For there to be peaceful coexistence between the different cultures and the different religions that there are within Europe today, creativity is required. Mere toleration of those who are perceived to other than ourselves is no longer enough. The efforts to establish the best conditions for conviviality have to be creative, because the models of cross-cultural and inter-religious relations that history provides have yielded outcomes that have been generally catastrophic rather than successful. Even the most positively vaunted models of fruitful coexistence between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, whether in Andalusia or in Sicily of which Malta was a part, have been called into some question by recent historians.
Moreover there is a huge difference between the images of each other and of themselves that were held by the adherents of the three religions of the Book in the Middle Ages and today. Then they all believed that they adhered to basically the same culture inspired by the same divine revelation. Unlike the adherents of the great and respected religions of the Far East, they believed that God entered into dialogue with human beings through the prophets and communicated with His people not only in the private secrecy of their hearts but also in publicly shared language. They all developed their philosophic thought, as well as the sciences and the arts, in the same categories that they inherited from the Greeks and the Romans. They fought and sometimes massacred each other and competed commercially, but within the same framework of fundamental ethical values.
Today, because of the cultural divide that was introduced by the scientific revolution that followed the shift of global interest from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic with the discovery of America and the colonial system that followed the rise of Capitalism in Western Europe, the sense of sharing a common culture based on the word of God and of the Humanist philosophy elaborated in the Classical age has been lost. Instead, the two sides regard each other as aliens and are much more aware of the differences that separate them than of the much more solid common ground they hold together.
Since we are living in the Information Age when knowledge has become a more valuable economic resource than gold or land or oil or anything else, culture has become the most important field of competition, while the greatest challenge to humankind has become that of ensuring inter-cultural collaboration based on awareness of complementarity rather than the desire of reciprocal elimination. Europe has accepted the principle of seeking to protect and enhance cultural diversity within a framework of unity not only economic and political but also in respect of human rights inclusive of freedom of religion and enjoyment of national group identity.
Nevertheless it is plainly and unfortunately true that conflicts arise sometimes even of a violent nature. Sometimes such incidents have qualified for the label of terrorism. There is a notable feature that has characterized many of these outbreaks to which attention needs surely to be given by all of us. The almost invariably young protagonists of the worst breaches of inter-cultural and inter-religious peace in Europe have been second generation immigrants. Most of them were born in Europe and educated in European countries, but usually not in the ordinary schools. Most European countries failed to agree to provide any Muslim inspired system of education, sometimes because of the legal establishment of a particular kind of ultra-secularism.
It may be worth observing that the foundations of the European Union were originally set by statesmen who were professedly and profoundly Christian. Because of this very fact they assumed that a clear distinction between Church and State would be observed. They did not even feel the need to say that Caesar was to be given that which appertained to him just as God was to be given that which appertained to Him. As time went on, the exclusion of religious considerations in political matters reached the point when even reference to the historic role of Christianity in the genesis of Europe was rejected in the proposed Constitution. Nevertheless the same Constitution continued to prescribe that the European Authorities should hold regular and open consultation with Churches and other bodies described as “philosophical” on a basis that was of a different status than the consultations to be held with other organizations representing ‘Civil Society’. This provision implies a recognition that the religious as well as the Humanist organizations are the repositaries of a heritage of human wisdom and experience that needs to taken into account especially when issues with moral implications arise in the political sphere; and indeed among the questions that matter most for the future of humankind that come up before the legislative bodies of all our countries today are great moral issues such as whether to allow human cloning or not.
The implementation of this Treaty provision of the European Union is not as easy to effect with other bodies as it is with the Catholic Church that has an easily identifiable authority, and in these other cases the European authorities have been practicing the required dialogue only with individuals who are deemed to be representative in their beliefs and to enjoy wide respect among the adherents of the various religious bodies. This modus vivendi is not quite to the liking of some upholders of a concept of secularism that amounts not just to neutrality between different confessions but also to their exclusion from involvement whatsoever in public affairs. Lately however there has been a qualification of the ultra-secularist attitude on the part of the State that has hitherto been its stalwart upholder. This background is most relevant in the present context because it affects the possibilities and availability of education with a religious dimension.
Where there was total exclusion of any kind of religious education or even the restriction of its provision to Christianity, the Muslim communities especially in such countries as the United Kingdom felt constrained to constitute their own schools and since they were unable to generate appropriate religious educators from their own expatriate community, they had to invite such educators from distant environments. These teachers naturally had no familiarity with democratic traditions and sometimes not even with the local language. Most often they were people who were aware of the leading scientific and economic position of the Muslim and Arab worlds at the time when the Word of God was the unquestioned guide of their community. They attributed its decline to giving in to the seduction of the Western way of life. Not surprisingly the young men who resorted to violence including self-sacrifice had grown up as disciples of such teachers.
