"A bunch of flowers in many colours looks beautiful, a choir with high and low voices sounds good, an international study environment is exciting. Life is full of diversity in nature and in our social structures, starting from our family, to our neighbourhood, our countries, our globe. Diversity makes life interesting. Yet, diversity is often seen as a source of tensions and conflicts, dividing communities and creating conflicting identities. In this Interfaith Conference we will explore diversity in manifold aspects as a source of celebrating life, as enrichment for our communities, and as a strong instrument to promote local and global peace.
We will not close our eyes to the harsh reality in many parts of the world where people are made to believe that they are better than the ‘other’, the other religion, the other ethnic group, and therefore have the right to fight the other. Out of fear and ignorance they perceive diversity as a threat to their own identity. 100 years ago in 1913 the Peace Palace was established in The Hague to solve international conflicts by talking together rather than by making war. The Peace Palace continues to remind us of the urgent need to work for justice and to celebrate peace. Together in all our diversity we can make this planet a better place to live for all."
Manuela Kalsky's keynote speech:
Good morning everybody,
First of all I want to express my gratitude to the organizers of this interfaith conference for inviting me to speak on celebrating diversity for Peace. In a way this mutual encounter today says much more about this theme than words can do. But of course I am very thankful to have the opportunity to share some ideas and experiences through words.
One of the biggest questions at this moment in the Netherlands, and in Europe, is how to deal with cultural and religious diversity in society. It is my impression – but please correct me if I am wrong - that the younger generation - your generation - very easily handles differences in terms of cultural and religious diversity. You are much more used to it in your daily life and especially when you are a foreigner yourself. The elder generation in for example the Netherlands grew up in a more homogeneous society - and in a way they fear a loss of identity. Everything has changed so quickly. Internet has radically changed our daily live and our sense of time and space. Borders, which had to ensure our safety are blurring, churches and old traditions and customs have faded into the background. Certainties disappeared to make way for fluid structures and 'omnipresent clouds’. The world has become cluttered. Many people feel insecure. Their ‘home feeling’ is affected.
As foreign students all of you know how important it is to feel at home somehow and to offer hospitality to strangers, to increase their physical, social and also their spiritual wellbeing, so they can feel at home. I think this feeling-at-home-emotion is an important precondition to peaceful coexistence. I don’t know if you agree, but my observation is, that sharing lifestories, sharing personal experiences and values with one another bring about mutual understanding. As you know: unknown is unloved. So, we need to find a way of coping with our differences and making them fruitful for the future , in order to build up a ‘new we’. In my opinion finding a ‘new we’, which do not exclude people because of their otherness, but offer a ‘home’ to celebrate our differences, is the way to peace. And we can be part of it and build up something new by embodying the difference we want to make in our life with one another, in society and eventually in the world. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world. To him the most import battle to fight, was overcoming his own demons, fears, and insecurities. I think he is right – the ‘new we’ begins with a new I – with a metanoia, of my own habits and ways of thinking.
Let me share some moments of my personal story and experiences with you, before I’ll tell you more about the multimedia project we developed at the Dominican Study Centre about finding a New We in the Netherlands.
At the age of twenty-three I left Germany, the land where I was born and bred, with the aim to live and study for one year at the capital city of the Netherlands: Amsterdam. To make a long story short: I never went back. During the past twenty nine years I have learned a lot about living as a migrant in a foreign country - firstly by my own experience and secondly by hearing and reading stories of other immigrants, who came from cultures in- and outside Europe. Admittedly, I am much more privileged than the average migrant in Europe – I am highly educated, have a good job and speak the Dutch language very well. But in spite of my successful integration in the Dutch society I am still an ‘integrated other’, someone with a double belonging and consciousness, with a name which does not sound very Dutch and with a slight accent which betrays my ethnicity.
This ‘insider/outsider position’ is one I share with migrants from other countries. On the one hand it contributes to the uncertainty of one’s own identity, but at the same time it encourages one to look at things in a new perspective. An unambiguous answer to the question: “Who am I?” is no longer possible. “I am Dutch” in my case means: I have a Dutch passport, I have lived, studied and worked in the Netherlands for 29 years, but I am also a born and bred German. I have German parents who lived through the Second World War, and the first 23 years of my life were shaped by German culture. I am a German-Dutch woman and I experience my identity, my “I”, neither as unchanging nor as limited to a national essence. It is a German-Dutch construct, in which various facets of (life) experience determine my identity. Not only a person’s unchanging qualities determine this process of forming an identity, but also the (self-chosen) areas of belonging does. I am bi-cultural and the result of this dubble belonging is not sitting between two chairs, but sitting on two chairs – looking at the Germans through Dutch eyes and at the Dutch people through German eyes.
