Copenhagen: The Aladdin Project debate on the future of living together in Europe

Copenhagen: The Aladdin Project debate on the future of living together in Europe

From left to right: Lise Bach Hansen, head of the successful live literature program at The Royal Library, Denmark, Copenhagen; His Excellency François Zimeray, Ambassador of France to Denmark; Leah Pisar, President of the Aladdin Project and Sara Omar, Danish-Kurdish writer and human rights activist


The French embassy in Copenhagen hosted a timely debate on the challenges facing “living together” in Europe on Friday, June 22, bringing together parliamentarians, religious leaders, academics, journalists and civil society activists to exchange views with a delegation from the Paris-based Aladdin Project led by the organization’s Chair, Dr. Leah Pisar.

French Ambassador Francois Zimeray opened the meeting by recalling his participation in two early initiatives of the Aladdin Project. In January 2010, he went to Baghdad with Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld to speak to a group of Iraqi politicians, academics and journalists. He said the enthusiasm and active engagement of the Iraqis in the debate about the history of Iraqi Jews astounded him. The ambassador then represented the French president on a historic visit of 200 political, religious and civic leaders to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau that the Aladdin Project organized in 2011.

“The Aladdin Project was born on the premise that the lessons of the Holocaust do not belong to the Jews or to the Europeans, but to all humanity,” said Francois Zimeray. “Today this organization is proposing new solutions against extremism and xenophobia in Europe, based on its successful experience in other parts of the world. That’s why I thought it would be important to have this debate in Copenhagen.”


Dr. Leah Pisar noted the ugly scenes of xenophobia and cruelty on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks in the treatment of migrants, and agreed with the ambassador that the world has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust. She quoted the poignant words of her late father, Samuel Pisar, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, in his speech in front of Muslim leaders in Auschwitz in 2011:

“If those who have perished here could make themselves heard, they would surely clamor before you ‘Never Again!’ Never again devastating wars between hereditary enemies: the French and the Germans, Chinese and Japanese, Indians and Pakistanis, even Arabs and Jews. Never again mass-exterminations or ethnic and religious cleansings by genocidal tyrants.  Never Again!”

The Aladdin president underlined the need for coordinated and continent-wide policies to protect the future of “living together” in Europe, as religious and ethnic tensions continue to mount.

Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq’s former Minister for Human Rights and a board member of the Aladdin Project, drew from the experience of the Middle East to reaffirm the importance of dialogue in place of strife. He also pointed out the need for more dialogue between the components within each culture and religion. “We cannot defeat extremism without active cooperation between our cultures in the Middle East and Europe, because our extremism fuels your extremism, and yours nourishes our extremism,” he concluded.

The audience heard the religious leaders’ perspective on intercultural dialogue and social cohesion from Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior: Mads Christoffersen, General Secretary of National Council of Churches; prominent Danish Islamic scholar Naveed Baigh, and Sherin Khankan, Denmark's first female imam. Christoffersen noted that interfaith dialogue reinforces cooperation among different religions to fight all forms of extremism, including extreme secularism. He denounced the push in Parliament to ban circumcision and urged the Danes to remain a tolerant society, respectful of the practices and values of different cultures.

In the second part of the meeting, Aladdin’s executive director Abe Radkin moderated a panel discussion on the present and the future of intercultural relations in Europe. Laurent Bouvet, a board member of the French National Council on Laicity and a recognized expert on secular education in France, described the situation in France, a country regarded as a bastion of secularism with a 1905 law that guarantees freedom of conscience, including the citizens’ right to convert or change their religion. The same law requires the State to maintain neutrality on religion, and to ensure non-interference of religion on the lives of citizens. France’s core problem is not immigration, Bouvet said, but integration. The fact that the terrorists who have claimed the lives of more than 300 victims in France since 2015 were all French citizens and had gone through the republican educational system has shaken France’s faith in the republic’s ability to assimilate all citizens regardless of their origins.

Professor Brian Arly Jacobsen from the University of Copenhagen, a leading expert on radical movements and radicalization in Denmark, blames marginalization of Muslims, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a major contributor to the rise of extremism among the youth. He emphasized the importance of social and economic factors in dealing with extremism among European Muslims.

Professor Niels Valdemar Vinding, an expert on Islam and the Middle East at University of Copenhagen, noted that populism and the Islamic challenges to Europe in recent years have become the defining issues. It is important, he said, to understand the questions that populists ask themselves: What went wrong? Who is to blame? What can be done to fix the situation? He added that religion is part of all three questions, and draws on related issues like the limits for free speech, the legitimacy of the secular private/public distinction, and the relation between religion and national identity.

Naveed Baigh and Sherin Khankan both underlined the need for European Muslims to formulate the principles which show that Islam is fully compatible with European and universal values: from respect for women’s rights and freedom of speech to rejection of anti-Semitism and homophobia.Naveed Baigh pointed out the need for contextualization of sacred texts, and noted that European Muslims can learn from the experience of European Jews before them in dealing with these issues.

In summing up, Abe Radkin asked every member of the audience to share with the Aladdin Project their views on the question of living together in Europe. He pointed out that the Aladdin Project will be organizing similar meetings in a number of European capitals in the lead-up to the first Global Youth Forum on Living Together in Berlin next year.