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"We Have to Look Each Other in the Face"

Interview by Ibrahim Mohamad (sp)
January 12, 2005

In an interview with DW-WORLD, the president of Germany's Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, stressed it was important for the Arab-Islamic world to open up to the West for the dialogue between the two to be really fruitful.

DW-WORLD's new Arabic service spoke with ThierseImage: DW

On Jan. 12, 2005 DW-WORLD's Arabic Web site goes online. To mark the event, the editors spoke to Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German parliament, about the much-vaunted dialogue between the West and the Arab-Islamic world.

The interview comes at a time of intense debate in Germany about the integration of foreigners living in the country and the compatibility of Islam with European values.

DW-WORLD: Germany has intensified efforts to maintain a dialogue with the Arab world. What has been achieved so far?

Wolfgang Thierse: Firstly, contacts have been improved. The dialogue between Germany and Europe and the Arab-Islamic world has gathered pace and intensified. That's valuable in itself, irrespective of the results.

In which area do you think this dialogue should be concentrated?

The dialogue has to touch upon very different topics. Of course, politics is important. Germany and the Arab world have a common interest in reaching a peaceful solution to the Mideast conflict as well as seeing a stable democratic development in Iraq and ensuring that tensions don't escalate.

Secondly, the dialogue is also about economic exchange. The Middle East, Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries are very important to Europe and Germany on account of their crude oil and also as economic partners.

Thirdly, cultural exchange and religious dialogue is of equal importance. Here it's important to overcome the feeling of "foreignness" and fighting prejudices. One can only do that if one gets to know each other better in order to not just recognize differences, but also similarities. You can't do that via television or newspapers. For that, you need to really talk to one another and look each other in the face.

The West often plays teacher in the dialogue with the Arab-Islamic world. How can Germany take on a different role?

I'm not sure that the West appears as a teacher. On the other hand, there are some virulent accusations from the Arab-Islamic world against the West. There's also a kind of missionary zeal from a certain section of Islam to convert the West to a life of godliness.

On the other hand, the West says that peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths is a prerequisite for tolerance and for saying "yes" to religious pluralism. But, in most Islam-influenced countries there is no real religious freedom though it's a condition for peace. That's the experience of the European continent that has waged wars, even religious ones, for centuries. That could only be ended through the principle of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It was a long and laborious process, but one that led to a positive outcome.

In Europe, people of different Christian confessions and different religions live together in relative peace. And now, one section of Europeans is worrying that Islamic citizens could disrupt this peace. They're worried for the sake of peace -- I beg understanding for that.

Many people in the Arab-Islamic world hardly show interest in a dialogue with the West. How can one still include them?

For one, you can give them the possibility of personally getting to know people from other cultures. That's the key to the opening of one's own country. After all, I can only develop interest for others if I have the chance to get to know someone or when I'm motivated through the encounter to know more about them. If I only hear about them through possibly superficial or one-sided television reports, then interest isn't stimulated.

The reason why we're developing a bigger interest in Islam in Germany has to do with the fact that several million citizens of Islamic faith live here.

Does it suffice when there are contacts on an official level?

Dialogue should never just take place on an official level. It would be nice if Europeans had the chance to travel to Arab countries so that there would be contacts on a civil society level.

It's important that contacts aren't just forged in Europe, but also in Arab countries. It's important that the Arab world opens up much more than is the case now and tries to overcome its own fear. That's a prerequisite for opening up: less fear. The moment I open up and seek contact, the fear lessens. But I don't see that happening on a mass scale. There are several Arab countries, which expressly don't open up. They instead resist outside contact and that's really not the kind of future project we'd like.

The main target group for DW-WORLD's Arabic service is young people. In many Arab countries they have no training or jobs and there's a danger they could be vulnerable to extremist ideas. How can Germany help?

It's always the same topics: You need to engage in economic exchange in the interest of good economic development. But it's also important to contribute towards democratization in these countries through political and civil society contacts. Particularly in countries where there isn't any real social justice and where young people don't have enough of a democratic voice.

Allowing democratization and liberalization processes is always also a challenge to Arab governments too. The processes are also important for economic interests because a closed society will in the end never be successful economically.

There's a lively discussion underway in Germany on the integration of foreigners living in the country, in particular Arabs and Muslims. People are talking of a "multicultural society" and a "dominant culture. What's your position?

I stand between the two catchwords. I don't think either "dominant culture" or "multicultural society" is appropriate. Instead we need to make an effort towards intercultural understanding -- that's the correct term. That means, firstly, that the Germans should finally accept that 40 years ago not just labor but people came to their country. The Germans must also offer these people many more chances for integration and recognition.

On the other hand, those who came to us, must be far more prepared to adapt to society here and say "yes" to it. They must say "yes" to the fact that they are here and they and their children and grandchildren live here permanently. We should neither be allowed to make them "guest-workers" nor should they be allowed to define themselves that way. Such was the basic evil until now. We lied to each other in the past 40 years. What seemed at the beginning to be humanly understandable, has been a huge mistake for decades.

And if we want to overcome it, then you need both sides -- the so-called "dominant society" as well as the so-called "minority society" -- to be even more prepared to engage with one another. That's necessary. It begins with learning the language and knowing the elementary rules of the constitution to the acknowledgement of cultural differences. You don't have to see the exchange as something threatening, but rather as highly-interesting and enriching.

I still don't know whether Germany and Europe will one day be a multicultural society. There are still differences between the so-called "majority society" and the so-called "minority society." The balance of power is unequal. In a multicultural society it would surely be distributed equally. We're still not there. This is just a sober assessment, without passing judgment.

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