Dennis Sammut urges dialogue between Europe and the Islamic World based on realism and mutual respect

The Executive Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research), Dennis Sammut appealed for dialogue between Europe and the Islamic World based on mutual respect and on a sense of realism when addressing a conference with the theme “There is more that unites us than divides us” which LINKS (DAR) co-hosted in Brussels on 14 April. The keynote speaker at the event was the United Nations High Representative for the Dialogue of Civilisations, His Excellency Mr Nasir al Nasser. Representatives of the European Union and of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation also spoke at the opening session, which was also addressed by the President of the Islamic Co-operation Youth Forum for Dialogue and Co-operation (ICYF-DC), Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov. Around one hundred participants, including diplomats, officials from the EU institutions, civil society activists and journalists attended the event which was held at the Hotel Sofitel Europe in Brussels.

Addressing the gathering, the Executive Director of LINKS (DAR) Dennis Sammut highlighted concerns about the plight of Christian communities in certain countries in the Middle East and called for all nations to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court so that those who are perpetrating intolerable crimes against Muslims and Christians alike could be pursued and brought to justice. He also raised the danger of increasing Islamophobia in Europe and called for a clear and unambiguous rejection of all Islamophobic discourse and political action.

The following is the full text of the speech of Dennis Sammut:

Since it was established in 1997 LINKS has worked  to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts and good governance in the immediate neighbourhood of the European Union. We have also actively worked for the European Union to engage positively with our neighbourhood to the east and to the south. Our approach is to foster and facilitate dialogue, based on mutual respect and re-enforced by sound analysis and extensive and robust research.

We approach the issue of relations between Europe and the Islamic world in the same spirit. We need dialogue, but for this dialogue to be constructive, effective, and useful it must be based on a good understanding and analysis of the issues at hand, and these in turn must have their basis in solid research.

In the title of this conference we make a statement: “there is more that unites us than divides us”.  It is a positive message but one that is also based on a sense of realism. Europe and the Islamic World have differences, and these differences are often deep-rooted. They can be grouped in three categories:

  • The reading of the past and the baggage of history;
  • differences on current issues in global politics;
  • and thirdly differences in the way we interpret and implement the values that underpin our societies.

I am mentioning these differences right here in the first few minutes of this conference because we need to start our discussion from a sense of realism. We need to identify the things that divide us, as much as we need to identify those things that unite us. It is only by doing so that we can start identifying the common ground between us  and this will help us narrow our differences. I hope that panel 1 will pick up some of these issues in their contributions.

Unfortunately the debate on relations between Europe and the Islamic World is often based on clichés and anecdotal evidence, sometimes on outright lies and manipulation of the truth. We live in the age of instant news, and addiction to social media, where often even the most bizarre and unlikely stories are read by millions, and often believed. We are better informed, but we are equally better misinformed. Let me give you an example: Last week a story went viral on the internet – it said that the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia had issued a fatwa that in case a Muslim man was in danger of starvation he may eat his wife. It even went into detail about which arm or leg  the Muslim man was supposed to eat first; Of course it was an April fools joke, but what was shocking was that many, including some of my friends on facebook, believed it and reposted it. Have we in the west been conditioned so much by the negative propaganda against Muslims that we now believe every disparaging story against Islam that is out there, even the most bizarre? Is it our fault and that of our media? Or the fault of misguided Muslim preachers who sometimes do issue the most blood curling and unacceptable edicts? I hope Panel two will pick up some of the issues in their deliberations.

I am pleased that our panels today are made up of persons with a wide range of opinions representing the diversity of Europe in their views, their age, their political outlook and their gender.

Dialogue is necessary because problems exist and unless checked these problems can only grow. Whilst wife-eating Muslims may be a figment of the imagination, other problems are unfortunately very real.

Over the last twelve weeks we have seen blood on the streets of Europe, in Paris and Copenhagen, as a few malcontents resorted to senseless violence in the name of a religion that defines itself as a religion of peace. When my friend, Ambassador Iskandarov and I discussed the possibility of holding this conference last year we spoke in general and abstract terms. After the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January we knew that we now had to engage with this work with a sense of urgency. The radicalization of fringe groups on the margins of the Muslim communities in Europe is a serious issue, but it is not the only challenge in front of us.

