Education for Tolerance:

Religion and Conflict in Europe


By Prof. Dr. philos. Janne Haaland Matlary


Key note address to the conference

”The religious dimension of intercultural education”,


The Council of Europe under the Norwegian chairmanship,

“Soria Moria”, Oslo, 6-8 June 2004


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,



   It is with great pleasure I address this conference in this peaceful place above the city. Oslo is in general a very peaceful place, and it is the capital of a country with an extremely homogenous population, sharing religion, language, and culture. We even still retain a state-church, and our constitution stresses that the ‘evangelical-lutheran religion’ is the basis for the state. You are therefore in one of the classical nation-states in Europe in terms of a well-defined nation, forged through a deliberate elite strategy by the urban intellectuals in the latter part of the 19th century.

  The state religion harks back to the reformation which was harshly imposed on Norway by the Danish King in 1536. Interesting for us is the fact that schooling was an instrument of religious education until recent years. The confirmation was decreed, by the Danish King Christian VI in 1736, as a means of combating lawlessness and inculcating basic knowledge. Only the confirmed could work, own property, and serve in the military. The Norwegian public school (‘almueskolen’) was instituted in 1739, and became the key instrument for preparing students for the confirmation. “Reading and learning the famous Pontoppidan’s catechism of Lutheranism by heart, studying the Bible and learning psalms became the core curriculum well into the 19th century”, remarks Kim Helsvig.[1]


  Norway is thus a state with an official Christian status and identity, from the public school to the government, which still requires half of its members to be in the state church, and requires its minister of church and especifically to be so.  How can this typical nation-state – like many others in the Council of Europe - accomodate pluri-religious reality in a new age where human rights and not the national identity form the basis for the state?  


The Council of Europe founded on human rights 

The Council of Europe (CoE) is very modern and timely in its policy of multi-cultural and multi-religious education. The Council is an assembly of European states, based on democracy, rule of law and human rights. These are the values that the Council is obliged by and which it promotes. I have elsewhere[2] called these values the modern ‘trinity’ of international politics – like the Christian trinity; they are different, yet interdependent. The CoE is one of the most important actors promoting these values in the old democracies as well as in the post-Communist states, which it has admitted as new members in a quick and very generous manner.

  There is little doubt then, that the CoE operates on what I call a ‘human rights logic’. This is a logic which is the future, is the also the present, and it provides the clues to the puzzles of how to reconcile pluri-religious and multi-cultural society inside a state. It is logic which sharply differs from the traditional logic of the nation-state, based as it was on one nation, and thereafter one state:


The nation-state logic was based on forging one nation as the basis for a state. This required one identity, based on ethnicity, language, and/or religion. The ensuing identity was the very glue of the state, what held it together. The role of religion has been important as ‘political glue’, as has the other factors. The master nation-builder Napoleon saw that he he must create Frenchmen and citoyens from an amalgam of peoples, languages, and cultures. The lack of a common religion after the revolution was however so problematic that the revolutionaries, as we recall, made up their own God, to be worshipped as a substitute, and called him ‘le grand Etre’.

  In the Nordic states religion became one of the most important ‘political glues’, however: the state church merged God and state in hitherto unprecedented ways, and only in the late 19th century did we see the ‘Law on Dissenters’ which allowed non-Lutherans to stay in the country and to

worship freely.  The name itself – dissenters  - says much, it was those who dissented from the true faith. They could be tolerated, but only that, and those dissenters that were considered especially dangerous politically, were not allowed it: The Norwegian constitution contained a paragraph that read: “Jews and Jesuits must not be tolerated and cannot enter the realm”. The Jews were allowed in un 1856, after much struggle by liberals; yet the Jesuits were not allowed in Norway until 1956 – the year before I was born.

  Thus, we immediately see that ‘dissenters’ have had a hard time in many a European nation-state. In more pluri-religious regions religious freedom was much earlier in coming – the first instance of official religious freedom came in the dukedom of Transylvania (now Rumania) in the balance between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires,  in 1645 under duke Gyorg Rakoczi. Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews and Muslims were granted rights. In practical terms the empire solved issues like ‘mixed marriages’ by making sons follow their father’s religion and the daughters’ their mothers. This was still valid when my Hungarian husband was born to a Greek-Catholic mother and Lutheran father.

