Address by Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former President of the Republic of Latvia and current co-chair of the International Board of Trustees of the Nizami Ganjavi Interntional Center at the Quirinale Palace in Rome.
Mr. President of the Republic,
Ladies and gentlemen,
On behalf of the Nizami Ganjavi International Centre, may I first of all thank you for the honour of being received at the Quirinale Palace in connection with the High Level Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue for Peace, which is being held here in the Eternal City. We are most grateful for the high level of the hospitality that we are enjoying here in Italy and delighted to be collaborating with the Italian Society for International Organizations.
The 12th Century Sage for whom our Centre is named was a great poet and a devoted Muslim, whose wisdom, humanity and tolerance remain as exemplary today as they were centuries ago. Our International Board of Trustees, which I have the honour of co-chairing with Dr. Ismail Serageldin, has been promoting the values that this great man stood for through a number of impressively successful conferences in Baku, Azerbaijan, as well as elsewhere in the world. In our work we have been constantly emphasizing the importance of dialogue as a means for both preventing and resolving conflicts. The topic of Interfaith dialogue is entirely consistent with the priorities that our Centre has been following and we look very much forward to fruitful debates between enlightened representatives of the Christian and Muslim faiths here in Rome.
As we look on with distress at the appeal of violent extremism in Europe and its neighbours, we can see that is takes root in a tangled mix of causal factors, of which sectarian conflict and religious fanaticism is only one. Poverty may be a contributing, but never a causal factor, tribal allegiances definitely play their part, but enjoying the thrills of hatred and the licence to kill others is probably the biggest attraction. In many ways, what is now happening in the MENA region brings back memories of the Crusades, which pitted not only Christians against Muslims in the Holy Land, but also Christian armies against heretics such as the Albigenses or the so-called pagans like my ancestors in North-East Europe. While spreading Christianity by sword and fire on other continents, the merciless Wars of Religion between Protestants and Catholics in Europe were a close analogue to the strife between Shiia and Sunni Muslims that we are seeing today. Each side was so firmly convinced that its particular version of the truth was the only one acceptable, that it had to be forced on others by any means possible, including eliminating them.
Zealotry thus blends into fanaticism, which can be just as pitiless and extreme in the service of a political ideology as in the service of religious sectarianism. Extremism of views and intolerance towards others is common to both, so that political radicals and religious fanatics both become equal enemies of pluralism and of democratic civil liberties.
Extreme views feed on indoctrination and propaganda, so that by the time someone has become radicalized, it is very difficult to have any kind of dialogue with them, let alone a rational one. The right time for dialogue is therefore before a person becomes hypnotized by their sense of messianic purpose, their cultivated hatred of targeted enemies and their general paranoia. Religious leaders as well as political ones have a crucial role to play in fostering acceptance of differences and tolerance toward differing views. They need to engage in dialogue with each other and reach out to their respective constituents or faithful by emphasizing the many principles and values that both lay and religious ideals have in common.
Church and State, or Religion and State, if you prefer, are separate from each other in democratic societies, so that matters of faith are left to the free choice and conscience of every individual and should not become a source of open conflict. Indeed, in free and open societies lay and religious parts of society can easily live together and play mutually supportive and complementary roles in creating peaceful and prosperous communities. Before peace can reign, however, those wishing to benefit from it do have to make efforts to defend it and to promote it. That is something that will always take conviction, commitment, engagement and perseverance. What it should never do, is to make us a mirror image of those, whose extremism and fanaticism makes them deny the humanity of all who in any way do not fit with their narrow vision of what is right and proper.
We look forward to a fruitful exchange of ideas on the pressing problems facing Europe and its neighbours today and express our sincere thanks to Italy and its highest officials for their openness and hospitality.