Like many other European countries, Spain is grappling with the issue of its diverse immigrant communities. However, unlike most of its neighbours, Spain has a rich diverse heritage that it can draw lessons from.
“There are currently 192 nationalities living in Spain. However, there is a general feeling among ordinary Spanish [citizens] that they should be welcoming to anyone who wants to live here,” shares Dr. Justo Lacunza Balda, an ordained priest with the Society of Missionaries of Africa.
What helps most, adds Balda, is his compatriots’ understanding that to live together in peace side-by-side, they have to accept the richness of their diversity and pluralism as well as cooperate with each other.
“Of course, this is largely due to our mixed historical heritage,” he points out.
Probably the biggest historical example of religious pluralism in the world, Spain was under Muslim rule from the 8th to 15th century and saw people from all three monotheistic religions – Muslims, Christians and Jews – living peacefully side-by-side for centuries. Although Christians and Jews were subject to some restrictions, for the most part the co-existence of the three groups created a rich, cultural heritage in the Iberian Peninsula.
Traces of Islamic influence can still be seen in many facets of Spanish life today, making it easier for Spain to cope with its modern-day diversity, says Balda.
Still, the situation became slightly complicated a few years ago. “The 2004 terrorist bombing in the central railway station of Madrid which killed some 192 people and injured hundreds of others created a new mistrust between the Spanish Catholics and Muslims,” Balda admits.
The Spanish government, however, spared no effort to create public awareness on how to embrace the country’s diversity. This was achieved through interfaith dialogues, which were conducted with the cooperation of the country’s different religious groups.
Hence, it seems almost pre-ordained that Madrid was selected as the logical host for the Sixth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Interfaith Dialogue, “Consolidating religious freedom and mutual understanding through interfaith and intercultural dialogue”, which took place from 7 to 9 April.
Attended by some 120 delegates from 27 of the nearly 50 countries that make up the ASEM, the event aimed to promote relations and mutual respect between cultures and creeds from Europe and Asia and dealt with three main issues: religious freedom and human rights; respect and mutual understanding; and dialogue between cultures and religions as a bridge between societies.
The ASEM, which began in 1996, is a high-level forum between the governments of both regions. Balda, who was one of the keynote speakers this year, feels that Malaysia’s situation is reminiscent of Spain’s Islamic Age.
“It is impossible to think of Malaysia without thinking of the three major groups [Malays, Chinese and Indians] – culturally, linguistically and ethnically they are different but together they are terrific. [The people of] Malaysia can find common ground by seeking unity and not uniformity. […] Spain can learn a lot from Malaysia about how to find avenues for solutions to the problems that our religious differences create. What Malaysia can re-learn from Spain is the desire to emphasise how, even though we (the different religious communities) may be different, we are complementary,” he says.
Italy is another country that is discovering the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Italy’s representative, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Fabio Schina, stated at the conference that the Italian government is realising the importance of interfaith dialogue in fostering better relations between diverse communities, not only domestically but also in the international arena.
“Our demography has changed slightly due to the growth of immigration from different parts of the world. Although the majority of our population is still Catholic, we are seeing a rise in the number of people of other faiths, such as Islam and Buddhism.”
To promote better interfaith understanding, the Italian government is seeking the help of non-governmental organisations that “are already working in the field, so we choose to learn from them and collaborate with them on how to foster better interfaith understanding, as well to address the needs of each community and society at large.”
And then there is Singapore’s example.
In 2006, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), a statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, wanted to be proactive in fostering better interfaith relations and decided to play a more active role in promoting greater understanding of Islam in the multicultural republic by consolidating and centralising its interfaith and community engagement programmes under one roof.
This centre is aptly called the Harmony Centre and is housed within the premises of the An-Nahdhah Mosque.
Ustaz Mohamed Ali Atan, the centre’s head and Chairperson of the mosque, explains that the most important aspect of the Harmony Centre is its clear objectives, to gain the confidence of non-Muslims. But, he adds, “This is not a platform for converting non-Muslims or for teaching religious classes to Muslims. We want to share what Islam is all about with non-Muslims and not only promote better understanding of Islam but also promote interfaith dialogue and engagement at all levels.”
As Schina says, “It is a long process but a process that we need to start and go through. Talking about the issues will lead to awareness and that will lead to better relations.”
* Hariati Azizan is a journalist with The Star (Malaysia). This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the The Star (Malaysia). The full text can be found at thestar.com.my.