A possible cohabitation

Hervé-Pierre Guillot on the resolution of the Council of Europe

A resolution on “Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe” has been voted and almost unanimously endorsed by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe on 23 June”. The text, in which the presence of Muslims in Europe, the laws approved by various European states and the responsibilities on both sides are reviewed, ends with an appeal to foster sincere intercultural dialogue and to believe in the possibility of “peaceful cohabitation” on the basis of the European values of human rights. So, if on the one hand the Council of Europe reminds Muslims of the need to accept these values, asking them to renounce the idea of “realizing a parallel society”, on the other it has warned all 47 member states of the Council of Europe against any form of discrimination towards Islam. In this regard it recalls the debate on the full veiling of Muslim women that is continuing in various European countries and the recent Swiss referendum on minarets. We discussed all this with Hervé-Pierre Guillot, of OCIPE – Jesuit European Office, who participated in the parliamentary debate in Strasbourg. How was the debate in the chamber?“Three things in particular were underlined: the first, emphasized by more than one speaker, is the need to assert that Islamism and Islamophobia are too opposite currents that mutually fuel and reinforce each other. By Islamism we mean the extremist political aspect of Islam. So, if Islamism puts down roots in Europe, the reaction – by cause and effect – is the reinforcement also of Islamophobia. The second aspect emphasized during the debate was the role that the media can and should play in this field due to the responsibility they have in influencing public and institutional opinion. So speakers recalled the responsibility the media have for what’s written in the press, how events are reported and hence the way in which Islam is represented to the public at large. And it was pointed out that this role of the media is still too weak and that Islam is unfortunately presented in a negative manner, with the use of stereotypes and clichés. The third aspect I noted is that the Commission that drafted the document clearly stated that it is opposed to any general prohibition on the wearing of the burqa by women; such a ban “would deny women, who freely desire to do so, their right to cover their face”. That is a stance that aroused some debate especially on the part of deputies from France (where a legislative process on the question is currently underway), who made their voice heard on the very French notion of laicité [the secularity of schools, public offices etc.]”. What in your view is the influence of the role of information? “In close rapport with the question of the role of information, the importance of all those who in some way or another play an educational role was also emphasized during the debate. The responsibility for an education in “religion in the plural” was recalled, and the hope expressed for the presence of well informed and well instructed personnel in schools to help eliminate any stereotypes linked to religious affiliation. And that goes not only for Islam, but also for Judaism, and for Christianity. In other words, efforts must be made not to foment prejudices relating to people’s religion. Prejudice of whatever kind must always be combated”.What image of Europe emerges?“The Council of Europe, by placing this issue at the centre of a resolution, was perfectly conscious of the risk it was taking. It was conscious, in other words, that this issue is not only an extremely delicate question but one that is being hotly debated in Europe, and that countries with a Muslim majority are also represented within the Council of Europe. With the present resolution – at least in my view – the Council of Europe has expressed the hope of making its contribution to a better understanding between the peoples of Europe and combating the misunderstandings that are often the result of poor information”. So the Council of Europe has at heart the fight against all forms of prejudice?“Yes, it is the question of prejudices that we need above all to combat. The parliamentary assembly, through its work, feels itself called to help towards placing sound information in circulation and to warn Europe against the temptation to succumb to the prejudices that may arise. So what’s needed is to build a Europe able to promote the peaceful cohabitation of the various peoples that inhabit the continent in a serene climate of multiculturalism in which each may maintain and cherish its own specific identity but without ever succumbing to prejudices, especially those dictated by religious motives”.A final remark?“It was an utterly fascinating debate, because it placed the focus on a fundamental question, namely the presence and place of Islam in Europe today. And it reaffirmed the importance of the education and information of the population to prevent them succumbing to the scourge of prejudices and stereotypes. It reminded each citizen of Europe of his/her responsibility to reflect on what’s at stake, and urged all those with educational responsibility to tackle this question in a more open and transparent manner, free from any stereotype”.

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