Thoughts on International Dialogue Between Cultures and Religions

2 February 2016


I am thankful for this invitation from the International King Abdullah Dialogue Centre in Vienna, to speak about the mandate of this centre, namely interreligious and intercultural dialogue, as well as the challenges and opportunities of this dialogue.

I am happy to have accepted this invitation.

Not least because I consider dialogue, willingness to talk and the ability to respectfully come to terms with other opinions - even if you do not share them – to be a basic requirement of the peaceful coexistence of peoples, nations, cultures and religions.

Man is not an island, but a political animal, that is a political, social being that shapes its life through interaction with other people.

Since the earliest days of human history, mankind has organised life in families, in tribes, in nations and often also on the basis of common religious and cultural beliefs.

Security within these groupings, the backing of the family, loyalty to one’s own state and the feeling of solidarity through a common worldview provide stability and security. In fact, these are the most important building blocks of human society.

But there is also a downside.

Namely, when the loyalty to one's own group, the feeling of togetherness in the same nation or in the same country and common religious beliefs cause people to view the "other", i.e. those of another clan, with another nationality, another skin colour, or any other religion and belief, as inferior, as opponents or even as enemies.

The ancient Greek language provides a good example. Hoi barbaroi is the Greek term for those who speak a foreign language; but the term has subsequently come to mean primitives, those who are at a lower level and seen as hostile - in a word, those that today are known by the word barbarians.

This contrast, this xenophobia, must be overcome.

And there are also numerous efforts in this direction; e.g. religiously motivated efforts to proclaim that all human beings are creatures of God and as such are equal. Or the postulate of 'love your neighbour', which must not be bent or restricted when it is convenient. Or the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which preaches freedom, equality and fraternity for all people, and many more examples from the history of mankind. Also art sets standards, as it repeatedly tries to tear down the boundaries between people from different social and cultural strata, different nationalities or different religions and to build bridges of equivalence and equality.

At the same time, the history of mankind proves again and again, from year to year and from day to day, that this is a Sisyphean task.

What's more: in modern Europe, religious differences between Catholics and Protestants were one of the principal sources of war and violent conflict for hundreds of years.

In the 19th and 20th century it was mainly the formation of nation-states and nationalist fanaticism, which once again led to military conflict. And again and again we will witness how religious fanaticism unjustly calls upon a specific religion and leads to violence and terror.

My personal belief is that only a religion, that preaches peace between people, fulfils  its mission. This is also true for worldviews which are not based on religion.

The founding of the United Nations after the end of World War II, which led to a total of more than 50 million deaths, was a logical and important attempt to prevent the diffusion of national, political and religious conflicts through war and violence or at least to stem the tide and strive for other forms of conflict resolution. A modern image of man is depicted in Art. 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act in a spirit of brotherhood".

I am convinced that the spirit of the Declaration of Human Rights, the intellectual and moral struggle against exaggerated nationalism and dialogue between religions and cultures - complemented by a worldwide improvement in social and economic living conditions - is the best way to do justice to the dignity of mankind, and to overcome the evils of humanity such as war and violence. In his unerring and clever manner, Willy Brandt said, in his acceptance speech when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize at the University of Oslo on 11 December 1971: "No national interest can be still be separated from the overall responsibility for peace. Because war is no longer the ultima ratio, but the ultima irratio". And long before this clever phrase, Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: "every war is a defeat of the human spirit".

Nevertheless, the tug of war between war and peace, between law and violence, between tolerance and intolerance, between brotherhood and hostility remains current.

Neither the Roman writer Ovid was right, when in his Metamorphoses he foresaw a "golden age" in the dark history of mankind, nor those who hope that in the distant future the history of mankind will culminate in a golden age. Such a golden age has never existed and it will probably never exist.

For man is driven by positive and negative influences. Mankind unites good and evil and the boundary between good and evil often - as Solzhenitsyn writes - runs right through the heart of a human being.

