e are living in a world today where the necessity of having a cross-religious dialogue becomes ever more evident. A few decades ago, the world did not move as fast as today, and most religions were to some extent nearly permanent within their own domain. A country like Denmark was pretty much mono-religious, and the meeting of religions was merely theoretical.
This changed in Denmark, as it did in so many other countries in the second half of the twentieth century, when migration around the globe intensified dramatically. Cultures and religions started meeting all over the world, causing people not only to look at the state of their own religion, but also recognize that other religions had come into their neighborhoods.
New challenges faced the traditional European populations, especially in the form of the so-called new religions, plus the massive immigration of Islam. Initially, the new religions drew the most attention and bore the brunt of the attacks by the press. No efforts were spared in portraying them as being an evil force within society; their followers were classified as brainwashed and their beliefs were ridiculed.
In the same years, Islam was slowly gaining a foothold in the West. In those days, Islam was considered rather exotic with the faint odor of A Thousand and One Nights. Muslims were invited into Europe to take the jobs on the factory floors that nobody else wanted, and they were loyal and good workers exhibiting only a peripheral affiliation with their own religion initially. When they started settling in, getting married and establishing families, religion became important within these new minority groups in Europe.
And then the tides shifted. The Soviet bloc collapsed, the political landscape of the world changed, and nothing remained what it was. Within a few years, Islam was named the "enemy" of the Western world and a regular race seemed to begin. From even the seat of NATO and the European Union, the idea was voiced that Islam was posing a threat to the old Europe. Muslim minorities in Europe became the target for the negative profiling in the media, and the new religions were left in peace.
For more than a decade, and in some countries closer to fifteen years, there has been a verbal war on Islam in the media, and Muslims in Europe have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the development. My own country, Denmark, has to some extent been in the very forefront of the negative profiling of Islam and Muslims. Fiercely led by extreme right-wing politicians, the debate has become so poisonous that it brought the world to a major crisis in the early part of 2006. A series of drawings, which in themselves were not particularly much worse than what has been seen at several occasions throughout history, set half the world ablaze.
Before the case was over, several people had died.
This was a lesson for the whole world, and particularly for Denmark. It showed with shocking clarity that the Western world had a very important lesson to learn. It had to learn that things have indeed changed for good, and that we have to learn not only to live together but also to at least accept the presence of each other and, preferably, even respect each other.
The cartoon crisis emerged from the unwillingness to accept facts at face value and live in the understanding that the world of today and tomorrow is not the same as the world of yesterday.
In today’s and tomorrow’s world, society is neither mono-cultural nor mono-religious. We have to realize that wherever we go in the new world, we will meet people of faiths other than our own; and that they have just as much right to have their religion as each one of us feel that we have for ours. This may be a difficult exercise, and it could take time to learn. Nevertheless, it is of crucial importance that we not only recognize it but actually set out to make it happen. At present, the lack of willingness to respect and honor the rights of everybody else’s religion is tearing our planet apart nearly faster than we can manage to do it in so many other ways.
Therefore, it has been important for me to share in some of the interreligious events staged by the Unification Church or the Universal Peace Federation. One of the things which has pleased me greatly in this company is the opportunity to speak out openly and clearly. Thus, I have openly stated that I come as a Muslim, I speak as a Muslim and I leave as a Muslim. The only response to this has been "That is exactly what you are expected to do." There have been no attempts to convince me to change my religion.
One of the things that has truly impressed me has been the willingness of Rev. Moon and his movement to include Muslims. In a time when Muslims have been labeled the scum of the earth from left, right and center, it has been refreshing to find that there has been a deliberate outreach of dialogue with Muslims, even immediately after the tragic incident at 9/11. Shortly after that tragedy, I was, along with other Muslim leaders, invited by Mr. Moon to share in a big conference on Islam and world peace in Jakarta. And although it did not change the world, it was one of many important steps taken around the globe in order to alleviate the stigmatizing of all Muslims on the basis of the acts of a very few.
Numerous times, I have been in great gatherings with religious leaders from all over the world, each one speaking openly about his deep concerns for the present world. I have even had the great chance to speak to a congregation of about four hundred people of all different faiths in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem just beneath the Masjid al Aqsa, which is the third holiest place in Islam.
For many years, I have been active in interreligious work in Denmark as well as internationally; and I have met a lot of sincere and concerned people who willingly and readily embrace each other across religious boundaries. This is a new discipline for a lot of people from the Western world, my self included. We have had to learn every step from scratch. Slowly but surely, we are coming through, and even as forces at the extreme edges are trying to pull everything apart, it also seems that an ever increasing number of people are trying to go that extra mile to meet each other in the no-man’s-land between religions—the land where we can all respect each other for having belief and having the courage to express it in a chaotic world. Moreover, these people have the courage to reach out to believers who profess other faiths.
It is tremendously important that we clearly start voicing the opinion that all have the right to profess their beliefs and that we will even fight for each others’ rights to believe or not to believe. If I am not ready and willing to stand up for anybody else’s rights, then I certainly should not expect anybody else to stand up for me. Thus, as a Muslim in a modern world, I am glad to state that, first of all, I am convinced that (for me) my own religious choice is right and that the way I have taken is right. Otherwise, I would naturally change it immediately. Second, I am glad to state that I am absolutely ready and willing to defend anybody else’s right to have their religion, even if I may strongly disagree with their belief.