The conjuncture in Europe today as I have outlined it above appears favourable to develop a focused dialogue in search of creative, win solutions of hitherto painfully vexed issues in the area of relations between religion and politics. Such solutions are apt to open up a third way between the opposite extremes of fundamentalist theocracy on the one hand and the no less dogmatic intolerance of ultra secularism on the other. The European recognition of the value of harkening to the mature voice of religious leaders and traditional wisdom in a priviledged way amid the often grating polyphony of contemporary civil society, in matters of public ethics, points in a direction with rich potentiality of fruitful development .
It could even prove attractive in those contexts where the triumph of fundamentalist theocracy looms threateningly on the political horizon. Ultra-secularism with its usually not even well hidden anti-religious bias cannot feature as a viable alternative. Instead the politics of recognition may well be the way out of the dilemma. Dialogue in that perspective could be the beginning of the road towards the emergence of a wide consensus on the kind of institutional relationships with a fairly wide range of possibilities that it would be proper to establish between the religious and the political spheres.
For instance, an immediate remedy to the crucial educational quandary that I alluded to a little while ago as central from the point of view of the development of a culture of peace especially between the adherence of different religions would be the creation of the possibility of authentically Muslim educators emerging from institutions established in such countries as have cultures within which pluralism is truly appreciated as enrichment, such as I believe my own country Malta to be. A more promising remedy would be the development of systems of education in which every participant could be involved in really cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. There are several universities, including that of Malta, at which considerable study has been given and methods developed to enable such dialogue to be carried out with the fullest respect of the convictions of all concerned and with mutual understanding as the aim.
One highly important result that could be achieved through such dialogue would be the establishment of a Charter of Human Rights that would be really fully acceptable to the adherents of all religions, notably Islam. Notoriously the Universal Charter of Human Rights enacted by the United Nations and most other similar Charters including notably the European, affirm individual rights to be exercised mainly vis a vis the State. This formulation was to be expected when the cultural background out of which these charters arose was the completely individualistic concept of a human being who operated as an isolated atom. Although the rights proclaimed by such Charters can be assented to readily, yet anyone who conceives of the human being as not only an autonomous person but also as essentially a member of the human species with a social and communitarian nature, will hold that the rights of the individual should be married to the affirmation of corresponding duties to the community of his fellow human beings, or amounting to the same result, the affirmation of the collective rights of humankind which every individual human being has to respect.
It is not inconceivable that if agreement could be reached on the formulation of such a charter, then institutions could be brought into being with the task of ensuring the enforceability of both the individual and the communitarian rights conjointly asserted. Without such enforceability, the declaration of human rights has an educational value as most soft law does, but it offers no guarantee of real respect of those rights.
The promotion and growth in both universities and other more open contexts of both cross cultural and interfaith dialogue offers undoubtedly fine prospects in the perspective of world peace. Here I will quote only very briefly two examples of such profitable cross fertilization from the past because neither of them is as well known as it really deserves to be.
The first is in the field of Political theory. Alfarabi took up Plato’s famous picture of the ideal leader as the philosopher-king. ‘Philosopher’ really meant that the leader was good at reasoning; ‘King’, that he had strong will power. Alfarabi revised this picture and defined the ideal leader as philosopher-prophet-king. He was no doubt inspired to propose this revision because of his acknowledgement of the prophet Mohammed, but he was recognizing that a human being was properly characterized by having not only the power of reason and free will, but also that of imagination. This power was also required in the ideal leader because in Alfarabi’s concept of politics, the leader had to be able to communicate with the masses which he could only do by skill in image making, an aspect that Plato because of his anti-democratic elitism had completely ignored. I quote this instance of Muslim enhancement of the classic European heritage of political philosophy because of its obvious contemporary relevance.
The second instance I want to quote is in the field of Religion. Unquestionably the greatest mystic that Europe has produced is St. John of the Cross. For centuries scholars have debated about the sources from which the Spanish Carmelite friar had derived the very characteristic literary form that he gave to the poems in which he expressed his religious experience of both dark night and joyful illumination. There now seems to be a gathering consensus that it was from Sufism and Muslim world. I cite this example because it indicates one of the areas where inter-religious dialogue can be most fruitful and stimulating in the sense of development of the culture of peace.