  We also know that the long Turkish occupation of the old eastern parts of the empire, mostly Hungary, which lasted for 150 years, was conducted with tolerance of other faiths.


Religion and war

  But religion is a powder-keg when invoked for political rationales, and it is the most effective mobiliser of hatred when instrumentalised. This is not strange, it is logical: one’s deep belief is the most important part of one’s life and identity; one’s commitment to the ultimate truth. This is much more than a political interest or a societal attachment; it reaches deepest of all in the human soul and mind. Therefore the rallying cry of Holy War can be so useful to a ruler or a ‘conflict entreprenour’: it seems to provide a God-given seal on the righteous to fight the evils of this world, other people included.


All religion speaks about a holy war within the soul and a struggle for good over evil, against sin. In Catholic Christianity, which I know best as it is my own faith; the Christian is a milites Christi; a soldier of Christ, and life is a place where ‘mors et vita duello’, where death and life duels, as the medieval hymn Dies Irae graphically depicts. But the Christian must fight inside himself, and when fighting for the good in society, he must fight with peaceful means.

  This is the great difference between the then and the now; between the time of the crusades and physical wars in Europe, and the time we now live in where the churches have left any claim to territorial power. When Jerusalem fell to the Christian crusaders in 1099, it was a bloody massacre. Likewise, when the Moslems won in later battles, the blood-shed was gruesome. Religion was not only used to support territorial ambitions and war, but it was inseparable from politics: there were Moslem lands, or Christian lands. We should hasten to add that the view of human suffering and physical death was very different then than now. There was also no modern separation of politics and religion. It was Christendom against the infidels.


This period of ‘religious wars’ in European history was over with the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648. Thereafter the sovereign state was the rule; where the ruler decided on his subject’s religion in the principle of ‘cujus regio, eius religio, which ended the political claims to ‘universal Christendom’ in Europe. From now on the ruler decided on his own ‘state’ church, and also on whether dissenters should be allowed. It is however true that in many states religious minorities were tolerated already at this time.


  The nation-state logic was the rule then, until our time, indeed, until now. What replaces it under out eyes today, is the human rights logic where both the OSCE, the EU and the Coe play extremely important roles:



Human Rights a Post WWII phenomenon

Human rights did not exist before 1948. By this I mean that they were not written down and solemnly proclaimed before this time. With the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights we get the natural law document that states that the human being has ‘inherent’ and ‘inalienable’ human rights. In the legally binding European Convention of 1950 Europe gets a court to adjudicate on a supra-national level. These are revolutionary events, and we live in revolutionary times: the nation-state logic is being supplanted by the human rights logic: It is human rights which matter, not belonging to one ‘nation’. Human rights is the universal ideology of today and tomorrow, and the political mechanism that makes them realizable, is democracy and rule of law – the latter the very specific mandate of the Coe.

  It follows from this that citizens of a state are no longer ‘deficient’ if they are outside the majority culture or religion; they are not ‘dissenters’ to be tolerated; they have equal human rights with everyone else; regardless of creed, race,a nd culture. True; there are majority creeds and majority cultures, and even ‘state religions’ (only in Norway, Monaco, and Liechtenstein as far as I can see today), but the basis for the state’s legitimacy is no longer ‘one nation’.

  These are very sensitive and difficult matters, for they touch on identities that still exist as very strong. A recent article in Foreign Policy[3] by the famous h

Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington illustrates exactly this:


  Huntington, the father of the world-famous ‘clash of civilisations’-thesis, writes that Hispanic immigrants in the US ‘threathen to divide the US into ‘two peoples, two cultures, and two languages” because they ‘reject the Angloo-Protestant values that built the American dream”. In this article, remarkable for what it actually says along the lines of the nation-state logic; Huntington is appalled at the prospect of having a US with two official languages and a majority culture that is Hispanic rather than Anglo-Protestant. He goes very far in saying that the true American national identity is this one: white Protestant, and that groups that do not assimilate to this culture, are a threat.