Although identity has never been a static or unambiguous concept, it has never been as complex as it is in today’s Europe, at the beginning of the 21st century. People are confronted with other cultures, faiths and philosophies of life. And they ask themselves: What does this mean to European culture and religion? How to deal with cultural and religious differences? Are the European people and the structures of their societies open and tolerant enough to allow people with other religious and cultural backgrounds to find a home in Europe? Or will the fear of ‘the other’ be a real threat to peace in Europe?
So the important question is: How can we find a ‘new we’ that can relate people with a different cultural and religious background to each other and offer a new kind of social cohesion? How can we be different, without being alienated?
We all know that there are no easy answers tot these questions. But I am convinced that a nostalgic longing for an idealised past is not the way to the future. An exclusive thinking in terms of 'either/or' no longer works. With the new technology we have lost clear-cut boundaries. It is very obvious that identities has become fluid, they mix and mingle. Hybrid life styles come up and people are developing multiple cultural and religious identities.
When I walk through the city of Amsterdam today, there are Asian, African and oriental-looking young women and men who, as soon as they open their mouth, exhibit an unmistakable local Amsterdam accent, as though their ancestors had never lived anywhere else than in the Jordaan district, the heart of the old city of Amsterdam. They are migrant children who have grown up bi-culturally and/or bi-religiously en who are now, as the second or third generation of migrants, bearers of a hybrid identity. According to statistics one third of the residents in larger cities in Europe, have a migration background.
This whole development is no longer strictly a matter of intercultural or interreligious dialogue, in which representatives of different religions exchange commonalities and differences in their understanding of Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed and Jesus. Here, different cultures and religions melt into one another in one and the same person. This is not the result of an inter-subjective dialogue but of an intra-subjective dialogue and of internal loyalties towards several cultures and religious traditions, which are directly related with that specific person. People like these embody a multi-cultural and a multi-religious identity.
A few years ago, a book with interviews was published, entitled Let’s make love – 27 impossible love relationships. It contains reports by bicultural and bi-religious couples about the problems and opportunities of multicultural and multi-religious relationships. The story of Susan und Yahya stayed with me for a long time. She is a Danish Jew and he is a Muslim from Morocco. They met at a pantomime training course in Amsterdam. Like many other couples who embark on what looks like an ‘impossible love’, Susan and Yahya experienced hostilities from the community—their relatives, friends and acquaintances—that made things hard for them. They have to deal not only with personal differences, but are forced to take on the burden of the entire political situation in the Middle East. They are not willing to give up their love because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, and with the help of their pantomimes, which they perform with and for children, they strive to eliminate stereotypes that typecast the enemy. They have given their daughter a Jewish-Arab name: Blume Yamina. They consider her a sign of hope in the midst of a hopeless war and intend to raise their child biculturally and bireligiously in order to give her the best of both traditions. A contribution to peace between the peoples, under the slogan: the Jewslims are coming!
While this initiative is primarily an individual action, it is also a political statement and an example of the situation young people are facing in a globalized world. Cultural and religious identities of the future generations are becoming much more hybrid - if they aren’t already. The citizens of Europe are developing multiple religious identities in everyday life through their encounters with people of other religions and through the information flow on internet. These identities no longer conform to the law of purity and unity. Boundaries are blurring and identities are becoming fluid. The insight of postcolonial thinkers that there is always ‘an other’ in ‘the other’ has made clear that the dualist separation between rulers and ruled, colonizers and colonized, is an over-simplified analysis of the real power relations. The role we play in life is far from clear.
This observation of multiplicity in daily life also applies to the religious sphere. Religions, too, are not clearly defined entities. They cannot be tidily sorted into clearly defined categories. All religious traditions are products of intercultural and interreligious processes. As soon as there are alternatives to the cultural rules and to the basic values of a society, new identities are constructed. The purity of a truth or doctrine of faith yields in practice to the mixing of different religious truths, even when this is generally rejected as syncretism in official theological and ecclesiastical circles. However, when a normative tradition is no longer the rule, but rather a religious bricolage constructed out of the elements of different religious traditions, then one can ask whether the existing concept of interreligious dialogue is still suitable.
Of course the relation between people of different religious and non-religious views of life should still be one of mutual understanding. I have my doubts, however, whether the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ is still the proper expression for what should happen in the encounter between people with different religious and cultural backgrounds, though the term strongly suggests a verbal relationship with each other. Yet the encounter should not primarily be about discussion of one’s own religious convictions and the central truths of a certain normative tradition, but rather about the establishment of mutual trust and understanding. In this sense the word ‘interreligious dialogue’ points too strongly to the cognitive aspect of the encounter and too little to the ordinary life of individuals and their embodied practices of lived religion. How do we create a common ‘we’ in our immediate environment? A ‘we’ that does not immediately produce a ‘they’ by excluding others; a ‘new we’ that makes cultural and religious differences fruitful and enables a more relational and holistic view of what ‘the good life for all’ could be; a we in which we learn to see through the eyes of the others and are thus in a position to expand our own limited view with the other’s perspective in personal relationships.
