Ladies and Gentlemen,
dear Mayor Boutaris,
Thank you very much for your kind words of welcome, dear Yannis Boutaris. And a warm welcome to you and all the guests from all over Europe, from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and from many other countries.
We are very happy to be your guests in Thessaloniki: Thessaloniki is European and cosmopolitan, it has a great nightlife and it’s the gastronomic capital of Greece – in short: it’s the perfect partner for NECE.
Thessaloniki has been part of the Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. At the beginning of the last century it was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” until the German occupiers deported its Jewish citizens to the death camps – a low point in German and European history we may never forget.
And today, Thessaloniki, like many other places in Greece, is at the centre of the great European migration crisis, which will also be one of the topics of our conference.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that we need an initiative like NECE more than ever before. NECE wants to bring together and link the many local and national initiatives of the European civil society. And we need you to be part of this. As in Vienna last year, we want you to get actively involved in this conference: Contribute to our blog, use the project market, agree on common projects and become a "citizen" of NECE!
Ladies and Gentlemen, as you surely have noted our subject this year ‚Us versus Them: Citizenship Education in an Interdependent World’ directly follows up on our conference in 2014 in Vienna. Last year the focus was on the many conflicts and crises in and around Europe. Crises and violence have intensified during the last 12 months around the globe from Paris to Ankara. Europe is more in disagreement than ever before: divided economically and socially it threatens to break apart over the refugee crisis. Europe‘s neighbouring regions are instable, the Ukrainian conflict remains unsolved and the dissent with Russia increases. In the Arab world we are watching whole states dissolve and we are seeing the end of the Middle East as we know it.
What is going on? What can citizenship education do in a world that seems to be, to cite Hamlet, out of joint?
Many findings and analyses show that we are in the middle of a new phase of globalisation. The globalisation of finance and trade is now followed by the globalisation of war and destitution. The streams of refugees from crisis regions to Europe are repercussions of this new phase. New non-government players, whose ideology seems to be reduced to a simple Them OR Us, are active on a global level: Isis, Al-Shabab, Al-Nusra and Boko Haram have developed into a menacing variation of international NGOs.
"For the first time in history all peoples on earth have a common present […] and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe," said the philosopher Hannah Arendt as early as in the middle of the last century. Then as now this new ‚unity of the world‘ has positive and negative potentials: either we succeed in becoming global citizens‚ a society of world citizens, as Ulrike Guerot will explain later on. Or we descend, as Hannah Arendt put it, into "political apathy, isolationist nationalism and a tremendous increase in mutual hatred [...]."
When we look at this world, ladies and gentlemen, the multitude of crises might give rise to doubts whether we really are on the way to creating world reason.
Everywhere we can see signs of a new ‘manic tribalism’ (to cite Pankaj Mishra). All over the world, political formations and ideologies that invoke a collective identity and foster the Us versus Them resentment seem to gain strength. We can see a sweep of crises from India, China, Japan and Russia to Israel and the Arab world. And here, in the heart of Europe, populist and anti-immigrant movements are growing, resentment is fostered more unrestrainedly than ever before and is poisoning the European soul. “Identity is a dangerous word,” said Tony Judt shortly before his death in 2010.
In a small essay worth reading he wrote: "We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalisation itself will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to leaders for protection. ‘Identities’ will grow mean and tight [...] the privileges of citizenship, the protection of card holding residency rights will be wielded as political trumps."
What can we do in a world in which social and economic inequalities form a toxic mix with old enemy images and new religious and ethnical fundamentalisms?
To conclude I would like to state three propositions for our discussions: Firstly, let’s resist the continuing power of ethnic/racial identities and concepts! Let’s dismiss the mechanisms of essentialist attribution!
Not only the media but also schoolbooks and texts on citizenship education are still full of problematic undifferentiated descriptions. Recent studies on German schoolbooks have pointed this out. Roger Brubaker calls this tendency ‚groupism‘, that is, I quote, "speaking of Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland of Jews and Palestinians […], of Turks and Kurds […], or of Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans as if they were internally homogeneous (...) groups, even unitary collective actors with common purposes".
Let us show during this conference that our world is not a multi-coloured mosaic made up of monochrome ethnical, racial and cultural blocks.
Secondly, let us try to challenge our mental maps, our ‘self-evident’ concepts again and again.
For example, old and seemingly self-evident concepts such as ‘the West‘ or ‘the Enlightenment‘ have to be rethought, challenged and newly invented. Eurocentric assumptions that the world consists of a dichotomy between an imagined West and an imagined rest of the world should be closely scrutinized and put to the test by citizenship education. Let’s try to create and describe a world beyond the Them vs Us: In short, let’s leave categories such as ‘the West’ and ‘the Islam’ behind us.
Thirdly, our focus must also be our everyday work as citizenship educators, as local, national, global citizens. In a world characterized by crises and inequalities citizenship education must be rethought in a more radical way. I believe it should be a resource, a sphere of activity which is not only about academic findings but also about criticising existing power structures – and changing them.
The refugee crisis forces us to adopt a new way of thinking: we cannot remain on the sidelines. Conflicts elsewhere that displace millions of people are also our conflicts. Citizenship education in an interdependent world must be translated into political practice and social action – in joint projects across local and national borders. Let us start here in Thessaloniki.
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