Islamophobia and Antisemitism in Almedalen

The idea of considering our own culture and identity superior to others is not unique neither in the Middle East nor Europe. We have too many examples both from history and today when such cultural provincialism has turned into phobia, discrimination or hatred.

The second seminar organized by the Swedish Institute in Alexandria during the political week in Almedalen 2016 focused on islamophobia and antisemitism in both Europe and the Middle East – differences and similarities.

The panel had two Jewish representatives – one from Israel and one from Sweden. Shmuel Aiello from Interfaith Encounter Association in Israel and Peter Vig from the Jewish Congregation and Midor Ledor in Malmö. The two Muslim representatives were Adrian Kaba, active in the Muslim Congregation in Malmö and the Religious Social Democrats of Sweden and Farah Maiza, from Tunisia and France, vice President of the Co-Exister.

Antisemitism in Europe has deep historical and ideological roots in Europe with the Holocaust as the culmination. Many would describe the Holocaust as a turning point, never again would a European country accept organized antisemitism.

But if situation improved in Europe after World War II, it has gone the other way in parts of the Middle East. Many countries of the Middle East had large Jewish communities before the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the numbers continue to go down.

The city of Alexandria, being one of the most obvious examples, had 45.000 Jews 65 years ago. Today the number is down below 20. Shmuel did not agree that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the only reason for the decline, but Jewish presence in the Middle East, outside Israel, has reached a point when it probably will be impossible to rebuild again.

The city of Malmö has been described at the city in Sweden with most conflict between Muslims and Jews. This challenged Peter Vig and Adrian Kaba to involve themselves and other members of the Jewish and Muslims congregations in dialogue three years ago.

They agreed not to talk about the issue the two communities had strong disagreement about – the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rather focus on what they had in common and difficulties they both felt being religious minorities in Sweden.

It turned out that the two issues which both communities gave priority in protecting their right to Freedom of Religion were the right to religious slaughter (Kosher and Halal), which is not allowed in Sweden, and to ensure the right to circumcision of boys, which is allowed, but regularly challenged in different political contexts.

The dialogue has helped both communities to identify with the other. When some Muslim traditions were challenged in media and political assemblies this spring for not being Swedish enough, Jewish members could see that another time the lower tolerance could as well be against them.

In order to protect their rights or to improve Freedom of Religion for minorities, it is more effective when majorities speak out together and raise the concerns out of principles, compared to when each one is only talking for their own needs or rights.

Peter and Adrian also shared that they believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be on their table for dialogue in the future. Once trust is created, more difficult issues can be discussed.

The French based organization Co-Exister is bringing together youth from different faith background, but also Atheists, to dialogue on what co-existence mean today.

The secular state – the need to separate state and religion – was developed in Europe to protect the state from religion, inspired by the French revolution and interpreted stricter in France than in other European countries. There is a ban on religious symbols in all public schools and for government officials. If these restrictions would be further increased, e.g. in all public places, it would directly target in particular the Muslim and Jewish communities.

In US the separation between state and religion was done for the opposite reason – to protect religions from the state. Both concepts have served their purposes, but also shown shortcomings from the other perspectives. Hence a dialogue on different perspectives on secular state is called for.

Provincialism – putting your own culture as superior to others – is a growing plague in both Europe and the Middle East. It is partly a counter reaction to globalization of economy, migration, new technology etc. Old borders are becoming irrelevant and people are looking for new borders.

One expression of this desperate quest for new borders, which was strongly discussed in the political week in Almedalen 2016, is Brexit.

It was clear that it was men more than women, rural more than urban, less educated more than well-educated and old more than young who voted for isolation and wishing to go back to something that is already gone. This is the same pattern for the development of the far right in Swedish politics or in any European country.

It was also the same pattern in the referendum on banning minarets in Switzerland some years ago. Cantons with experiences of Muslim communities had no problem with minarets. But rural Alp-Cantons, where no one can foresee any creation of minarets for the next few hundred years, had such strong opposition that it formed a national majority.

If this observation is right, there is hope. The presently young will grow older and new, even more open minded, will come. And with education, urbanization and increased gender awareness, many problems will gradually be solved by themselves.

But Brexit also tells us another big dilemma. Only about one third of the young people actually voted. The young people in the UK gave walk over and let the closed minded form the majority and decide the future of the young.

The fact that young generations are less committed to the institutions, less involved in political parties, less responsible in political activities is a serious indication.