In other words: fruitful interrelatedness begins not with communicate one’s own (dogmatic) belief, but with sharing (religious) experiences and stories out of everyday life with each other. An exchange of knowledge of heart and mind, of feelings and thoughts, of stories and art-expressions to know more about ‘the other’ and to become aware of one’s own prejudices. The American theologian Paul Knitter, who has been active in interreligious dialogue for many years, has come to the conclusion that dialogue with people of other faiths works best in interreligious cooperation. To him not the exchange of beliefs is the basis of this collaboration, but the ethical inspired actions that arise from these beliefs. From this shared engagement - in the case of Knitter peace missions in conflict areas - friendships between Hindus, Buddhists and Christians developed. Knitter wrote: “Acting, struggling, and suffering together for the cause of peace or justice make for special friendships. But such friendships, because they were between religious people, also bear their religious, dialogue fruits.”
Nowadays, in our network society these bonds of friendships can be found in a new way on the World Wide Web. In less than three years more than 350 million Facebookers are searching for connection with each other, in a quest for a new sense of belonging – crossing cultural and religious borders in less than three years time. Network societies produce network religions. In this sense Internet facilitates the ongoing processes of negotiation and change of religion and religious identities.
From unity to multiplicity
Europe today is facing the challenge of a paradigm shift, from a mindset of unity to a mindset of multiplicity. The nostalgic attempts to recreate a long-gone European culture of nation states, based on unity of language, territory and religion, will have to be replaced by a concept of culture integrating multiple identities.
What is important in life and faith today lies in the experiences of people who live and survive in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Multiplicity calls for communication. This means we have to intensify dialogue and forge connectedness where at present we still fearfully avoid one another. There is an urgent need to find answers to the problems and challenges for the common future of Europe, such as: how can we create a peaceful and just society that enables people to live together in a multi-ethnic Europe? How can prejudice against and fear of other faiths be dismantled without denying the problems that arise when people from different cultures and religions live together? How can we help ourselves and our society to benefit from the fruits of cultural and religious differences in order to guarantee the good life for all?
In short: What is needed for a ‘new we’ that binds people together and makes differences fruitful?
Project We is not about giving answers in the first place but about asking questions. It aims at picturing the creativity and energy of people in the neighbourhoods of towns and villages and stimulating their ability to find their own solutions, making new common initiatives possible on a small scale. The project wants to stimulate people to take their responsibility and to show their strength instead of taking on the part of the victim. The ‘Generation Y’ video team, for instance, pictures projects and people who are still working on this ‘new we’, making them accessible to a wider Dutch-speaking audience.
Without denying that living amid al those differences entails problems, project We focuses on the positive developments in an increasingly plural country. By doing this, We wants to motivate people to work on shaping their own lives and society in a constructive and creative way - for words and images are not innocent. They are not only a reflection of reality; but they are also creating reality themselves.
Instead of fostering fear and cynicism, Project We wants to promote the development of a common culture, in which mutual differences are made fruitful. The right to ‘be different’ is an achievement within liberal democracy. The struggle about the question which values should be defining society, is part of this democratic process. The debate on this question, in my view, must not be seen as a problem but as a privilege, for in an open society which strives for individual emancipation as a human right, there will always be conflicts of interests. The common ground is that people comply with the law, with the rules that are laid down in the Constitution.
As long as diversity is associated with loss of identity and relativism of values, and the convictions of ‘the other’ are seen as a threat to one’s own identity, there will be no room for a new we. Mutual acceptance and equality, while retaining and respecting the differences, are indispensible ingredients for the development of new sustainable connections. This is why we chose the motto ‘We - connects the differences’. It underlines the necessity not to downplay differences in favour of common things in the search for mutual connections. We advocates facing the differences and making them fruitful - moving away from the either/or thinking and searching beyond the prejudices and with an open mind for an and/and approach.
Breaking down prejudice by encounters, promoting knowledge about and providing inspiration from the various religious traditions, and stimulating communication about them with a view to creating a peaceful and just society: this is what project We aims at. It is the longing for new ways of connectedness – new ways of feeling at home.
