Speech Verhagen at ASEM Interfaith Dialogue

1. Opening

Your excellencies, mister mayor, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

The noted theologian Hans Küng once said:

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions and no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions, and there will be no serious dialogue among the religions without common ethical standards. [1]

I am delighted to be present at the opening of the official part of the fourth Asian-European Interfaith Dialogue, co-hosted by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Thailand and the Netherlands. The ASEM Interfaith Dialogue was launched in 2005. This is the fourth in the series, after successful editions in Indonesia, Cyprus and China. I am also pleased to see so many people from different countries and segments of society gathered here today, and I’d like to welcome you all to Amsterdam. In particular, I should like to extend a warm welcome to my Thai colleague, Mr Noppadon Pattama.

Before sharing my views on interfaith dialogue with you, let me thank all of you who have worked so hard to prepare for this meeting, particularly the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asia and Oceania Department in The Hague and their counterparts in Thailand. I know that they have put a lot of time into preparing this three-day event, and I’d like to express my personal appreciation for your joint effort.

2. The world today

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our age is defined by increasing globalisation, migration and diversity. Globalisation brings interdependence, but at the same time makes us more aware of our differences. These tend to make people feel insecure and uneasy with each other. People worry about losing their identity. This is understandable. People cannot be categorised exclusively on the basis of their religion or culture. People relate to each other in many different ways. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen calls the plurality of human identity ‘being diversely different’, which means that people are different in many, diverse ways. Indeed, forcing people into boxes of singular identity makes the world inflammable, because identity then takes an ‘either-or' form, which can, subsequently, lead to an ‘ us versus them’ outlook. [2]

In any case, it is a fact that borders are blurred by globalisation, and that migration makes cultures and religions melt and mingle. An excellent example is a newly established mosque in Amsterdam. Here, the imam preaches in Dutch, women and men pray in the same room and a non-Muslim is a member of the board. It is officially called the ‘Polder mosque’, a shining example of the synergy of Dutch and Islamic practices.

Of course, there is no sense in denying or disguising tensions and disagreements between different religions where they exist. In fact, I believe it is far more useful to acknowledge them, and to ask ourselves how we should deal with them. How can we bridge our differences and find common ground? Mutual understanding, peace and tolerance are central to all of the world’s religions, and to humanism.

In the end, it is a simple choice. We can either regard the differences and contradictions between religions as their most important feature, or we can recognise that beyond the diversity there is an essence that all religions share. I believe that human rights bind us together in this world. They transcend the differences between religions and beliefs.

3. Human rights

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This important document set down the ‘global ethical standards’ of which Hans Küng speaks: justice, equality, solidarity, humanity and liberty. I believe it is vital that these values be promoted and up held in places where they are under threat. And that is why I have given human rights a pivotal role in Dutch foreign policy.

Human rights are universal. They apply to all people at all times and in all places. To Muslims and Christians, to Buddhists and Jews, to Hindus and agnostics, to humanists and atheists. Every individual – irrespective of nationality, gender, race or religion – is entitled to protection from the violation of his or her rights.

While universally accepted rights are intended as a minimum standard, applicable at all times and in all places, they are under pressure in many countries. We often hear the argument that local customs or traditions, religious teachings or beliefs are an acceptable reason not to enforce these rights. In my view this is fundamentally wrong. Religion or culture may not be abused by governments or individuals as a justification for violence or for disregarding human rights. But neither should religion or culture be abused by citizens, especially if they have decided to go and live in another country, as an excuse for non-compliance with democratically adopted rules or national customs.

These are complex questions. Where your freedom begins, mine may end. Hence the need to insist on the universality of human rights and the minimum standard they provide. And hence the need for dialogues like today’s.

Freedom of religion or belief is an important human right. More than that, it is a significant indicator of the general human rights situation in a given country. It means that every individual is free to practise his or her religion or belief, change his or her beliefs or choose not to have any religious convictions. Governments have a duty to protect the freedom of religion or belief, both in legislation and in practice. Inequality before the law, discrimination and the persecution of religious minorities are serious violations of the freedom of religion or belief.

Unfortunately, respect for this particular human right is eroding throughout the world. More and more countries are forcing people to wear religious symbols or prohibiting them from doing so. Respect for holy places is declining, and members of religious groups are experiencing problems in openly practising their religion. With this in mind, the Netherlands will make special efforts to promote individual freedom of religion or belief and the protection of religious minorities. We will systematically raise the issue in our contacts with third countries and we will keep religious tolerance particularly high on the UN and OSCE agenda, often acting as lead country for the EU. We are particularly active in supporting resolutions to combat religious intolerance, in both the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly.

