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Address by H. E. Sabine Sparwasser at the Seventh Annul Iftar Dinner at
the Ottawa City Hall on May 23, 2018
Thank you for a very kind introduction.
Pleasure to be here breaking the fast with all of you: Mayor, friends and fellow diplomats, civic, cultural, business leaders – and most importantly - all of you who are hosting us so graciously - leaders and members of the Muslim community of Ottawa.
When Mobeen Khaja invited me many months ago, I eagerly accepted. I well appreciate what a big honour it is to join you all tonight in Iftar, to join you in celebrating the holy month of Ramadan together.
But ever since I accepted, I have asked myself why Mobeen asked me.
And I came to the conclusion that he invited me to stand in for another, much greater German woman: for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Her decision in September 2015 to keep German borders open and to allow more than a million refugees, most of them from Syria, into Germany is seen by so many people - and especially by Muslims all over the world - as a deeply moral, humanitarian and courageous step.
It was a transformational moment in modern German history: it forced us to look deeply into us - what kind of country we are and what kind of country we wish to be.
Even though Germany for many has been home to millions of people from other countries - the single largest group being Muslims from Turkey - we had always managed to avoid the question of whether we were a country of immigration.
When I grew up, German nationality was defined by having four German grandparents; immigrants in Germany were treated as “visitors”.
We were a country with millions of immigrants - the visitors were not going home - but no immigration policy. Multicultural de facto but not in law. An ambiguous position.
With the refugee crisis of 2015, greater clarity was needed.
Chancellor Merkel with her decision provided that clarity: We are an immigration country. And she also said it loud and clear: Islam is part of Germany, part of Europe, part of the present in our country and part of our vision for our future.
But: Transformational changes in societies rarely happen without unease, disruption, fear and outright opposition. Some of this arises from bigotry against people who are not like “us”, whoever the “us” may be.
But there are also many people who feel they will be the losers in that new Germany - multicultural, gender balanced, more open and less homogeneous - that emerges in the future. A Germany a little bit more like Canada?
That is actually a good argument to use when we discuss the issues that migration raises openly. Canada has so much to offer as a country that sees immigration positively.
I was very proud of my country in 2015 and still am: we saw communities came together to welcome and help settle refugees from Syria. Housing was built. Language schools were established. Training programs were set up in public-private partnerships. But is is also undeniable that the refugee crisis opened up some deep cultural and social divides between those who welcomed newcomers and those who feared them.
For the first time, we have an openly xenophobic and islamophobic party in Parliament. We clearly see a divide between cosmopolitan and tolerant cities and more conservative suburban and rural areas.
This is a mood of our times. Growing antagonism, nationalism, religious extremism, coarsening of the tone seems to be universally on the rise.
We have seen it before: to divide groups into “them” and “us” is easy. In a world in flux, it gives people a sense of belonging and identity.
But nobody knows better than Germans: if we allow borders to be drawn according to religious, racial, ideological lines, if you allow language that vilifies and dehumanizes others, we are on the path to destruction. It will lead to societies falling apart and conflict among nations.
We today have a real need and responsibility to defend the values of pluralism, democracy and civil discourse. We: that means Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Non-Believers. We: that means all nations. And Germany and Canada in particular. Because we bring to this defense some special experiences and assets.
We are both countries based on the values and principles of enlightenment: we are open societies with equal rights for everyone.
We believe in progress through fact-based policies and science-based innovation. As the late American Senator Daniel Moynihan put it: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
We know - in the case of Germany we have learned it out in the most brutal manner - that a system in which might imposes what is right carries the seeds of its own destruction.
We know, through experience and by conviction, that a rules-based order serves the greatest number of people.
We are both countries committed to seeking consensus and peace within our societies and in international affairs.
We argue. But when we argue, we listen and try to see the world through the others eyes. Put ourselves in the others shoes. We will concede a fair point even when we disagree. We will respect those we argue with. We will disagree without being disagreeable. Because we know that it is the only way to make common ground and compromise possible.
President Obama said in his farewell speech: “democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity - the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
That is what we must aspire to within our own countries and in the international context. Every citizen is of value and has a role to play.
It is here where all leaders and in particular religious leaders have a critical role to play: they need to emphasize what is common among all religions - certainly, Islam, Judaism, Christianity: the holy idea of peace. All those faiths include this simple message of fairness and empathy ”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. Tikkun olam; Hadith on Brotherhood
Too often, we see religion at the heart of many conflicts - look at the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Northern Ireland not so long ago. Religion is being exploited to mobilise against outsiders: to create “us” and “them”.
Unlike what many of us believe, religion is on the rise. 80% of the world’s population belongs to one religion or another. Adherence is not diminishing, it is growing.
So we need to harvest the power of religion for peace.
In diplomacy, we negotiate peace by trusting each other enough to sit around a table, by talking, by sharing – and eventually by eating together and by inviting others to join the circle.
All our religions have these feasts, holidays and celebrations that revolve around breaking the bread or the fast and engaging in communion. They are the practical expressions of each faith’s quest for peace and remind us of our duty to charity, forgiveness and hospitality.
More than 1,5 billion Muslims around the world celebrate the sacred month of Ramadan and will sit down to Iftar tonight; too many of them as refugees far away from home, too many in war torn cities and houses. Many in Germany and in Canada.
Let us join them and send a message of solidarity and peace.
To them and to all of us Ramadan Mubarak.