This lecture was delivered at the UNESCO Parliament of the World Religions, Barcelona July 2004:
Interfaith dialogue and social harmony at the
Islamic-Christian Study Centre of Copenhagen, Denmark
By Aminah Tønnsen, author and lecturer
The Islamic-Christian Study Centre was established in May 1996. It is situated at the very heart of Copenhagen (which is the capital of the Kingdom of Denmark) – in a quarter, where people of different cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious faith live and work together. The centre has become a meetingplace for people seeking information and advice, attending training courses, debating and making friends.
The Islamic-Christian Study Centre is unique in the sense that it was established jointly by Muslims and Christians, that the board is composed of an equal number of Muslims and Christians who cooperate in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect – and that it is totally independant of religious and political institutions.
Their goal is to provide sober-minded and prejudice-free information about Islam and Christianity and to promote dialogue and peaceful co-existence between people of different religious faiths.
God is great – greater than anything else in this universe. He surely could have created mankind as a uniform entity, but He gave us intellect, free will and the right to make our own choices. Our differences are a trial – and a challenge to prove that we are able to create unity in total respect of diversity – that we are able to communicate and to interact to defend common values. The Qur’an says:
“O Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God is full of knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (49:13)
“To each among you have We prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you. So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God. It is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.” (5:51)
According to the Qur’an my duty as a Muslim is to bear witness to my faith and to
“invite to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching. And to argue with those who listen in ways that are best and most gracious.” (16:125)
That’s where my duty in this respect ends. It is up to “the other” to reach out for God and find his own way and make his own choice.
“Let him who will, believe – and let him who will, reject it!” (18:29)
Thus interfaith dialogue is a reciprocal testimony of faith involving equal parties. It is not a matter of trying to convince the other, but of listening to one another in order to know and understand each other in total respect of religious diversity. Dialogue is a goal in itself – not a means of conversion.
Real dialogue requires equality and mutual respect. Dialogue will fail, if there is any hidden agenda.
COURSES at the centre are given by Muslims, when the subject is Islam – and by Christians, when the subject is Christianity. Introductory courses have been given to Islam, to Christianity, to the life of Prophet Muhammad, to Muslim-Christian relations in history, etc.
OPEN DEBATES about current social and ethical issues, where Muslims and Christians contribute on an equal footing, take place once a month on issues such as human rights, bioethics, religion and identity, individual and state, teaching of Islam in public schools in Denmark, etc.
VISITS are well received, both by groups and individuals – even from abroad: England, Germany, Indonesia, Norway, Sweden, Palestine, Zambia and Pakistan. All are eager to learn about our dialogue-experiences and about Muslim-Christian relations in Denmark. Students of all levels seek guidance to prepare papers and theses, and professionals of every kind contact us for lectures – especially about Islam, integration and interfaith dialogue.
RESEARCH on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations is done in cooperation with the Faculty of Theology of the University of Copenhagen, and the centre is increasingly involved in international inter-religious dialogue work.
A NEWSLETTER is published 4 times a year with articles in Danish and English, book reviews, reports on the current events, etc.
An ANTHOLOGY was published in 2001: “Muslims and Christians face to face.” Members and friends of the centre contributed with articles about interfaith dialogue, experiences of Muslims in Denmark etc.
A LIBRARY has been built up containing relevant books and journals – mainly in Danish and English, but also in such languages as Arabic, Swedish, Norwegian, Urdu, and French, with articles being registered in our own IKS database.
The DIALOGUE GROUPS are the Alpha and Omega of the Islamic-Christian Study Centre. The dialogue group that was the origin of the establishment of the centre has been active for nearly ten years now. Besides this, we have a women’s group, a students’ group, 3 ‘ordinary’ groups – and a multifaith group uniting Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Each group consists of 10-15 members and decides its own ways and topics. It might be a video followed by a discussion, or an exchange of views on the basis of extracts from the Bible and the Qur’an.
A theological question will almost automatically lead to a discussion of its actual social application – and vice versa.
DIALOGUE is a process – religious education in primary and secondary schools is an important FIRST STEP. The teachers have an important role to play and must be well educated and have appropriate text books. My latest book “Islam – Faith and Conduct in Life” is an important step in this respect. Furthermore, it is the first time that an important publisher of school text books in Denmark has asked a Muslim to write a book on Islam which is now used in both public and private schools.
DIALOGUE opens our minds and develops our faith. The questions that “the other” asks us make us reflect upon our own faith. Talking about SIMILARITIES makes trust grow so that religion becomes much easier to talk about; hence, there is more acceptance and respect for DIVERSITY and PLURALITY.
INTERFAITH dialogue makes us realize that belief in God binds people together despite religious, social, cultural, ethnic, national and political differences – and that the bonds of faith can make us interact to create a harmonious and prosperous society.
Interfaith dialogue makes it clear to us that we share numerous values with people of other faiths: We are all concerned about the future – about how to keep our children away from alcohol, drugs, violence and crime.
As citizens, we are all equally concerned about poverty, human rights, ecology, war and peace. We all trust in God.
DIALOGUE transforms people from being “hard” and “exclusive” to becoming “soft” and “inclusive” – without compromising their own faith.
The Islamic-Christian Study Centre of Copenhagen is a unique combination of a training, documentation and dialogue-centre and has thus become the social network for many of its members.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: It is indeed a great challenge to be a believer – Muslim or Christian – in a secularised European society. We are all bound to respect the laws of the state; but the possibilities and rights that these laws grant the citizens often go far beyond the limits set by Islam and Christianity. Thus, it is up to the individual to set up limits and act in a responsible manner according to his or her belief.
It is my personal experience and belief that the fact that the individual has to set up limits for himself in a society where almost everything is acceptable, makes the individual grow in faith, awareness and responsibility. People of sincere faith are far better prepared to work and strive for the common good in the long run.
We should “strive as in a race in all virtues”, but unfortunately, it is only a minority amongst Muslims, Christians and the Danish society as such, that acknowledge that we indeed have common values and goals – and that we are equally responsible for the future of our society.
Lastly, it has become quite common to talk about tolerance; but literally speaking, tolerance is negative – meaning to tolerate or to bear with someone or something considered inferior: The powerful tolerates the week, the clever tolerates the less gifted – and the majority tolerates the minorities.
But this is not enough for me: Although I’m a Muslim, Denmark is still my native country, and I want to be respected as a citizen with full rights and duties.
There is still a lot that needs to be done with respect to the situation of the Muslims in Denmark. May Allah help us and guide us in our efforts.
© Aminah Tønnsen, 2004
Aminah Tønnsen was born in Denmark into a Protestant family, but converted to Islam in 1983. Since 1989 she has written several books on Islam as well as elaborated study material in cooperation with clerics of the Danish National Church.
Aminah Tønnsen is a member of the Board of the Islamic-Christian Study Centre in Copenhagen. She takes an active part in interfaith dialogue and gives lectures on Islam in schools, teacher training colleges and parishes on a regular basis.
For more information on Aminah Tønnsen’s activities, please go to her website www.islamstudie.dk or contact: islamstudie(a)info.dk