4. The need for dialogue

Ladies and gentlemen,

In a world defined by pluralism, the need for dialogue is greater than ever. Dialogue – by which I mean the exchange of ideas, experiences and criticism – is a delicate process. It is also a demanding process. Two monologues do not make a dialogue – they make a dialogue of the deaf. A true dialogue requires effort, commitment and a genuine interest in the other. It is aimed at gaining understanding and acceptance, in spite of differences of opinion and conviction. Dialogue is one of the most effective weapons in the struggle against ignorance, prejudice, intolerance and fanaticism. A genuine dialogue must be open to other people’s views. The aim of the ASEM Interfaith Dialogue is to explore our common ground and build on it. Once we have built these bridges of understanding, it will be easier to explore the points of difference. For any interfaith dialogue to be meaningful, respect for religious diversity and agreeing to disagree are essential.

Important steps were taken in earlier editions of the ASEM Interfaith Dialogue. First of all, the importance of building interfaith harmony through dialogue was endorsed by all ASEM members. They determined the framework within which interfaith dialogue should take place. Then, an action plan on interfaith understanding was submitted. This is exactly where Thailand and the Netherlands want to continue. Our commitment is to deepen the interfaith dialogue by considering what dialogue means in practice. We therefore organised small-scale working visits in Amsterdam yesterday, to experience how interfaith dialogue works in real life. It will definitely be interesting to reflect on these experiences during the working groups this afternoon and tomorrow, and to compare them to the experiences of delegations in their own countries. That is the best way of ‘sharing best practices’, the theme of this year’s ASEM Interfaith Dialogue.

Allow me to say three more things about interfaith dialogue. First of all, it is important to realise that religions or cultures don’t enter into dialogue, people do. Governments can support dialogue, both morally and financially, but in the end it is up to individual people to engage in it – on the streets, in schools, at the market, in their respective religious institutions, on the football field – wherever they can.

Second, people who are not affiliated to any religion should not be excluded from the interfaith dialogue. A dialogue in which only religious representatives participate does not reflect today’s plural and diverse society. People are defined by more than their religious identity; they have ‘diverse diversities’, in the words of Amartya Sen.

Third, although it is important to strive for dialogue between people of different cultural and religious backgrounds, we also have a responsibility to foster debate among people with the same cultural or religious heritage, with a view to promoting tolerance in matters relating to religion or belief. And we should discourage those who fall victim to misinterpretation and are tempted to misuse cultural and religious values to support or use violence.

As I have already said, governments can play an important role in facilitating dialogue. The Netherlands is actively involved in a number of international activities aimed at fostering better mutual understanding between cultures and religions. We are supporting a conference which will be held in Geneva in about two weeks’ time. The co-organisers are the ‘Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief’ academic network and Bristol University. We are also an active member of the Alliance of Civilisations. And, in December 2008, a large interfaith conference, entitled ‘Faith in Human Rights’, will be held in the Peace Palace in The Hague. Religious leaders from all over the world will be taking part. The Netherlands will make a strong effort to find wide support for the promotion of human rights in general and for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular.

5. Conclusion

Together, we must counterbalance those forces that seek to undermine religious tolerance and human rights. In current international affairs, it is crucial to promote a consensus on the universality of human rights. Let us devote ourselves to a global society of tolerance, based on universal human rights, respect for diversity, self-criticism and a permanent and demanding dialogue, governed by mutual respect. Let us not look at differences as unbridgeable divides, separating ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead, we should join forces to create a global society in which the search for greater unity goes hand in hand with respect for diversity. We need to invest in a world where ‘us’ and ‘ them’ can become ‘we’, united in respect for diversity.

In our fast-changing world, people long for safety and certainty. That is a perfectly understandable need. But leaders all over the world – whether they are parents, school teachers, academics, civil society leaders, politicians or religious leaders – have a duty to explain that narrow world views, where there is no room for difference, can offer no genuine safety.

Today, in the ASEM Interfaith Dialogue, we are trying to find constructive and practical solutions for today’s challenges. The Dutch government will not be led by fear. I do not want to view the world in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’ because I don’t believe there is one. What we are dealing with is a clash between the tolerant and intolerant voices within our societies, and across different cultures and religions. And that is exactly where the moderate voices of this world need to join forces.

According to an old saying we reap what we sow. If we wish to reap a harvest of tolerance and mutual respect, then we must start today. Let’s make sure that we are sowing seeds of tolerance and mutual respect in our schools and religious institutions. The OSCE Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs are useful guidelines. If we are to live together in mutual respect, dialogue is an indispensable tool.

I’d like to finish with a quote by Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda: ‘Let us extinguish the flames of hatred with a flood of dialogue’. I wish you much inspiration this afternoon and tomorrow, as you engage in a genuine, productive dialogue.

Thank you.

[1] Hans Küng, ‘The World’s Religions: Common Ethical Values’, 31 March 2005, speech at the opening of the Exhibit on the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University.
[2] Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny (New York 2006).