Man is most convinced of the rightness of his beliefs, his values, his worldview and feels entitled to fight for the enforcement of these positions. But the enforcement of one's own positions presupposes the repression or overcoming of opposite positions, ultimately ending in conflict and dispute.

Through centuries and millennia of human history, these conflicts were limited to a region. There were conflicts in communities or clans, between ethnic groups and at most between peoples.

But modern weapons technology, modern information technologies and the globalisation of politics have created a fundamental change.

Conflicts that in earlier centuries claimed a few thousand, and in special circumstances, unfortunately tens of thousands of victims, in the 20th century claimed millions of victims and could have even more dramatic effects in the 21st century. It is a quantum leap in the truest sense of the word. The technologies have changed, but the character of people and their way of thinking has not changed or at least has only changed very slowly.

The principle that the end justifies the means is limited by law in private life. However in the field of international conflict, this principle that the end justifies the means is - as a look at the latest developments shows - still in use.

The interests of a state, an alliance, an ideology or of a world power are too often opposed to the right of individuals or the rights of those who are weaker.

And someone who gives his own nation priority and attributes to it a higher value than others, who considers his own world view and religion as the only true ones and all others as heresies - perhaps even as an expression of another, opposing world - will have little understanding for the parable of Lessing's Nathan the Wise, which expresses the equivalence of different religions.

In this regard, we still have a long way to go.

Ladies and gentlemen!

Within Austria, in my opinion, the regular exchange between the 16 legally recognised churches and religious communities, which include all major world religions, plays a significant and positive role.

At the centre of this dialogue process stands the promotion of religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities as well as a clear rejection of any misuse of religion to justify oppression, violence or discrimination. The longstanding Austrian expertise in the area of dialogue is recognised at European and international level and Austria strives to be a hub of international dialogue between cultures and religions.

The International Dialogue Centre in Vienna - KAICIID - should serve these goals. As an interreligious platform for dialogue, as a bridge builder in interreligious and intercultural dialogue, it should be a cosmopolitan and international dialogue partner. Its activities, as intended in the founding agreement, should help to strengthen interaction and mutual respect at the international level. An in-depth exchange of views with the various churches and religious communities can serve to set important trends toward a tolerant exchange of ideas.

I know that this is not easy. And that it is impossible to always please everyone. But, to my knowledge, the KAICIID is the only international organisation in which leading figures of the five major world religions cooperate. Through its efforts, the centre has the potential to create a better understanding between religions and thus make an important contribution to the evolution and advancement of human rights.

In particular, the April 2015 agreement on the realignment of the centre's work offers a great opportunity for advancing common interests and promoting respect between religions and cultures through dialogue.

I understand that in individual cases opinions may differ regarding whether, on what occasion and with which wording certain events and certain actions shall be commented on by the centre. It is thus all the more important that the centre's overall work clearly reveals human rights, human dignity and dialogue to be at the centre of its efforts.

Another objective important to Vienna as a hub for dialogue is the determination, that the centre shall increase its efforts to reach out to civil society, the media and universities in Austria.

To achieve this, they have invited the public to a first cultural event with performances by two intercultural musical groups before the summer, as well as to a panel discussion Nostra Aetate with His Eminence Cardinal Schönborn in the autumn; contact with the platform of legally recognised churches and religious groups, which will hold a meeting in your beautiful spaces during spring, has also been established.

Intercultural and interreligious dialogue requires many dialogue partners. This expansion strategy of KAICIID takes this fact into account and, as part of its realignment, envisages the admission of new Member States with a view to geographical, religious and cultural balance. I think that's the right path and support this idea.

KAICIID should also examine to what extent and in what form it can be a platform allowing for factual, yet clear and open addressing of concerns, needs and problems in the field of human rights and inter-religious dialogue. In doing so, I also think of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran that are based on political and religious causes. These tensions should be reduced through dialogue and by peaceful means, and then finally overcome. This is of course a complex and tedious task, but surely you know the wise proverb, which says: "Even the longest journey begins with a first step".

