A Paper by Dr Walter Schwimmer, Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations, Secretary General of the Council of Europe (1999-2004), delivered at the “Religions Against Terrorism” International Conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 31 May 2016.

The horrific, bloody, trace of terror from 9/11 to Spring 2016 in Brussels produced many different reactions throughout the world. No continent was spared from the repeated attempts to destroy our common values. But on the one hand the terrorists have only strengthened our resolve to root our values even more firmly across the world. This conference is a part of this response. This reminder of our values is also the finest tribute we can pay to those who perished or were wounded in the terrorist attacks. On the other hand, the is fact that most of the terrorists hijacked religion, claimed to murder in the name of God, raised stereotypes and prejudices, and have created a wave of Islamophobia which is a matter of concern not only for Muslims, but for all believers, and even non-believers. Islamophobia is as dangerous as Anti-Semitism or any other kind of intolerant attitude towards a certain group of people.

There is negative energy implicit in all these violent events, and there is potential positive energy to be found from the way that we respond to it. To fight our contemporary pathologies, the tragedies have to be turned to empathy and universal compassion rather than to anger and racial profiling. Whatever sick mind dreamed up these terrorist acts did not manifest the essence of any large group of people. Terrorists and supremacists represent only themselves, and always harm their own ethnic or religious group along with everyone else. No religion teaches one to be happy in peoples’ miseries. On the contrary, all religions request compassion and mercy with those who are in need. And in every religion the most merciful is the Lord himself who wants us to share this attitude.

Terrorism has no nation or religion. But likewise its victims are human beings, human beings with beliefs and convictions, precious human beings, who must be the objects of compassion for us all.

Therefore, I would like to thank President Nazarbayev for his appeal to our conference and the organisers, the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, and its head, the Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan, Mr. Tokaev, for the opportunity to discuss these timely and pressing issues. Our peoples, of no matter which religion, expect answers to their questions, their concerns, and their fears. And they demand answers that go beyond simply more security, more police, and more checks. They want us to find the root causes of terrorism and foster a climate of peace, and of mutual understanding. We need to prepare our societies to deal with these challenges. The right answers are essential.

The challenges to our societies could turn into a dangerous mélange if we do not provide a collective regional, international, and global response. Global terrorism tries to exploit this mélange and to recruit new supporters by providing them with simplified solutions for the individual who suffers from the consequences of this dangerous mélange. The poverty gap is growing; financial mismanagement in one country suddenly has global impacts; direct and indirect impacts of the still ongoing financial and economic crisis lead to rising unemployment, in particular – and in some countries tremendously so – of young people; there are threats to our environment and climate and insufficient policies against these threats; as well as the lack of peaceful solutions for so many – too many – armed conflicts; all these factors undermine the confidence of the people in traditional politics. And not to forget migration flows that get out of control and have demonstrated the tremendous failures of politics.

Facing these challenges, if we take our responsibility seriously, leaves no space for what was called by an American author “the clash of civilizations”. On the contrary, civilizations are jointly challenged. Terrorism is not the result of one civilization opposing or attacking another one; no, it is an attack on all civilizations. The problem of poverty is not only a problem of poor regions or countries; no it’s a problem for the prosperous countries too, and keeping the economy moving concerns not only developed countries. The threats to our climate and natural resources are threats to the future of all of us. And migration flows need joint action by the countries of origin, transit, and destination, in a spirit that goes beyond the mentality of a besieged fortress. This all needs global thinking and global solidarity.

But we have to admit that we are still sometimes divided on the responses to these common challenges. Some are tempted to find convenient enemies, thereby feeding all sorts of phobias and hatred. But we should not be distracted from the pressing challenges of ensuring peace, sustainable development, human dignity, and democracy, because they are the keys to any effective answer. We need each other, probably more so than ever in the difficult times since 9/11.

Looking to our common challenges, and also opportunities, we have much more in common than many people in our countries think. Unfortunately, people too often look first at differences and what may divide us than to what may unite us.

Can religions, religious communities, and religious leaders help to support a policy of common values, addressing the root causes of terrorism? Of course, we will all agree that religions and religious communities should refrain from any direct involvement in politics. But they could and they should act as the conscience of our societies. They can draw the attention of the public to the situation of the young and unemployed, of refugees seeking shelter, of people starving or losing their homes as a result of climate change. They can put their finger on armed conflicts that are fuelled by illegal trade, in particular of weapons and ammunition. And they can give an example of best practice with successful inter-religious dialogue.

Pope Francis was recently awarded with the prestigious Charlemagne Prize. He used this opportunity to remind Europe of its roots and of its mission. He noted that there is a growing impression that Europe is weary, ageing, no longer fertile and vital, that the great ideals that inspired Europe seem to have lost their appeal. He asked the critical question “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?”

