Who Is to Lead the Religious Dialogue?
At a conference in Paris representatives of Muslim and Christian groups in France and Germany discussed the challenges of inter-religious dialogue. The situation for Muslims in the two countries, however, varies widely. Peter Philipp reports
The recent ruckus in the mostly Muslim communities in the outskirts of French cities made headlines around the world. That is why a three-day conference was held in Paris. There, representatives of Muslim and Christian groups in France and Germany discussed the challenges of inter-religious dialogue.
Jean-Arnold de Clermont, President of the French Protestant Federation, said that the French general public apparently isn't interested in an open dialogue with the Muslim minority. France, however, does have the largest Muslim population of all European Union-member countries.
De Clermont's sobering assessment came at the end of the three-day session on relations between Christians and Muslims in France and Germany, organized by the Protestant Church of the Rhineland and the French Protestant Federation.
The tragic irony of 9/11
Franck Frégosi, Director of Research at the Institute for Political Studies in Strasburg, on the other hand, believes that there's no better time than the present for promoting understanding.
"I think that the events of September 11th revealed the fear surrounding Islam. And more and more, particularly Christian, congregations have begun focusing on better relations with Muslims. But Muslims also feel they want to provide some clarity. They say they can't talk about Islam now in the way they could before September 11th."
The conference on religious dialogue got less attention from the French than one might think, given the recent violence in the country. But the commotion in the French suburbs was based less on religion, than on economic and social discrepancies in French society.
Who is to lead the theological discussions?
There is, however, a struggle within the Muslim community. It's a generational conflict. Children born to older Muslim immigrants in France are French citizens – they speak the language and are versed in the culture. But this makes it hard for older Muslims to accept them, which in turn hinders discussion with the non-Muslim majority, says Frégosi.
"I think there's a very clear gap between Muslims in France. Most of the people in charge in the Muslim community are first-generation immigrants – those who settled in France a long-time ago, but do not have the cultural capital that would allow them to pursue discussions with the non-Muslim community. The younger generation will change that eventually. But the problem right now is that young Muslims have not been able to carve a niche for themselves in the religious organizations. So there's no one, really, to lead a theological discussion between the religions."
Instead, younger Muslims work at a more grass-roots level, and try to solve practical matters, like finding more prayer rooms or creating Muslim graveyards.
The theological dialogues that do take place in France are more local, like between preachers and Imams in some small towns in Alsace. But they are so small-scale and rare, that it's hard to deem them a success.
The "dialogue situation" in Germany
Germans who attended the conference in Paris, however, had better news to report. They described projects such as mixed Christian and Muslim women's groups or preachers and Imams who meet over many months. Such contacts lead to long-term relations and have a positive influence on the dialogue between German Christians and Muslims.
Ironically, says Frégosi, young French Muslims say France should also take after Germany when it comes to politics. They cite young Muslim Germans of Turkish descent who have been integrated into the political system and are members of political parties. Germans, for their part, say there's still a long way to go.
Peter Philipp (adapted by Louisa Schaefer)
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005