– translation of advance text –
Many thanks for inviting me to this event here at the Institut français on Kurfürstendamm. There is scarcely a better place to engage in discussions on religions and social coexistence than this building, which is so committed to promoting cultural dialogue and coexistence.
We experienced just how pressing the issue of coexistence among different faiths is in a most brutal manner in Paris just a few weeks ago. The attackers in Paris were driven by religiously motivated fanaticism and hate. The great solidarity in Germany with the victims of the terrorist attacks was a particularly significant moment for the Franco‑German friendship. “Je suis Charlie” – this slogan was also ubiquitous in Germany.
Back then, we all felt as if we were French in Germany. The terror brought us even closer together in our commitment to our shared values.
However, the terror reminded us again that religion is not, per se, a spiritual ideology that serves the cause of peace alone. Sometimes belief, in whichever god, can also become a mistaken belief that can lead directly to a brutal, inhuman radicalism. Not only in France, but all around the world. We are currently experiencing a remarkable asynchrony. While in Germany and France, religious illiteracy is increasing and the potency of religion in the majority society is experiencing a dramatic decline both politically and socially, religious and potentially violent fanaticism are growing around the world.
Religion is playing a quite inglorious role in many current crises and conflicts. We have experienced a clash of religions in the Middle East for decades. Islamist terrorists, who abuse Islam and commit barbaric acts and human rights abuses, are on the rampage in Iraq and Syria.
Looking at the current headlines, one is tempted to ask: Is religion to blame for all of this? Is religion a divisive force for our societies? What is, above all, Islam all about? What kind of religion is this that attackers and terrorists invoke in their acts of violence?
I had pause for thought recently when a survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that more than 60 per cent of Germans are of the opinion that Islam doesn’t belong in the Western world. Maybe they think this because the images they see of this region mostly depict crises and conflicts. And above all it is because our debate is so very polarised – as if democracy needed to beware of Islam, and vice versa! I dispute that idea. I’m convinced that there is a way for democracy to accommodate Islam, and that there is a way for Islam to accommodate democracy.
However, this presupposes a process of reflection and soul‑searching, predominantly by the Islamic authorities and communities, and also by the citizens professing the Muslim faith. We non‑Muslims should encourage and support Muslims on this doubtlessly difficult journey wherever this is possible and appears advisable.
It remains a task for us all – for Muslims and non‑Muslims alike – to prove in the coming years that a society in which we can all live together peacefully, respectfully and democratically, regardless of our faith or ethnic background, is possible.
Here, in the heart of Europe, we are by no means immune from religious conflicts and intolerance. In our countries too, we are experiencing how xenophobia and a lack of social integration are driving a growing number of people in a fatal political direction.
In recent months, the movement of the so‑called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West has been stirring up inarticulate feelings of xenophobia and instrumentalising a vague fear of a religion.
We saw what this can lead to just a few days ago with the arson attack on the planned shelter for refugees in Tröglitz in Land Saxony‑Anhalt. The need to protect Jewish institutions also speaks volumes. Unfortunately, they still require this protection. Around 20,000 anti‑Semitic crimes were reported in Germany between 2001 and 2013, injuring more than 500 people.
Germany and France are combating discrimination and working to promote religious tolerance together. My French counterpart Harlem Désir and I travelled together to New York on 22 January in order to send a clear signal at a Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations:
Our two nations are combating anti‑Semitism and racism side by side and with the greatest resolve. And just recently at the Franco‑German Council of Ministers in Berlin on 31 March, we agreed to draw up concrete bilateral projects to promote integration in our societies.
In our joint efforts, we have seen that the motto of the French Revolution “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” has not lost any of its currency. Freedom, equality and fraternity can also guide our actions today:
Freedom – the freedom of each and every member of our society, without fear of discrimination of any kind or even violence, to practice their religion and express their opinion freely.
Equality – as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our common European values: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
And finally fraternity. This value is facing new challenges in our age. In a society that consists of a multitude of different lifestyles and cultures, in which once insurmountable distances have shrunk and information can be sent around the entire world within a fraction of a second – in such a society, we cannot afford to waste our time on prejudice and black and white narratives. Rather, we must approach other cultures with curiosity and openness, get to know them better and thereby build bridges. That is why I say that anyone who uses religion to create an ‘us and them’ situation is just as misguided as those who create an ‘us and them’ situation to attack religion!
What can we do in Germany specifically to help our country remain a tolerant and safe country, also for minorities, migrants and refugees?
Immigration and integration are key issues for the Federal Foreign Office. We must approach these topics honestly and self‑critically, also with regard to our partners and friends in the world, as a matter of urgency. We know that Germany is certainly not an island, but a country at the heart of Europe that is closely tied to the rest of the world.
The Federal Foreign Office has therefore promoted the dialogue with Islam for years and will continue to do so intensively in the future – at conferences and on visits, and also via social media. This dialogue is not merely a government affair, but a network of contacts between civil society groups. We also hope to dismantle gaps in knowledge and stereotypes about the respective “other” through this dialogue, which is focused on mutual exchange of experiences, cooperation and shared values.
I would like to see not only tolerance through gritted teeth that is no more than just the absence of discrimination, but rather acceptance in action, which is also capable of expressing empathy. A precondition for this, however, is that we are really interested in and interact with each other. Only when all people in our country are willing and able to live in concord with our Basic Law and our European community of shared values will it be possible for us to coexist peacefully and respectfully in a pluralistic and multi‑religious society.