  Huntingtoon’s fallacy – rare for a Harvard professor – is of course that he clings to the nation-state logic. This is also why his ‘clash of civilisations’-thesis is wrong, for it puts the major emphasis on unchangeable cultural and religious traditions as if they were static and incapable of adjusting to modern democracy. In Europe we are in fact much more modern than in the US in this respect. We have states that are pluri-ethnic, pluri-lingustic, pluri-cultural and pluri-religious already. We are able to reject the argument that a state must rely one one national identity to exist. We have instead adopted more and more of the human rights logic as the basis of the state, not least thanks to the strong presence of human rights organizations like the ones mentioned. It is something pathetically old-fashioned about Huntington’s fear of a Hispanic majority in the US: Why should this be less ‘American’ than an Anglo-White Protestant majority?


  The more we adopt the human rights logic, the less of a ‘problem’ this becomes. The norm in Europe is already societies with many nationalities, languages, and religions. This is also the fact in the US, and the US with its ‘melting pot’ should in fact be the very model for this.


  The human rights logic implies that the state is based on respect for difference. The Other is not those outside the state or the dissenters, but normal citizens with the same rights. They must contribute to the common good, to democratic co-existence, and the demands on citizenship will become larger than before because there is no ‘national auto-pilot’ to forge common values. The only values that form the common platform for the state are contained in human rights. This is a tall order; not easy, but the only way forward. It means that Islam must modernize to democracy and co-exist with it. This is I think fully possible, but it has not been tried yet – this democratic ‘aggiornamiento’ is happening now and in the time ahead. Christianity has developed with democracy over centuries, in a European relationship where the spheres of religion and politics are separate and autonomous, yet inter-related in a specific way. The fact that democracy and politics is a sphere of society on its own, is essential to both human rights, rule of law, and democracy itself.


There is no time here to elaborate on this theme, but I want to turn specifically to the human right of religious freedom and what it means:


Freedom of religion and what it implies 

The role of religion under this logic looks very different from mere tolerance of dissenters. Art 18 of the UDHR on religious freedom states that every human being has a right to public and private worship, to proselytize in public, to conversion, to have or not to have a faith. The human right of religious freedom is a very extensive and broad-ranging right. In addition, parents are entitled to, and have a duty to, teach their children in the faith of their choice and to choose schools for them in this regard.

 Religious freedom as a human right if further specified in the OSCE texts which are the most detailed in this respect. The OSCE has had to defined how to apply religious freedom in non-democratic states, and makes it very clear that the state must allow great scope for religious activity. There can be no suppression of any religion, and every believer can have a public dimension of worship. Religion does not only belong  to the private sphere, but can be proclaimed in public. It goes without saying that there are clashes with public opinion and often with state institutions. Many states desire to repress religions other than their own preferred one; and some religions do not accept that their members can convert or leave the faith, according to human rights.


  I know of no religion which is not peaceful. But that I mean that sincere faith leads to peace, and to peaceful conflict resolution. The struggle is a spiritual one, not a physical one. In the Catholic church, military power can only be employed in extreme situations of tyrannicide or self-defence. Those who preach holy war in a literal sense are usurping religion to their own political ends. It is the instrumentalisation, the perversion of religion.


Yet we see the effects of Islamic radicalism: The language of holy war, of infidels, of Muslim versus Christian, of good versus evil, has returned. It is really an old propaganda trick, and we see it throughout history, as in the time of the crusades. I do not doubt that there are many such ‘warriors’ who are complete religious fanatics, and who really and truly believe that they are fighting for God’s will. They are religious fanatics who have been indoctrinated. There have always been fanatics, and religion invites a certain fanaticism in many cases. It is easy to construct a Manichean world. Terrorists who commit suicide are in this category. They are irrational in the sense that they have no political plan or hope of a future. They are apocalyptic.

