Beate Schmidt-Behlau

From October 2002 to December 2004 the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association, in cooperation with other adult education institutions in Bulgaria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Theological Institute of the University of Birmingham, embarked on the European project "Tolerance and Understanding of Our Muslim Neighbours" (TUM) with financial support from the European Commission under the Socrates Grundtvig I programme. Dr Beate Schmidt-Behlau reports on the activities carried out under the project and the lessons learnt. The author is the IIZ/DVV staff member responsible for the EU projects "Tolerance and Understanding of our Muslim Neighbours" (TUM) and "Network Intercultural Learning in Europe" (NILE).

Tolerance and Understanding of Our Muslim Neighbours


"Learning consists of remembering knowledge that has lived in the soul of human beings for many generations" (Socrates)


The partnership of the project was composed of:

  • in Bulgaria: the organization ëZnanieí, Sofia with Emilia Ilieva

  • in France: the Centre ThÈologique de Meylan, Grenoble with BÈnÈdicte du Chaffaut

  • in Germany: the Centre for the Studies of Turkey, Essen with Hayrettin Aydin in the beginning and Antje Schwarze taking over from January 2004 onwards and the Folk High School Bonn with Jochen Buchholz

  • in the Netherlands: the training institute Odyssee, with El Batoul Zembib as national coordinator and Jumbo Klercq for background support

  • in the UK: the Theologigal Institute of the University of Birmingham, Birmingham with Jorgen Nielsen for academic guidance and Ian Draper as researcher

Two years later it can be concluded that the project has truly achieved its main goals of:

  • expanding the cooperation and information exchange between adult educators, academics, Muslims and non-Muslims in the participating countries on a transnational level

  • identifying, testing and evaluating methodological approaches and concepts of intercultural dialogue, and developing these further to accommodate learning needs of multifaith and multicultural or multiethnic groups on a national level.

The European Dimension

In the light of the controversial discussion on Islam and the role of Muslims in Western society that has recently taken hold across Europe, the subject-matter of the project was extremely topical and high up on the public and political agenda ñ although not always in a positive form ñ in France, Germany and the Netherlands throughout the project period.

Why do I cite Socrates? Because in a way these thoughts provide a kind of spiritual frame to what happened in the TUM Project. They also give expression to the super-dimension inherent in all EU-funded projects, which is the European dimension.

In the TUM Project, knowledge about the role and interlinkage of different religions in forming Europe surfaced very clearly. Jorgen Nielsen summarized this at the concluding conference, organized in cooperation with the Centre EuropÈen Robert Schuman in Metz in France (November 2004) as follows:

"We have learned that before the national historical myths there were common European roots. Islam is a part of European culture just as Judaism is, Arabic is a classical European language just like our Latin and Greek. The Ottoman empire was in equal parts a European and an Arabic state. From this foundation, how do we develop our national and European identities as well as our understanding of 'citizenship'? This is not only a question of human rights but also an encouragement to rethink our nationally dominated self-concepts."

Needless to say, the project offered a multitude of learning experiences, some of which are accessible through the final publication Building Bridges for Dialogue and Understanding (International Perspectives in Adult Education IPE 47: IIZ/DVV 2005) or on the project website:

Europeís Political Agenda Embraces the Concept of Diversity

At the dawn of a European Constitution that enshrines "Respect for the Diversity of Cultures, Religions and Languages" in an article of its own and demands that antidiscrimination legislation be enforced in each of its Member States, the political preconditions of the European Union give strong support to education initiatives concerned about intercultural learning, diversity or civic education, be it in or out of school, in adult learning or in vocational education and training. Intercultural Dialogue has recently even been included in the list of 'basic competencies' that education must cater for. The same commitment can be recognized in the Council of Europeís (CoE) activities in the area of promoting a wide intercultural dialogue, and more recently with a heightened awareness of the necessity of including the 'religious dimension', in its educational strategies and conceptions. The CoE project on "Intercultural education and the challenge of religious diversity" and the development by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief of a global interdisciplinary network

"to encourage school education that increases understanding and respect between people of different religions or world views and that fosters knowledge about and respect for freedom of religion or belief as a human right"

equally give expression to this development. Also the recent Declaration by the Standing Conference of European Ministers of Education entitled "Intercultural education: managing diversity, strengthening democracy" gives evidence of the willingness of all Member States to recognize the role of intercultural education and look for new ways of cooperation. Europe is moving forward in an effort to reconcile multi-religious and multicultural societies and it makes use of a human rights framework to do so. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

"everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Hopefully it will be possible that the human rights concept can form a stable bridge between the spheres of religion and politics, which are at the same time separate and interlinked with each other in all European Member States.

A state based on the principles of the human rights conventions, forming part of Europe's acquis communautaire, implies tolerance and respect for difference and diversity inside its national boundaries. It also implies the principle of inclusion and participation of members of ethnic, religious, linguistic and language minority groups in the formulation of common values of the 'nation' state. Recent public discussions and sometimes even court rulings about the wearing of the headscarf, slaughtering rituals, building of mosques or bilingual education are only a few examples that demonstrate that discussions are going on at the moment and that no European country can draw back from taking difficult decisions.