In order to really feel at home, the British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks underscores the importance of being able to make your own contribution to society. For him, society is like a home we must build together. Only if you have also given shape to it, made your contribution, you can proudly say: this is also my achievement. Only then you will feel at home. And it goes without saying that you are entitled to recognition of your contribution then. Try to find shared interests, is his advice, and decorate the home you are going to build together with beautiful details from the different traditions in which each of you grew up. Celebrate the festivals together - Christmas, Chanukka, Chinese New Year, the Sugar Feast, Divali - and take the values from the different religious traditions as inspiration for a common ethics – for example compassion or hospitality. If we do this, diversity is wealth. And the more differences are included into the house, the more beauty and wealth it will contain, so he says. But do not forget to reserve your own space as well, a room in which you can withdraw for the sake of balance between togetherness and uniqueness.
I will not deny, that living among cultural and religious diversity entails problems, in particular when migrants with a low level of education want to settle in a Western country. Being behind in the command of the language, deviating cultural customs, economical problems, criminality, radicalisation - these are all lurking dangers. But focussing on wrongs and deficits is not the way to motivate people to work constructively and creatively on the realisation of their lives and of society. I share Ramadan's opinion that, above all, we need a 'revolution in trust' as a remedy against the fear and discontent which keeps the Netherlands imprisoned in a downward spiral of negativity at present. Besides citizens and politicians, the media also have a responsibility not to frame migration by focussing on the negative news and incidents, and not to label the problems of a relatively small number of Muslims as 'Islam'. The violent political branch of Islam is a modern phenomenon and has nothing to do with ancient Islamic tradition. What is going on is rather a clash between a revolutionary movement and our liberal democracy.
Let us instead encourage a common culture, a 'new we', and put a stop to the unnecessary insults towards Muslims in the Netherlands. There is no clash of religions going on, and neither is it necessary to have only one ideal in a democratic society. In a democracy, we can have a struggle about values, for there will always be conflicting interests. The foundation is that people abide by the law, by the rules that are laid down in the constitution.
Being at home presupposes a basic feeling of acceptance and equality, of feeling appreciated and being able to employ your talents. In my view, these are the conditions for a society in which people can live together, not only peacefully but also happily; where they show their willingness to work for common values. In the multimedia project New We, we are looking for this common values.
As a theologian I come to the conclusion that a theology which takes the signs of the times seriously and seeks for God’s salvation amid ‘the messiness’ of our daily life must give room to multiplicity. Multiplicity not only in one’s own Christian circle - no matter how important and relevant this may be - but in particular in the sense of giving room to the voices of the religious and spiritual stranger in our midst.
The burning question is: Will I allow this? Will I allow that this other interrupts my own narrative and disrupts my peace? That he or she exposes the assumptions in my thinking and acting, and questions my complacency? Do I have the courage to have my own limited view on the world expanded, meaning I may have to face things I would rather not see? In short: do I make the other into an alter ego, into the projection of my own desires or do I sustain the opaque unicity of every human being? Together with Emmanuel Levinas I would plead for the latter: no practice of ‘egology’, not determining the other from my own ego and reducing them to myself, but letting myself be surprised by the opacity of the other. For the Heidelberg theologian and missiologist Theo Sundermeier, who lived and worked in Africa for may years and who is an expert in the field of intercultural communication, wonder is the beginning of all hermeneutics. He writes:
“In wonder, I am open for the little, the humble, and in this I discover otherness, beauty, multiplicity. He who is surprised, is capable of endure dissonance with resignation and will not look for harmony too easily. For the dissonant, as well, belongs to the fullness of life.”
Today, doing theology means going to the virtual marketplace, where people meet each other in very different ways, playing with identities, narratives, imagination and desires and where God can be found in many spiritual guises. The game of theology has changed. The (non)religious other becomes a locus theologicus. Which has as its consequence that the slogan ‘unity in diversity’ should be replaced by ‘diversity in search of connections’, searching for a new We. Or, better, searching for small We’s which are able to connect in a network which does not cherish the desire for fusion but can make a difference by building a society in which everyone can feel at home.
Whoever thinks that this is a utopian and naive idealism, is mistaken. It is the reality of the twenty-first century. The century in which the neo-liberal market thinking within a nation state - and the related excesses of egocentric wealth accumulation at the expense of both the majority of humankind and the earth’s natural resources - is running on empty. Creating social cohesion needs new and just connections on a local and global scale. A spirituality of the good life for all is an urgent necessity. Maybe it's time to look beyond the borders of the Netherlands, under the motto: Looking for a global new We by connecting the differences.
Dr. Manuela Kalsky is Professor of Theology and Society at VU University and director of the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society (DSTS) in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She is also director of the multimedia website Nieuwwij.nl. Research areas: religion in a pluralist society, dialogical theology, multiple religious belonging, feminist and postcolonial studies. For more information: www.nieuwwij.nl / www.dsts.nl