Concluding Remarks by Prof. Gerhard Langer

Concluding Remarks

Gerhard Langer, Professor of Jewish Studies, Vienna


In this short “review” of a very interesting and instructive conference in Bucharest, I am not able to repeat the results of every paper and presentation. I will concentrate eclectically on some keywords, being aware that I may miss important aspects and that my choice is very subjective.

First of all, I want to warmly thank the organizers, the wonderful team of students, the interpreters, and all those who extended helping hands.

I appreciate the fact that we seem to have reached a consensus, as almost every speaker mentioned the necessity of education for achieving tolerance and the peaceful co-existence of different religions, worldviews, and cultural identities. However, many questions remain with regard to the details of how to manage it.

One question is: Who is responsible for enabling students, pupils, societies, and communities, as well as for teaching competence?

One very important element in this context concerns the diversity of conditions found in the different states. We heard a lot about national approaches regarding freedom of religion, religious education in schools, and religious education and its implications at universities. It was impressive to learn about very specific problems and solutions e.g. in Cyprus, Moldova, Italy, Romania, and Bosnia.

I see differences regarding education in schools based on national surveys. It was interesting to hear that some parents in Moldova were dissatisfied with religious education practices that were mainly dominated by priests.

What kind of education is needed?  Should the focus be on education in families or schools?

What I missed here were debates about the education of adults outside the academic context, which we refer to in German as “Erwachsenenbildung”, in other words adult education. I think that this aspect is crucial if we want to change mindsets in the long run.

Another keyword: general public and the role of social media etc. This aspect was mentioned very briefly, but needs further attention.

I found it very interesting to learn about the role of teachers, e.g. by Col Bakker. This reflection on acting professionally and the meaning of free space and autonomy is important.

Let me add a question: What should we expect from the education of teachers? Here I am reminded of statements regarding Islamic teacher education!

Another keyword: History Education. The perception of the past is important in shaping identity. Let me quote a sentence from Farid Panjwani:

“Without a critical understanding of history, students become vulnerable to the abuses of history by state and communities.”

Coming to terms with the past and a critical view of historical myths is extremely important.

But I would like to add here: Without a critical understanding of traditional texts students become vulnerable to state and community abuse of history.

We should not stop reflecting on history, but also on our own traditional textual sources as critical scholars of history.

This brings me to another keyword: the distinction between the history of religion and the teaching of religion as “theology”.

Is teaching the history of religion an alternative?

Coming to a more concrete element: The materials that are used in schools. Innovative textbooks are needed to support children’s preparation for a multi-cultured world.

The critical analysis of textbooks and schoolbooks is of great importance for guaranteeing quality and for reacting to problematic depictions or presentations e.g. of other religions or cultural identities.

The overview on schoolbooks regarding Judaism is only one example of the very limited progress over the last 20 to 30 years. A critical look into textbooks and schoolbooks revealed a deep need for improvement in more than one example.


Let me come to a keyword that is also found in the conference title: Radicalism: What is it?

To mention only one example: Mark Sedgwick impressed me with his description of the traditional Islamic movements as counter-violent and thus tolerant, highly intolerant of violence, and opposed to Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This shows that religious conservatism is compatible with opposing violence.

The discussion of Muslim movements (traditional movements, but also Sufism, mystical movements – keyword spiritual education) and Jewish movements, such as the Haredi communities with their absolute focus on religious education, is important for learning about similarities and differences regarding various forms of “radicalism”.

The other keyword in the title of our conference is tolerance: in connection with this almost arbitrarily used phrase in different contexts, I remember some remarks that there are also expectations about how we manage limits!

Can we distinguish between strong tolerance (culture of peace – UNESCO) as mutual recognition and tolerance as “Dulden heißt Beleidigen” (Goethe), in other words, “To tolerate means to insult”?

Can tolerance be described as “See the other through the eyes of the other”?

One important keyword here is empathy. Can we teach empathy in multicultural classes by facing “enemies” in a wider sense (e.g. teaching Arab children about the Shoah)?