And one reason why the Swedish Institute Alexandria this year brought in particular young people from the region to Almedalen, showing examples of new creation of needed institutions.




Islam and Democracy

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SwedAlex brought reflections about Islam and democracy to the political week in Almedalen, Visby, Sweden. In a dialogue between three young Muslims from Algeria, Tunisia and Sweden and the Head of MENA department of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the panel elaborated on the lack of democratic development after the Arab spring, the difficult democratic record of political Islam in the region and the role of Europe to support a more hopeful development.

Ten years ago, Turkey was described as the example how political Islam can became for the Arab world what Christian Democracy became for Europe. But the development in recent years has raised doubts on a sustainable democratic path. Today, Tunisia is the most discussed example for democratic expectations, with the Tunisian dialogue and the decision of the Ennahda party to make a clear separation between the religious movement and the political party and leave the label of political Islam behind.

In order to have a fruitful dialogue on Islam and democracy it is important to make a clear distinction between Islam, which is a religion, and political Islam, which is a political ideology inspired by Islam. But equally important is to clearly distinguish between legitimate and pragmatic expression of political Islam, as in Turkey and Tunisia, and criminal groups how have captured Islam to justify acts of terrorism, like Daish.

Not making these distinctions would in a western context be like claiming all Christians to be affiliated to Klu Klux Klan.

To understand the nuances and to promote democracy in the context of Islam, we have to be ready to dialogue, to bring back the conversation, with of course the exception of dialoguing with or legitimizing criminals. Closing the doors for dialogue is doing away with the political tools needed to promote co-existence and prevent violence and extremism.

The history, teaching and tradition of Islam are not different from Christianity or any other world religion in its relation to democracy. The difference between Europe and the MENA Region has to be found in other factors – trust in the state functions, modernization, experience in the culture of compromise, popular education or role of media. Hence there are a great number of concrete political topics which needs dialogue to understand and promote democracy in Islamic contexts.

We should also not hesitate to dialogue on the role of Islam itself. There might be an understanding that dialogue with people of faith is difficult, that they are reluctant or hesitant to change.

Our experience is the opposite. People of faith are basing their views related to ideas, not only interest. Their conviction might be strong, but they are able to look at society outside of themselves, which is a very good basis for dialogue.

However, such a dialogue can only be successful if it is done in respect to the adversary’s religion, identity and culture. Rightly performed, dialogue can make us see the nuances and strengthen the common ground for co-existence, pluralism and democracy.

Sweden is currently, through its program for development cooperation, investing substantially in the civil society in the MENA region – in particular in youth, women and also religious leaders. This is an investment in democracy.

SwedAlex is a platform for dialogue between Europe and the MENA Region – an instrument to promote values like democracy, human rights and social developments. But also to give space for better mutual understanding between cultures, contexts and countries north and south of the Mediterranean Basin.

Bringing this dialogue to the political week in Almedalen is a contribution to a better understanding in Sweden and Europe on the challenges, obstacles and possibilities for democracy in the Arab world and Muslim contexts.


“Lost spaces” New Urban Topologies in Alexandria

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New Urban Topologies (NUT) is a dialogue project that inspires a participatory process within the field of urban planning. During the last three years, Färgfabriken-Center for Contemporary Art and The Swedish Institute in Alexandria, in collaboration with Alexandria University and Gudran for Art and Development, brought together official decision-makers from Alexandria urban planning office, experts, architects, students, academics, researchers and others from the civil society. Furthermore the workshops have convened participants from Stockholm, Sweden, Balkan and from MENA region.
The aim of this participatory process has been to discuss future development of Alexandria, based on the needs, opportunities, hopes from the participants and the citizens. This process is based on a method from Färgfabriken and the program, New Urban Topologies. The first workshop was conducted in October 2011 and resulted in a book; Alexandria-The city of layers. The second workshop; in February 2011, focused on a defined area of Alexandria called Kafr Ashry, located in the neighborhood of Minet al Basal. It is in the vicinity of west Alexandria and used to be an industrial area. Kafr Ashry is a low income district that is characterized by a high density of residents, surrounded by abandoned warehouses and vacant land. During this workshop inhabitants from Kafr Ashry participated in parts of the workshop and met the decision-makers from Alexandria Planning Office in a direct, frank and open discussion about problems and opportunities in Kafr Ashry.
The focus of the third workshop 28-30 September was “Lost public spaces – with a focus on women and children and recycling projects.