So while ñ as it seems ñ European institutions have made substantial efforts in preparing the proper political environment for accepting and respecting the cultural, religious and language diversity of citizens, the real challenge lies on the one hand in the responsibility of the socalled 'nation' states to overcome the still existing paradigm of seeing immigrants only as strangers and as a threat to a Christian Fortress Europe, and on the other hand in peopleís learning ability. And this is ñ as the TUM Project clearly shows ñ where education in all its different forms can play a leading role.

The Role of Adult Education – Some Guiding Principles in the TUM Project

The partners in this European project whom we might call 'united for dialogue in diversity' were convinced that only with a special 'dialogue' attitude and a certain vision of inclusion could the 'TUM ship' be kept on course. The basic elements of this commonly agreed attitude and vision were formulated in the form of guiding principles that set the frame for the project as a whole and the handbooks generated in Bulgaria and Germany. In these guiding principles Adult Education is understood as the creation and encouragement of learning processes conducive to the building of constructive relations between Muslim and non-Muslim co-citizens. The project partners agreed that tolerance, understanding and respect as well as acceptance of cultural variety must be the foundations for such learning processes. Where prejudice, discrimination and racism are expressed Adult Educators should take responsibility for opposing any such acts. The value of Adult Education is seen in its ability to be supportive to intercultural learning processes that prepare individuals for multicultural living together. It can even take a promoting role for such learning processes by adhering to the following principles:

  • be based on respect for human dignity

  • be designed in a way to overcome negative stereotyping

  • lead to intercultural competence for living in a multicultural reality

  • give guidance on how to live with respect for differences

  • promote mutual enrichment through cultural encounter

  • stimulate curiosity and build up knowledge

  • be based on inclusion (gender, age, educational level), participation and empowerment

In the activities of the TUM Project partners on national and local level some important pedagogical principles were seen to be of overall importance for a constructive dialogue between people from different faith groups:

  • learning with, not learning about Muslims and non-Muslims

  • learning as an enjoyable process

  • a balance of a practical and theoretical approach

  • an interdisciplinary approach

  • a concept in accordance with the scholarly and theoretical achievements of contemporary academic specialisations like Islamic studies, sociology, ethnology and pedagogy

  • inter-relationship of general aspects and attention to differences within groups (gender, age, education, region, locality etc.)

  • learning to listen to each other in an open environment

  • personal encounter

  • learning through experience – implementing projects together

  • the 'white highlands' should not be left out– people who are not confronted with multicultural situations in their everyday lives can be motivated through, for example, an introduction to the arts

  • the delivery format has to be appropriate to the needs and to the convenience of the various types of participants

The Learning Process in the Project Partnership

Not only did the diversity in the partnership itself ñ as far as institutional background and individual educational careers were concerned ñ place high demands on the intercultural dialogue competence of the individual participants in the project, but also the very different contexts, histories, religions and religious make-ups, including different legal and political as well as funding structures for adult education provision, had first to be grasped and implications had to be discussed, before mutual understanding in the partnership could be developed. Beyond very individual learning processes, which were naturally different and special for everyone, there were also common learning processes, which are worth mentioning. Maybe the most valuable insight for all project partners can be demonstrated with a quote from one of the participants of the focus group meeting in the United Kingdom: "It is important for adult education not to perpetuate the 'our Muslim neigbours' approach" supported by a colleagueís statement: "it is good to provide educational materials, but if Christians and Muslims do not mutually accept each other, materials are irrelevant". And belying its title borne out of non- awareness at its moment of birth, one of the strengths of the TUM Project clearly was its emphasis on dialogue and inclusion of Muslims, non-Muslims, believers and non-believers throughout the discussions and the implementation process on the transnational and national level. Also the agreement on 4 selected goals, which seemed indispensable to us, in order to achieve a seriously meant dialogue, belonged to such a learning process.

These were:

  • to achieve a better understanding of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and its necessary socio-political conditions

  • to recognize and overcome stereotypes

  • to make all parties (Christian, Muslims, non-believers) take part

  • to establish the necessary link with intercultural learning In addition we determined some key questions about the target group applicable to all adult education activities, such as:

  • Who are we addressing, who is the target audience?

  • What is the level of knowledge, what is their experience of encounter?

  •  How do we reach them (development of course materials)?

It was important for our learning process to evaluate experiences of many years of Christian-Muslim relationship in the individual countries, from the example of France and the United Kingdom, but also to test new approaches and methods as in Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Germany. A further learning process referred to our cooperation in the project team between people linked to the academic sector and knowledgeable about results of current research, and trainers/ educators who are involved in practice, which was extremely enriching. As a European team we learned that we can grow together and even celebrate the wealth of our diversity, united by the everlasting question: "what vision do we have of religious diversity in Europe?"

Looking back on two years of hard work, inevitable frustration, lots of inspiration and of course also fun as an intercultural team, we cannot but admit that the idea of building a European knowledge society and promoting exchange, dialogue and understanding is indeed coming true by means of the Socrates programme. Many of the fruits of the TUM Project are results of ideas generated in the process of transnational exchange of information and discussion. These experiences clearly demonstrate that in spite of historical, cultural and political diversity, adult educators can learn a great deal from each other in the process of European project implementation.


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