history force us to learn to live together,’ stated its initiators, Hennie de Pous from the Netherlands, Charles Danguy from Strasbourg, France, and Andrew Stallybrass, an Englishman with Swiss citizenship. ‘Black and white, immigrant and native, Jew, Christian and Muslim, secularist and believer—all have a part in creating a heart and a soul for Europe.’

The fight against what the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan described as the ‘ideology of fear’ was a recurring theme.

‘I’m a European Muslim,’ stated Ramadan. ‘Eighty per cent of my time is spent explaining to people why this shouldn’t be a problem for them.’ That same week, he was the focus of controversy in the UK, where The Sun denounced him as presenting ‘an acceptable face of terror to impressionable young Muslims’ while The Independent described him as ‘one of the brightest hopes for achieving reconciliation between Muslims and the rest of society’.

‘Fear can turn us into victims,’ Ramadan told the conference. The discussions over whether Turkey should join the EU often overlooked the fact that millions of Muslims were already integrated into European society and that ‘Islamic thought has been nourishing Europe for centuries’. He stressed the importance in a pluralistic society of teaching religion in schools. And, he reminded the hundred British at the conference, the young suicide bombers who had attacked London on 7 July came from ‘two parent families’. ‘One parent is the Muslim community: the other is British society in general.’

Ramadan was taking part in a dialogue with Andrew Stallybrass, the Vice-President of the Geneva Interfaith Platform. ‘Our fear of terrorism, our fear of the other could turn us into prisoners,’ said Stallybrass. ‘Fragility is the norm of human existence. The “answer” to fragility is not security, it is community.’ He urged those present to take up the challenge of ‘crossing the threshold’ towards those they perceived as ‘the other’.

The conference was full of examples of people who were doing just that: reaching out across barriers of race, religion, disability; creating honest conversations in divided communities; tackling unemployment; sharing their skills overseas; befriending asylum seekers.

Two couples from France, Nizar and Nour Alaya and Frédéric and Nathalie Chavanne, described how they and others were working to build bridges between Muslim and indigenous French communities in Paris. The links within their core group had become so strong, said Nathalie Chavanne, that they had sought each other out after both 9/11 and the Madrid bombings. ‘Because of the trust between us we can speak honestly, heart to heart.’

‘Our relationships have allowed us to speak better about the other in our own milieu,’ said Nizar Alaya. ‘Prejudices are being broken down.’ Young Muslims in France were faced with a crisis of identity, he continued. ‘We have to help them to construct an identity which can reconcile their parents’ origins, authentic Islam and their adopted country and culture. Their identity doesn’t have to be against white society.’

For the conference’s keynote speaker, Swiss-American academic and author, Catherine Guisan, the very existence of such challenges was a mark of how far Europe had come in the last 50 years. ‘It is time for Europe to accept that it has become a continent of immigration, like the US,’ she said. This was a positive sign: in the past Europeans had had to leave their continent in search of a better life.

Guisan described Europe’s post-war experience of achieving peace, after centuries of war, as ‘a kind of lost treasure which we need to re-find’. ‘Peace like democracy is an ongoing creation,’ she maintained. ‘Problems which are resolved once and for all are rare.’

Returning to the identity issue, she said, ‘There is no such thing any more as an identity given once and for all at birth. In a Europe which is constantly changing, identity is found by a dialogue of acknowledgement.’

This acknowledgement also involves the recognition that Europe has ‘unfinished business’, to use the words of another speaker, Pierre Spoerri. His talk, which traced Europe’s tradition of reconciliation back to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, was followed by speakers from Russia and Bosnia.

Speaking of Russia’s faltering steps towards democracy, Olga Zimenkova, a professor of law from Moscow and the founder of a human rights education NGO, referred to the fake model villages erected by Grigori Potemkin to impress Catherine the Great. ‘The democratic structures exist in Russia,’ she said, ‘but as time passes they turn into Potemkin villages.’

Another speaker, the Vicar General of Sarajevo, Mato Zovkic, spoke of the continuing divisions between Serbs, Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzogovina and of the recent commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. When the meeting was opened to the floor, a Serbian participant rose to describe the suffering in his own community: ‘I am not able to separate myself from my relations who were killed.’ The two men met later to talk privately.

The conference also included a meeting of the International Communications Forum, which campaigns for values in the media; a power-point presentation on ‘ethics in crisis’ by Howard Taylor, the chaplain of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University; and workshops on spiritual and cultural themes. ‘Is the European Union simply a Christian club?’ asked Ebtehal Younis, an Egyptian professor based in the Netherlands, in a workshop which offered a view of Europe from the outside. One day was devoted to outings—to the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe in Lausanne, the ancient Abbey of St Maurice, the Red Cross Museum and the International Museum of the Reformation in Geneva.

Each day began with a time of quiet reflection in the bay window of the meeting hall, looking out at the mountains around Lake Geneva. Evening programmes ranged from a harpsichord concert, through rap and breakdancing, to an interfaith celebration led by Rev Aart Mak, of the Dutch United Religions Initiative, and Imam Hamzeh Zeid Kailani, a Palestinian living in the Netherlands.

Professor Hans Küng, President of the Global Ethic Foundation, gave a Caux Lecture calling for ‘a spiritual concept of Europe with an ethical foundation’. He stressed that neither a technocractic, secular model of Europe, nor a narrowly Christian one, could meet the continent’s needs.

At the final meeting, participants streamed onto the platform to post up the commitments which they had made. There were pledges to learn another European language, to buy a Qur’an or visit a mosque, to work for greater understanding between the EU and the USA. A grandmother promised to teach her 13 grandchildren to understand other people; a Muslim expressed her appreciation of having met Serbs for the first time.

A French student described how she had resisted making the first move towards a group of young Muslims and Hindus from Nottingham in England: ‘it was as if my heart was lazy to get opened’. However they had got talking at a workshop organized by IofC’s Hope in the Cities programme from the UK, and now had plans to arrange exchange visits between their home cities. Her decision, to guard against a lazy heart, summed up the central challenge of the conference, and for an ever-changing Europe.