As a convinced opponent of capital punishment, it has caused me - as I have already stated in my New Year's speech before the diplomatic corps - much pain that recently 47 death sentences were carried out in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, I agree with the view of the UN Security Council that international law is violated if the building of a diplomatic mission, namely the Saudi embassy in Tehran, is not adequately protected from violence and arson.

Thus, what we need are voices of reason, signals of moderation and willingness to talk.

Finally, I also want to talk about the good inter-religious climate in Austria. Because that hasn't always been the case in our country's history, when I think of the time before the Second World War. The good cooperation between religious communities in Austria, characterised by tolerance, is not a matter of course, but the result of intensive dialogue efforts and a relationship between the state and churches and religious communities, that is characterised by a friendly neutrality. In Austria, the same applies to those people, who do not belong to a religious community. The freedom to live life in all forms and manifestations of religious faith, or even at a distance from religions, is protected by law in Austria and an important part of our political culture.

The United Nations encourage all states to promote the idea of ​​religious tolerance and the message of interfaith harmony. Given the urgent need to put an end to wars, violence and human rights violations that are unjustly committed in the name of religion, explicitly supporting this request is a matter of concern to me.

For over 70 years, the charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have sustained a demand from politics to promote and defend universally applicable human rights. UN member states have committed themselves to working towards the universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The preamble to the UDHR in 1948 also stresses that a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realisation of this pledge.

Austria's engagement in the dialogue of religions is due to the conviction that conflicts can be resolved by seeking conversation regarding the root causes that underlie a conflict.

In doing so, Austria mainly pursues the following objectives:

promotion of respect of universal human rights, incl. freedom of religion,
the promotion of ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism,
the strengthening of democracy and co-determination,
the enforcement of legal and de facto equality between women and men,
the intensification of dialogue with Islam, but also with the Muslims and Muslim women in Europe.

The differences in the status women hold in the family and in society that exist in the Islamic world on the one hand, and in Europe on the other hand, is among those points that often give rise to considerable difficulties in practice and which must be discussed openly. And I gladly concede, that in recent decades there has been a considerable change in the position of women in Europe and in other highly developed industrial societies, with much of what is taken for granted today having been absolutely inconceivable two or three generations ago. That leaves room for the hope and expectation that the position and the role of women in other societies, for example in those that are influenced by Islam, may continue to develop.

In Austria and in Europe, interreligious dialogue has received a strengthened practical importance due to the events of last year: The war in Syria has triggered the largest wave of refugees since World War II. Taken per capita of its population, Austria is one of the countries receiving the most asylum seekers. Not everyone can stay. But many will remain. The long-term integration of these people into our society is a major challenge.

I would therefore like to reiterate that the Muslims permanently living with us can and should be a valuable part of our society.

It is possible to be both a good Muslim and a good Austrian at the same time.

Austria has a long historical connection with Islam and was the first country in Europe which has granted Islam the status of a legally recognised religious community over 100 years ago. We view a European-style Islam embedded in a state with a basic democratic order as a living reality of Muslims in Austria.

Consequently, in the coming years, the integration of refugees in Austria will need to be an even larger part of the dialogue between religions. The integration of people in need of protection is a serious task for the society as a whole, which must be carefully prepared and competently organised with respect to securing social cohesion and social peace in Austria. Nobody can deny that it will also entail problems. But if we do not face these tasks, then we will have much greater problems.

A successful integration also includes the clarification that extremist attitudes of individuals opposed to the basic values ​​of our state and our society, who threaten the internal security, cannot be accepted.

Ladies and gentlemen!

Finally, I express my gratitude for KAICIID, its management and all employees for your efforts and, in the interests of dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, I wish you the best success for your future work.

Dialogue has always been a key to the peaceful coexistence of people. And the peaceful coexistence of people is one of our most important objectives and a pillar of existence for future generations.

Thank you for your attention.

Statement delivered at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), on 2 February 2016, on the occasion of World Interfaith Harmony Week.