During the first day of the workshop the group visited Kafr Ashry district after a presentation of the area by Sameh el-Helawany from Gudran and Heba Aboelfadl from Alexandria University. The group studied an area that could be defined as a “lost space” with the potential to be used as a public space for the citizens residing there. The group also met with inhabitants of the area and shared their concerns. In the afternoon the participants shared experiences from the city of Beirut, Riyadh and Amsterdam from a recycling perspective with a particular focus on women and children.
The second day the participants worked in three different groups looking at developing the “lost space” in Kafr Ashri from an economic, social/cultural and environmental perspective. The working groups all focused on utilizing citizen participation and materials already at hand or accessible in the area.

During the third day the area analysis were presented by the groups. The three groups generated project proposals that will be studied by the partners and brought forward as recommendations to possible donors and implementing actors.
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The achievements of the NUT project during the past three years have been several and exceeded the expectations of the organizers. The main idea behind the project from the institute’s side has been to facilitate and promote dialogue between citizens and decision-makers regarding the development of their city.
The book Alexandria-The city of layers was launched as a result of the New Urban Topologies initial phase is in itself a “historical document” representing different voices from the city and taking place in 2011 during the upheaval in Egypt.
In 2013 Färgfabriken produced a small documentary based on the workshop from February 2013. Both the book and the film are available at Färgfabriken and the Swedish Institute Alexandria’s website.
During the second workshop the institute managed with its partners to facilitate direct dialogue between the head of the Urban Plannning Office in Alexandria and the citizens of the underdeveloped Kafr Ashri district. Further to this achievement is the engaged participation of three residents from Kafr Ashri in the second and third workshop.
In addition to the above; the project has built sustainable networks between the civil society actors in the city, the Alexandria University, Pharos University and the students studying architecture on the one hand; with the urban planning office on the other hand.

The documentary from the workshop will be uploaded on shortly

International Democracy Day 15 September -“Youth participation is central in a vibrant democracy”

Youth movements and youth initiatives are thriving in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The institute has witnessed this in Alexandria where several initiatives ask for space and support for their debates, trainings, discussions, workshops and seminars. Today on Democracy Day, 70 youth from Alexandria are gathering at the institute to promote awareness on emergency health and first aid. The group is volunteering medical students from Alexandria University and collectively their professors and other medical staff from the university. The initiative provides free sessions to participants with the aim of creating community leaders that are able to help in times of crises, emergency and accidents. When we asked medical student Mina what drives him to do this he said: “We need to empower people with knowledge and skills that might save lives in the future and make our environment safer. This is one thing that I can do”

10494527_1397768860464562_1461836447799710764_nYouth Movements
Youth-led movements for democratic change are on the rise in a number of countries. Together with the Arab Forum for Alternative Studies, the institute has developed a series of training workshops for youth movements in Egypt and with regional participation from Yemen and Morocco. This month, 26-28 September, representatives from both Morocco and Yemen will share knowledge with their Egyptian counterparts, exchange experiences and discuss the role of youth in the political process in their countries, and how networking and cooperation between different youth movements can be activated. Participants will also discuss other topics, including good governance, internal democracy values and tools, how to reach decision makers through crowds and lobbying, and the role of youth in political life. To learn more about this initiative see:
Youth in Politics
The institute strongly believe in the role of youth in solving their community problems, whether by personal initiatives, working through political parties or NGOs. But the institute is also concerned with the studies that indicate that there is a growing political apathy among youth worldwide today.
The institute and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute have agreed that this year`s youth in politics will be a collaboration between the two organizations with the aim to bring together youth from the two regions whom are members of political parties or active in civil society. The main theme of the workshop scheduled in December this year is youth employment, and how youth entrepreneurship and green economy jobs can develop society. Youth participation in politics can advance local policy making and offer required solutions.
The workshop will provide an opportunity to listen to experts in the field of entrepreneurship and share experiences with already existing successful initiatives and ventures. Further to that the workshop will provide a lot of opportunities to network, share experiences and build strategies among youth of both regions. There will also be a workshop module on the growing phenomena of extremism in Europe and the MENA region and how youth can be active in countering these trends.
Youth participation is a cross-cutting theme that all of us have to be aware of and continuously think of. In our activities and initiatives we have to make sure that youth are engaged, present and central in the dialogue. Youth need support for their ideas; they need capacity and recognition for their achievements. Here at SwedAlex we will continue to serve as a platform for youth from the Middle East- North Africa and Europe who work for the democratic development of their societies.