Helsinki University – September 4, 2013
Dr. Jukka Kola, Rector of Helsinki University,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your country gave the world Sibelius in music, Alvar Aalto in architecture, Nokia in communications, and to the United Nations, a steadfast commitment to peace-keeping throughout the history of the organization.
Some of the UN’s most glorious achievements as a mediator of conflicts were headed by famous Finnish diplomats. Who would speak of the independence of Namibia without remembering Matti Ahtisaari, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy who worked tirelessly and most skillfully to delink the country from apartheid South Africa and bring it to the safe harbor of international sovereignty?
All these reasons, ranging from excellence in art, culture, and communications, to its solid commitment to international peace and security, particularly through good offices and mediation, make Finland an ideal interlocutor and a natural ally of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
This is why as High Representative I am among you today. The mandate of the AoC encompasses culture, communication, conflict prevention, mediation, all in the service of peace and as an additional tool in the toolbox of international diplomacy.
I thank you for the privilege of sharing with you a few thoughts on the relevance of the Alliance of the Civilizations to your country, but also – beyond Finland – to the other Nordic Countries: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. I will also examine with you the implications of such relevance.
The world never ceases to admire your region for everything that constitutes soft power –cultural refinement, civility, social solidarity, commitment to humanitarian causes, international engagement for peace and security and for the United Nations, as an expression of humanity’s longing for international civility.
In this sense, one can almost speak of a common Nordic DNA, and since I am here among scholars, may I offer this as a line of inquiry – to describe this DNA and define its elements and impact on world affairs.
Let me now briefly recall for you the history of the AoC, and here, remind the sociologists among you of this truth – that institutions, whether local, national, or international, and representing any domain of human activity, are not abstract constructs, but reflections of the times and places in which they are brought into existence.
The times that engendered the AoC were tragic, and the place – New York – was drenched in blood and tears as a result of the criminal fanaticism of a band of extremists who before hijacking commercial flights and turning them into weapons of mass destruction, hijacked a faith of peace – Islam, my faith – and turned it into an ideology of hatred and murder. More fell victim to this tragic folly in Madrid, London, Casablanca, and other places around the world.
Faced with this new danger that risked to pit the West against the World of Islam and lead to the “clash civilizations” predicted a decade earlier by Samuel Huntington, the international community, heeded the urgent call of two European powers, Spain and Turkey – one Christian and the other Muslim. Following the conclusions and recommendations of an international high level group of eminent personalities selected for their expertise, their wisdom, and their prestige by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the United Nations established the Alliance of Civilizations with the objective of countering the tide of intolerance and misunderstanding rising between two great civilizations – Western and Islamic – and beyond this immediate purpose, equipping the United Nations with a new tool of preventive diplomacy to apply to situations of cultural and identity tensions in a world equally blessed and damned by the new paradigm of globalization.
In truth, the history of Western-Islamic relations has never been an easy one – neither as happy as some naive sources want us to believe, nor as bleak as the picture painted by fanatics on both sides, be they radical activists or misguided scholars.
It should also be asserted that while the specific identity of any given country in Europe has its own historic characteristics, and this includes the Nordic Countries, that national identity cannot be completely disassociated from European identity which, itself, cannot be disassociated from its age-old connection to Islam.
History teaches us that Christianity existed long before Europe, and that for more than seven centuries, it continuously interacted with the Muslim world. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, this interaction gave rise to a continuum of exchanges, material and intellectual, commercial and cultural, which profoundly molded Christian and Muslim psyches.
European identity was forged over the course of this process, first at the level of multi-ethnic empires, then, progressively, at the level of modern nations. When this period in history is evoked in the West, some often cite specific battles – from Poitiers to Constantinople – or, in the larger context, wars – such as the Crusades or the Re-Conquest. They too often omit the fact that, in Andalusia as well as in the Holy Land, there were long intervals between battles during which people talked, shared ideas, fell in love, married…. all within a context which was essentially favorable to Islam – not only militarily, but also in terms of civilization. It can be unequivocally stated that European medieval identity and, later, European national identity were nourished by the philosophical, scientific, and artistic advances of Islam.
Most notably, during the 12th century, the cities of Spain recaptured from the Muslims by the Catholics undertook the formidable task of translating masterpieces written in Arabic into Latin. These works served as the centerpieces of some of the transcendental debates that shook the Sorbonne and Oxford in following centuries.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the balance of power between an inward-looking Islam and emerging Europe began to turn in favor of the latter. Centers of intellectual and cultural ferment moved to the European towns where, having thrown off their feudal bonds, freedom flourished. Paradoxically, these towns were all struck by an odd historic amnesia. The Islamic period of their history was entirely forgotten.
The fact that few European students today can speak of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenne), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al-Khuwarizmi or Ibn-al-Haytham is no matter of chance. This “oversight” can be explained by the fact that in the emerging European nations – the Spanish, the French, the Italians, and the English – denied the cultural exchange to which they owed their birth, instead inventing a fictional history asserting the myth of uninterrupted historic continuity between ancient Greece and modern Europe.