There is a genuine concern in Europe today about the plight of Christian communities in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world. The level of concern on this issue is at the moment higher than I can remember it in my lifetime. We also know that many Muslim governments and communities are equally concerned with what has been going on in Syria, Iraq and other places, and the barbarities committed by the so called Islamic State against Christians and Muslims alike. We need to be united in ensuring that nobody is left under any illusion that these crimes will be punished and those who committed them brought to justice. The international community already has the right mechanism to deal with these situations. Unfortunately they remain imperfect. The International Criminal Court established under the so called Rome Statute is an important instrument that has a big role to play in ensuring that the ongoing crimes being committed in the Middle East are punished. Europe has on this issue led by example. All European Union member states have signed and ratified the Rome Statute. Many member states of the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation have also done so. I am delighted that the latest signatory has been Palestine, which joined the process in January of this year, enabling the Palestinian people to reach out for their rights through this important international mechanism. Many Muslim states have not signed or have signed but not ratified the Rome statute. I think this is the right time for them to think again and to close this loophole. Needless to say my appeal goes also to other countries who have not done so, including the United States and Israel, to  sign and ratify the Rome Statute as soon as possible.

I want to highlight also the issue of Islamophobia in European society. Let me be very truthful here. Most Europeans have not woken up to this problem yet. If asked most will say it does not exist. But closer scrutiny shows us that it does, and it reflects itself in many ways – some overt, some nuanced. Muslims living in Europe experience it if not frequently, often enough, and many honest, peaceful, law abiding Muslim citizens of Europe are starting to feel threatened.. Europe has had more than its fair share of intolerance in the past, and if today our societies are open and tolerant, sometime to an extent that shocks others who come from beyond, it is because we have learnt through own bitter and bloody experience the high price of religious intolerance, of anti Semitism, of homophobia and of political totalitarianism. Most Europeans are today unambiguous in saying No and Never again to these excesses.  The same message needs to be sent to those who are trying to stoke up Islamophobic feelings in Europe. The message has to be clear: No and never, and we must not allow Islamophobia to be part of the European discourse.

For nearly fifteen centuries European and Islamic  soicieties have fed on each other’s culture, knowledge and traditions. Today we share hopes for peace, safety and security of our people. We face common challenges in combatting poverty, securing our environment and ensuring sustainability.  Today millions of Muslims live in the European Union. They make a daily and important contribution to our economy, our culture and our intellectual capability. They are not a threat: they are an opportunity. The Muslim communities in Europe are the solid structure on which bridges need to be built between Europe and the Islamic world. They are our live interconnector.

The European Union with its five hundred million citizens and twenty eight member states  has often emphasized the importance of good relations with its neighbours to the East and to the South. The European Neighbourhood Policy is the flagship programme, with two supporting pillars – the Eastern Partnership and the Union of the Mediterranean. I want to welcome the good things that the European Neighbourhood Policy has achieved in the twelve or so years that it has existed. The European Union is now at a point where it is revising its neighbourhood policy. Civil society in both Europe and in the neighbouring countries can impact the way this instrument works in the future by voicing their opinion. An artificial division has started creeping in whereby different groups of countries champion one pillar against the other – with those countries in the north and east focusing more on the Eastern Partnership, and those to the south on the Mediterranean dimension. Whilst a nuanced approach is necessary in Europe’s strategy to the East and to the South we must not lose sight of the fact that the European Union is one, and Algeria and Tunisia are in that sense as much the neighbours of Sweden and Poland as they are of Italy and France.

Finally I want to thank all panelist and participants at this morning’s event, and particularly Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov and his team who have given us inspiration throughout the process of preparing for this conference. This initiative is a modest contribution to this important debate on the state of relations between Europe and the Islamic World, but we hope, a positive one that will help us look forward, for we truly believe that there is more that unites us than divides us.

The Conference “Europe and the Islamic World: there is more that united us than divides us”, was held at the Hotel Sofitel Europe Brussels, on Tuesday 14 April 2015. It was organised by LINKS (DAR) and the Istanbul based ICYF-DC, under the auspices of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations.

A full summary of proceedings at the conference will be available on this website shortly.