Another keyword is hermeneutics of dialogue regarding tolerance:

I have heard sometimes of Abraham as an example of dialogue and tolerance, but I am very skeptical. Abraham as a role model was used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to serve as their ancestor, thus rendering him not a figure of tolerance and co-existence, but much more a symbol of exclusionism, elitism, a radical fighter for monotheism, to say the least, a “jihadist” who fought against multiculturalism (symbolized by the “idolators” of his time). To be sure Abraham was a migrant and depicted as a role model for migrants, but in every monotheistic religion he was (ab)used for its special way of “truth”. Thus, in Judaism migrants, sojourners, and strangers became symbols for proselytes to Judaism.

Tolerance is combined with ethical education.

Pupils need guidance with regard to faith, hope, solidarity, and respectfulness: a combination of religious issues and ethical issues – both belonging together, since without correct behavior a person is not a religious person. This is a plea for orthopraxy.

Where are the limits of our tolerance? How important are these limits?

This question seems to be almost central for me. There must be an end to tolerance when people face xenophobia, Antisemitism, or hatred.

Who is the one who is supposed to tolerate?

Who will define unbridgeable gaps?


Authorities, majorities, and the role of the state:

We also heard about the problem of religious authorities, thus I put here the keyword: The role of the religious authorities.

What impact should the majority religion have on the shaping of textbooks and national activities regarding our topic?

Connected with this remark I would like to suggest the next keyword, which I think is central:

What is the role of the state? What should we demand from a state that is present in religious education? What kind of influence on schoolbooks, syllabus etc. should we expect. Should it be a controlling organ?

Another example comes from the very ambitious efforts in Latvia: Worldview education. Is there a curriculum? Can we do something so that the state helps to support this idea? Should there be more “pressure” on the state to promote it?

In my opinion we need policy if we want to have religious freedom.

Another related issue here is:

How to deal with foreign influences? Can we even use this expression?

I really did not hear much about a European Islam at this conference, but there were some very interesting remarks on the problematic Arab or Turkish influence on Muslim education, for example in Bosnia and Romania.

I think that we can break down every discussion about foreign influences by Arab states or Turkey with details about which no one is able to say anything, but what can we gain? We should face the facts and the perceptions of the people and international observers and we should cope with this problem.


Thanks also for the philosophical impulse, which was very convincing. What we all share is reason. I would also like to add the philosophical impact of the Jewish thinker Emanuel Levinas with his ideas about the other and the primacy of ethics.

I really appreciated the deep and intensive reflection on individual traditions of different religious worldviews with regard to human rights and tolerance and religious education. By reflecting on this approach self-critically we can come to terms with our own traditions and reflect on similarities and differences (e.g. keyword Fitra).

What we should also reflect on are boundaries. Speaking about boundaries is sometimes regarded as negative, as an obstacle in religious encounter, but I believe that boundaries are necessary for making identity possible, that they are fluid, and that they can never be totally fixed, but must exist.

Let me end with some very personal proposals:

-          Reflection of one’s own tradition regarding personhood, the other, tolerance, and co-existence

-          Critical historical reflection on history and on religious traditions.

-          Critical reflection on theological curricula, schoolbooks and theological handbooks.

-          Reflection on the role of authorities and lawgivers – the state etc. – and development of practical advice coming from scholars.

-          A necessary exchange of opinions between policy makers and researchers.

-          Practical tools for educating teachers and students – regarding a worldview, including the quest for religious identity.

-          Enabling face-to-face meetings among religious groups and individuals.

-          Support for scholars and teachers from the side of politicians regarding curricula such as that of worldview education.

-          The necessity of a secular state – which is not the same as laicist – is clear to me.

-          The centrality of religion in social life (Beckford) and as social glue, mentioned here regarding Turkey, which, in my view, is not a model for contemporary Europe.

-          As I myself spoke about the threat of parallel societies, thinking of religious groups only devoted to learning, I want to be more precise about this point. A parallel society is not the problem, because that is what is normal and found in so many forms. Instead, the problem that I see are those groups who are dependent on the efforts of citizens, support mechanisms, and finances of the state, which does not demand reactions, dialogue, and participation in the broader society, in the state´s affairs, in the public school system, etc. I think that there is a necessity to urge all the groups to participate in modern society in ways that reflect their own tradition.

My personal ideal: An autonomous person, self-critical and self-reflective, open-minded and constantly ready to learn, expanding and changing his or her own worldview through encounters with the other, but aware of his or her own identity, built on traditions and religious convictions. I am convinced that the boundaries in this context are as important as the similarities.