This myth is furthered by focusing on the conflicts in Islamic-Western relations, by inculcating the battles, whether won or lost, thus turning Islam into a hereditary enemy instead of the indispensable partner it has so long been.
Although it has been disproved by many studies demonstrating the historic meshing of European and Muslim identities in a process of mutual influence, the denial of a Muslim heritage persists in the European subconscious today.
Huntington is not the only culprit. The determination to deny Muslim contributions to European identity is also evident in books such as the one written by Professor Sylvain Gouguenheim, “Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: The Greek Roots of Christian Europe”.
This denial is linked to hidden biases such as the belief that Muslim communities in the West are somehow alien to the West, or a phenomenon of the 20th century. In Europe there are between 20 and 25 million Muslim citizens according to most reliable estimates. They are at home, yet uncomfortably so because they are viewed as being separate from the national communities of which they are a part.
To be sure, the gap between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority in Europe can be traced to many political, economic, and social causes. However, this gap is very difficult to resolve because it is experienced by groups with separate, selective, and antagonistic memories. For some, Islam has always been the target of aggression by Europe: for others, Europe has always been the target of aggression by Islam. Both points of view are missing an important piece of the picture – those seven centuries during which the destinies of Europe and Islam were, for better or for worse, inseparable. To acknowledge this missing link would not only correct a major historical omission – it would build valuable pathways between the two groups and a shared sense of European identity.
You might wonder why I needed to remind us of this history in a lecture meant to consider the AoC’s relevance to the Nordic Countries today.
For me, the reason is obvious: when it comes to European countries’ relations with the Muslim world, history colors, affects, and sometimes even determines our attitudes and behaviors, implicitly or explicitly, unlike in any other case in relations between nations.
Look, you might say, at the relations between the French and the Germans, or between the Japanese and the Chinese, or for that matter between Finns and Swedes – in these cases, too, you might interject, given past contention and tragedies, history sometimes sneaks through a back door to assert its presence.
True – but the European-Muslim relationship dates back more than fourteen hundred years, when Islam, to use the expression of my senior adviser, Professor Mustapha Tlili, here among us, emerged as, and I quote, “the third kid on the block,” the other two of course being Judaism and Christianity. The introduction of Islam began an ongoing saga of relentless competition, of ups and downs, misunderstanding and cooperation, wars and great moments of peace.
Each religion/civilization claims for itself the “true path,” each promises salvation, and each offers its followers principles for living that sometimes agree and sometimes diverge from those offered by the other two. This is a reality you Nordics know well through your shared experience with Muslim communities that are now part of your nations, as they are part of Europe, part of the continent. They came as immigrants; three generations later they are nationals, although sometimes not fully, in particular because of the historical memory carried by both sides.
Where do all these considerations leave us from an AoC policy perspective? Since I am addressing scholars, what can Nordic academia, in cooperation with the AoC, contribute to a better understanding between Europeans and the world of Islam in general, and a better integration of your Muslim communities in particular?
As I pointed out earlier, what Europeans owe Islamic civilization – in science, philosophy, literature, architecture, fashion, cuisine, statecraft, military organization, and arts – is an indisputable debt that should be fully acknowledged and taught to your children in school to build new pathways to true mutual respect and understanding with the Muslim world at large and your own Muslim communities in particular.
You Nordic scholars, you belong to nations that are not burdened by the sad memory of colonization. You should thus be, one would hope, relatively free from prejudice – prejudgment, if you will, which in the social sciences can color research. You might have a better a chance at attaining objectivity in your research, and on the basis of such research, in writing text books for your educational systems that would acknowledge Western civilization’s debt to Islamic civilization in the areas of human activity I mentioned earlier.
Such an enterprise could become an example for the rest of Europe and the West to emulate. As High Representative, I can assure you of my full encouragement and support in a task that is preventive diplomacy at its best, as it aims at building peace in the minds and hearts of future generations.
I can see an important role for UNESCO here. The UNESCO Director-General, my friend Mrs. Irina Bokova, and I are committed to cooperate to advance the goals of the international communities through education and culture. I stand ready to examine with you any proposal that will tackle such research projects and I will not fail to engage Mrs. Bokova on the matter.
European Muslims, for their part, today contribute to the prosperity and brilliance of their various countries. They are active in the production of material goods as well as cultural ones – in science, literature, art, architecture, fashion, cuisine, and many other fields. Highlighting this contribution through systematic research and textbooks would be a noble task for Nordic academia, and I strongly encourage it.
In conclusion, let me emphasize this truth: Islam has moved to the forefront of world affairs. Although the Muslim world today may appear chaotic, confusing, and sometimes even menacing, its importance is undeniable, and its relationship with the rest of the world, particularly the West, may be the defining issue of our times.
It is easy to judge each side by its extremists: the radical Islamists on one side, and on the other, the neo-conservatives and the evangelical right in the United States and the far right in Europe. These vocal but unrepresentative minorities have dominated the public conversation since the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, each of them offering a polarizing version of history that can lead only to catastrophe, if not checked by a counter-narrative based on historical facts and implemented in terms of wise policies. Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s work together to make this counter-narrative and these policies a reality.