  Yet many of those fanatics are not really such: they are what we call conflict entrepreneurs. In Bosnia and many other conflicts we have seen this clearly: Paramilitaries have ignited hatred between ethnic groups by using religion as one cleavage point: In a state where Bosniac Muslims, Croat Catholics and Serb Orthodox had lived side by side in a sophisticated culture for centuries, Serb paramilitaries started the well-known technique of separating neighbours by ethnic criteria, sometimes forcing neighbours to kill each other so as to create fear and hatred. Extreme Serb and Croat nationalism was effectively propagandated. Even today, 8 years after the war, there is scare return to multi-ethnic living. People fear to move back.


  I have spent much time working in the Balkans when I was state secretary. I have a special love for the beauty of Bosnia and its fascinating cultural history. It was, and is, a very sophisticated country on the ‘fault line’ between the Christian and the Muslim world. Many wars have been fought in this area, with religious pretexts. Two examples of interest to your topic must be mentioned:


Norway funded a lot of humanitarian help, inter alia a so-called ‘religious dialogue’ The clergy of the four faiths of Bosnia came together with us and talked. Fine and good. But when we wanted them to appear together in public, especially outside of Sarajevo, they declined, at least some of them. This unwillingness was very regrettable, because we needed them to stat that religion was NOT the cause the war. But it is still hard to get them together, often it is impossible outside of the Norwegian embassy.

  The lesson here is that religion can play a great role as peace-maker and moral authority – if the creeds stop distrusting each other. I grant that this is still early days after the devastating war, but the obstacles must be overcome.


  The other issue I want to mention is directly relevant to your conference: School books in history. – For all our billions of kroner spent in Bosnia, we did not manage to have an effect the most important factor, viz. common history books. The schools are still Serb, Bosniac, and Croat – they do not have a common curriculum, least of all in the most important field – history. We know that nation-states in Europe were forged through common history lessons – the story of the nation, told from a national point of view. But how can Bosnians achieve something common as citizens if they are unable to agree on the history of the past?


Religious dimension of multi-cultural education

The way to tolerance and peace goes through knowledge. Therefore the policy of the Coe of inserting multi-religious education in the common curriculum is of extraordinary importance. It will have to be based on the human rights logic, as a right not only to be educated in your own faith, through normal catechesis. This is usually the province of churches and clergy in most states.


The education we talk about here is not catechesis. It is rather the learning about what the others believe, and why. The text books for this subject must be based on what religious representatives themselves decide is to be taught – there is no ‘common synthesis’ in any one book. Muslims must decide what Islam is and what is important to teach others, like Christians must decide what Christianity is. There is a teaching within each religion which is authoritative. Great stress must be out on dissemination and explanation, and on pupils’ activitities.

  All these items are not within my competence – these are yours proper, and why you are gathered here. I am sure you will find ‘best practises’ and go forward in the practical way of designing this education. But let me at the end add how important this is, how urgent it is: I read about a recent poll in the UK which says that Muslims are harassed and stigmatized because they are linked to the instrumental uses of religion by terrorists. The damage done by so-called radical Islamists is unimaginable. Muslims are in fact suffering collectively because some extreme fanatics misuse their religion. Against this the only effective way is knowledge, so that the European citizen can say: “This is not Islam, for Islam teaches such and such about the use of force, and the taking of innocent life.” We could add examples from history where Christians also suffer from some groups’ use of religion for their own end.


  The conflict entrepreneurs and the fanatics have often had an easy victory because people in general have been almost wholly ignorant of other religions but their own. Therefore prejudices about others have flourished: Catholics about Jews and Jews about Catholics, Christians about Muslims and Muslims against Christians, etc. The examples are legion. But consider how simple the explanation has been: never has there been much teaching about the ‘others’ in European states.

  But now, in the post-national state; there are no ‘others’. We are citizens of democracies based on human rights, not on religion or race. The Coe can make a huge difference in consolidating this ‘sea change’ in Europe and in countering the all-to easy perversion of religion for extremist agendas.


Thank you for your attention.















[1] Kim Helsvig, ”Kristendom og dåpsopplæring i norsk skole, 1739-2003”, Kirke og Kultur, 5/6, 2003 (my translation)

[2] J.H. Matlary, Intervention for Democracy in Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, London and NY, 2002

[3] ”Can you see, Jose?” by Samuel Huntington, FP, March/April 2004