The first conference of our 2017 Spiritual Human Rights series, hosted by Soteria International and ENAR Denmark, was attended by a variety of representatives from multiple fields, including spiritual practitioners, academics, law, students, and human rights activists.
This round table event focused on the topic of whether diversity of religion and belief in Denmark and Europe is tolerated, accepted, and/or understood. During the introduction, the moderator from Soteria International, showed a short clip in order to illustrate a current point of discussion in Danish society, which is the question of what is and isn’t attributable to Danish identity. The clip was produced by Gorilla Media, a Danish production group, which powerfully illustrated the implications of discussions recently held in the Danish parliament with regards to acceptance of diversity. The video depicts interviews with four children, who speak perfect Danish, identify themselves with Denmark and feel Danish, but are not blond haired and blue-eyed. The interviewer proceeds to tell the children that they are not Danish and the audience experiences their defeated reactions to this information. You can see this video here.
Following the clip, the first speaker was a representative of Soteria International, who outlined the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion who visited Denmark in March 2016, specifically touching upon the question of what defines “Danishness” with respect to religion. She began by describing the history of the religious demographic of Denmark, which has been largely homogenous until recently, with 95% of the population belonging to the Lutheran Church until the last generation. Due to globalization, Danish society is experiencing a diversification of religious beliefs and an increased secularization of society. She emphasized on the many positive aspects of Danish society with respect to the Freedom of Belief, including the ability to practice freely in private or public, the promotion of equal respect for religion or belief in schools, and the anti-discrimination legislation which protects citizens from unequal treatment on the basis of their religion or belief.
With respect to areas of improvement in Denmark, the speaker touched upon the importance of expanding the view of what constitutes religion in order to ensure respect for the Freedom of Religion in Denmark. This also ties in to the expansion of the concept of “Danishness” and identification in order to encompass the changing ethnic, cultural, and religious demographic in Denmark.
The next speaker was veteran human rights activist and head of ENAR Denmark and EMISCO (European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion), Bashy Qaraishy, who discussed human rights and dignity of mankind in Islam. He argued that with respect to the question of the overall conference, ‘Is Religious Diversity Accepted in Denmark and Europe,’ the answer is ‘no’ because “Islam is considered the enemy.” Islam is the second biggest religious group in Denmark, with 230,000-250,000 members. However, “Islam” and “muslim” have become ambiguous terms that don’t allow for diversity, when, in fact, there are 72 different types of Islam. In this debate of whether Islam and “Danishness” can coincide, Mr. Qaraishy made the point that we cannot compare such a diffuse concept as “Danishness” with a religion, just as we cannot compare it with a geographical area or a nation itself. He also stated that there is no religion that preaches violence or hatred, although some of the followers who may subscribe to this.
Mr. Qaraishy emphasized the importance of collaborating with one another in order to address human rights issues and the amplified power that is accessed when we support one another in this cause. He described the shift in political discourse from one of ideology to identity and that the social current of racism has evolved from discrimination based on ethnicity and colour to discrimination based on culture and religion. We, therefore, must foster a positive social dialogue in order veer away from the current sense of fear and threat.
Anette Refstrup, from the Church of Scientology, agreed with Bashy Qaraishy that it is very unfortunate how we are bulking minorities together and targeting whole ethnic groups, so as not to differentiate the person that is standing in front of us from our belief about the group to which they may, or may not, belong. She said, it is “impossible to include individuals when we stigmatize groups.” Mrs. Refstrup addressed the question of the role of education, stating that we all have a duty and right to educate those around us with respect to tolerance. She said that it is intolerance that's the problem and the moment we can get a whole group of people to hate each other, we have the perfect recipe for conflict. She stated that it is a human quality to create conflict and that rather than looking at a person’s ‘identifier’ as their religion, we should see them as an individual human being with individual qualities. She also pinpointed the media as a part of the problem, citing a specific program produced in Danish and titled ‘Behind the veil,’ which showed a very one-sided story with strategically selected clips depicting Islam in a very negative way. However, she also stated that 61% of Danes find the media to be untrustworthy, and questioned whether this wasn’t because the media in fact IS untrustworthy.
The Vice President of Soteria International discussed the issue of transitioning from theory to practice. She explained that policies are arranged and decided upon in a logical way through the rationality of the mind, however when it comes to actually applying it, there are difficulties because there are many factors which cannot all be accounted for in reality. This is especially because those who are making the decisions are not the ones living with the effects or consequences of those decisions. She mentioned that, for this reason, the focus of many institutions and organizations, at this point, is on education and teaching how to embrace and accept diversity rather than just tolerate it. At its base, the rule of law was implemented in order to create a harmonious society for us to live in together, so let’s give everyone the possibility to apply it in an exemplary manner, not just tolerating one another, but embracing and accepting one another. “We are the media, we are the institutions, we are the citizens…It’s about us, who we are, and how we manifest.” Constructs come from the mind, while it is the heart that will make the difference and give us another level of understanding.
The moderator concluded the round table with the statement that we actually can construct society ourselves and to not remain powerless in the face of media and politics because we can do something. Soteria International wants to encourage us to stand up for our hearts, rather than letting ourselves be dragged into fictitious conflicts. We need to encourage each other to live up to our ideals in our daily lives. In this age of accessibility of information, we can self-empower society to come close to one another and shape a wave for a society based in the heart.
Lastly, we would like to thank the participants and presenters for their input to the discussion. These events are so important because by coming together and discussing such important issues, we can understand what is really going on and know what to pursue. As one of the guests stated, it is easy to concentrate on all the negatives, but there are so many more constructive and creative things we can do. If we look at how we can contribute positively, we can fulfill ourselves and bring even more happiness into our own lives.