In his own answer to this question he offered the key word for the solution, the capacity for dialogue. I quote,

“If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue. We are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every possible means and thus to rebuild the fabric of society. The culture of dialogue entails a true apprenticeship and a discipline that enables us to view others as valid dialogue partners, to respect the foreigner, the immigrant, and people from different cultures as worthy of being listened to. Today we urgently need to engage all the members of society in building ‘a culture which privileges dialogue as a form of encounter’ and in creating ‘a means for building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, responsive, and inclusive society’.

Peace will be lasting in the measure that we arm our children with the weapons of dialogue, that we teach them to fight the good fight of encounter and negotiation. In this way, we will bequeath to them a culture capable of devising strategies of life, not death, and of inclusion, not exclusion.

This culture of dialogue should be an integral part of the education imparted in our schools, cutting across disciplinary lines and helping to give young people the tools needed to settle conflicts differently to how we are accustomed to do. Today we urgently need to build coalitions that are not only military and economic, but cultural, educational, philosophical, and religious. Coalitions that can make clear that, behind many conflicts, there is often in play the power of economic groups. Coalitions capable of defending people from being exploited for improper ends. Let us arm our people with the culture of dialogue and encounter.”

I cannot but subscribe to every single word of the Holy Father. Yes, let us start to build coalitions for cultural encounter, for education, for peaceful solutions of conflict. Let us strengthen the capacity for dialogue with the inclusion of everyone who is of good will.

Diversity within and between our societies should therefore be seen as an asset, not as an obstacle. We must learn to learn from each other. Our host country is an excellent example of wide diversity of ethnicities, cultures, religions, minorities. Around 140 ethnic communities and more than 40 religious denominations live together in mutual respect and understanding and together enjoy stability and development. In times of rising xenophobia and intolerance we have to recall the positive experiences with this diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and religions.

I am convinced that it was exactly this diversity which helped to create a European cultural identity, to achieve so much in sciences and arts and finally to also develop, step by step, a European political identity. Religious wisdom and heritage has contributed to this development: Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even Buddhists have learned to live together and to value what they have in common – the strong belief in human dignity and the right to live.

Our values, respect for human rights and dignity, democracy, and the rule of law, are the only effective remedy against barbarism. These barbaric crimes therefore not only seek to kill, but also wish to shatter our confidence in our values. And to some extent they may be at least partly successful. Terrorist attacks provide fertile ground for nurturing extremism, intolerance, and racism, which take hold insidiously, like an illness which is diagnosed only after its effects have become visible – i.e., too late. Therefore ,we have to speak out against such developments before due time!

I mentioned already the title of Samuel P. Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations”, which is frequently quoted, but as I have realised, very often by people who have not even read it. Time and again, I have repeated my own conviction that the current problems do not reflect a clash of civilizations but a clash of ignorance. I strongly believe that together we can afford to bridge the understanding gap within our societies, and between cultures and nations. Let me come back to the speech of Pope Francis. Education for dialogue, giving young people the tools needed to settle conflicts should be the task of today, and should be – this is my appeal – part of religious education too. My organization, the World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations, is already promoting this in cooperation with the UNESCO ‘Schools of Dialogue’.

Each of us can start at home. One of the outstanding personalities of the 20th century, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Mother Theresa, once pointed out, “war and peace start at home”. Dialogue and overcoming the “clash of ignorance” has to start at home.

We have also the obligation to increase attention to unsolved conflicts, an important priority in the fight against terrorism. We should attach particular importance to the restoration of human rights and the rule of law, which should in turn facilitate any political settlement in various conflict areas around the world.

And in the end, our values shall prevail. Terrorist acts violate our most fundamental rights, just as they offend our deepest religious beliefs. The holy books are very clear in that respect; allow me to quote just the Holy Qur’an. “Who so kills a soul it shall be as he had killed all mankind” (6:151). Those who commit such attacks must be condemned and repressed with utmost vigour. But we also have to ensure that our response to terrorism upholds our values. There is the need to avoid undermining or even destroying our values on the grounds of defending them. I am very proud that in that spirit the Council of Europe issued, on my initiative, already 15 years ago, “Guidelines on human rights and the fight against terrorism” that are still valid.

Terrorism has no religion, whether it is in Brussels or in Syria, in Paris or in Kabul. Terrorism is the enemy of any religion. Let us join the forces of good will, of peace, of dialogue, and mutual understanding, to end the threat of terrorism and barbarism.

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Walter Schwimmer
Walter Schwimmer is an Austrian politician and diplomat. From 1971 to 1999 he was a member of the Austrian Parliament (National Council), serving as a chairperson of several committees (Justice, Health, Housing and Construction) and deputy leader of the Austrian People’s Party. From 1 September 1999 to 1 September 2004, Schwimmer was Secretary General of the Council of Europe. He also chaired the Interparliamentary Union of Friendship of Austria and Israel in the Parliament of Austria (1976-1999) and member of the National Counsel of the Association Asia-Israel (1973-1999), serving as its vice-president (since 1977) and president (1982-1999). Currently Schwimmer acts as a consultant on International Relations and European Affairs, Honorary Secretary General of the Maison de la Mediterranee, Chairman of the International Coordination Committee and Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations.