Coexistence is an inevitable destiny
Andrea Riccardi 14 February 2007

This text is the author’s introduction to his latest book, "Convivere" (163 pages, Laterza Editore, 2006).

A question from Rwanda

In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I visited the genocide memorial, the Kigali Memorial Centre. It was Easter 2005. A little over ten years after those tragic events. The memory of them is still very alive. The prisons are still overflowing with those accused of the crime of genocide. In the streets one could recognise those already sentenced (on their way to work) thanks to their pink clothes. The problems linked to the genocide are still impending. With firm policies President Kagame works to ensure that those terrible events will not happen again. He is the man who led the armed struggle that overturned the Hutu regime in Kigali and put an end to the massacre of the Tutsis.

According to the President there is no difference between Hutus and Tutsis, only those guilty of genocide and the victims. It is power, held by a Tutsi such as he is, that acts as a guarantee for all those affected by the genocide. The people however continue to think in terms of Hutus and Tutsis. The issue concerning how and when full democracy will be achieved remains an open one. There is however another no less important question: will the Hutus and the Tutsis be capable of peaceful coexistence?

The Kigali Memorial Centre is a monument to this terrible memory; one sees the coffins of those assassinated, while a sequence of images lead the visitor to the focal point, a room filled with skulls. The message is a clear one: profound horror for all that took place in 1994. A question comes to mind: how could neighbours possible kill people they had known forever? The assassins did not come from far off places; they were people who had always lived close to their victims. In his beautiful and tragic book entitled Machete Season, Jean Hatzfield allowed the executors of the genocide to speak; they do not seem to be monsters; they were often normal people, transformed by propaganda and insane collective conformism. The assassins were convinced it was no longer possible to live with the Tutsis who represented a permanent threat to the Hutus. Hence it became necessary to eliminate them.

The images of the Kigali Memorial Centre portray the fear of living with others, a fear that becomes murderous. And yet the Tutsis are no different, they even speak the same language as the Hutus. Just like at Yad Vashem, the Shoah Memorial in Jerusalem, the most moving aspect in Kigali is the reminder of the children. One learns what the favourite food of twelve year old Francine Murenzi Ingabire was, fried eggs; and her favourite sport, swimming; they also tell us she was killed with a machete. These children were deprived of their whole lives. Was it to defend other children? As one sadly wanders around the rooms and corridors of this Memorial, the question hovering in the air concerns the future. How will the Hutus and the Tutsis be able to coexist peacefully after all this? With his policies Kigame is attempting to trace a path, albeit surrounded by the perplexity of international public opinion, (criticising the strong methods applied). But ten years after the genocide the outlook seems still filled with disquiet, precisely due to Rwanda’s mixed population and its dramatic history.

Rwanda’s ethnic groups so not differ in their language, but in their history, in both recent and ancient discriminations as well as social functions. There is now a trench between them, in fact there is the abyss of the 1994 genocide. Will they be able to coexist in tomorrow’s Rwanda? This question does not apply only to Rwanda, but also Burundi which has similar ethnic groups – Hutu and Tutsi – also sharing a very difficult history. Burundi has chosen to follow a different path, with a new Hutu president and a counterbalancing system between the two ethnic groups.

The Rwandese situation is not unique in this region. This is a generalised problem. It appears in different forms in various African countries and perhaps also throughout the world. On the other hand the Rwandese chose to add their genocide to a long and painful series of events of this kind. This becomes clear at the Kigali Memorial Centre. There is a pressing sequence of reminders and images of 20th Century genocides: the massacre in Namibia of the African hereros by the Germans (65.000 massacred between 1904 and 1905), the massacre of the Armenians, the Shoah, the Cambodian genocide, the Balkans of the Nineties.

These are all very different situations, but they all reveal the cruel aspects of the past century. Leaving the memorial in Kigali, I continued to ask myself: how do they coexist? How many situations are at risk in our world? My questions concern Rwanda and Burundi, bit not only. I have often addressed the same issues when confronted with difficult African situations. In Africa, different communities (different ethnicity, language, religion) mingle and coexist in the same country, with borders roughly drawn by colonisers without considering ethnic realities.

Coexisting is the problem faced by Christians and Muslims in that immense African country that is Nigeria. The first great African crisis after decolonisation was precisely the great independence war of 1967-1970 in Nigerian Biafra region. The image of the skeletal African child became the prototype of Africa poverty. However, over recent decades there have been many crises. Coexistence is the problem in the Ivory Coast, a country still divided into North and South, Muslims and Christians, uncertain with regards to the identity of part of its population consisting in immigrants. It also concerns small but important Togo, where a political group (identified in an ethnic minority, a little over 10%) the heirs of deceased President Eyadéma, runs a country asking for equal rights. There are many examples. Living together within the framework of a state is a great African problem, especially because state institutions are weak, also due to the problematic history of many national forms of independence.

This however is not only an African problem, linked to the situation in that continent. It is present in Asia, starting with Sri Lanka, infested for decades by terrible guerrilla warfare, as well as in Indonesia battling with Aceh separatism. It is the history of many minorities demanding their own space, autonomy and also their independence. These are events involving to so-called indigenous people of Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. It is often the history of different communities ending up in the same territories and the same cities. The fury addressed at the Chinese minority (economically hegemonic) in Indonesia reveals the serious tension accumulated in Asian societies.

Chinese scholar Amy Chua, who teaches at Yale University in the United States, has – also starting from her own family’s experience in the diaspora – emphasised the risk of increased hostility against economically strong minorities in societies undergoing democratising and liberalising processes. The poorer majority proclaims itself the legitimate ‘owner’ of well-being and attacks the rich minorities. This happened in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe against the British settlers, but could also happen in the Philippines or in indigenous Bolivia.

An issue that concerns us all

The coexistence of different populations is not only a problem concerning the outskirts of the world, new democracies, states without freedom or those with arbitrary borders. It is also a European problem. Think of the Balkans. The wars in former Yugoslavia, and those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, posed the problem of coexistence for Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Croatian Catholics. This was solved with ethnic separation, after so much blood had been spilt and so much hatred accumulated. I followed events in Kosovo closely, a country inhabited by an Albanian majority and a Serb minority, under the domination of the government in Belgrade. The problem remains unsolved in spite of the country’s current autonomy. The Serb villages are still surrounded by the Albanian population and protected by international troops. Life for the Serb minority is impossible. All the events in former Yugoslavia during the Nineties were stories of the painful disintegration of the structure for coexistence created by Tito. This was however in part artificial, and created at the end of the Habsburg empire; it fall meant the stated impossibility to coexist by the Slav people in the South (hence Yugoslavs). This took place after the fall of the Berlin wall, while Europe strengthened its unification process.

Coexistence has today become an open problem, even in the most solid European countries. It has been posed for some time now by re-emerging minorities, for example the Basques in Spain, Northern Ireland. In the meantime the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium increasingly consume the organisation of one single state, a small and important country in the world’s history between the 19th and the 20th centuries, if for no other reason than its colonial domination in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The most serious problem however concerns the communities of non-European immigrants. It is the problem affecting the suburbs and outskirts of European cities. It recently exploded in a series of conflicts in the banlieues of Paris and other French cities, with riots involving the young generations, often descending from immigrants.

The revolt of the young – mainly of African or Maghreb origin, but mostly second or third generation French citizens – seemed to be a primitive "clash of civilisations"; on one hand France with her symbols and on the other the rebellious reaction. The young are alone, with no jobs and no hope. In a sense this revolt is part of the rebellious tradition that has characterised French history and cannot on the other hand be explained only with Islam. The young protest against alienation and inequality using an elementary language, the language of violence. This tension is not new, and neither are the acts of violence. They have now however exploded simultaneously. Rebelliousness is strengthened and also develops through the globalisation of information. The short circuit caused by advertising on television has given the young an identity: "We are famous, even CNN talks about us", a young rebel told me in November 2005. Another told a newspaper that "We are ready to sacrifice everything, because we have nothing". In four days, from November 5th to the 8th, almost three thousand cars were set alight in the Parisian region. This was a way of stating their identity and their presence on the French stage: "We burn and therefore we exist".

What is there behind all this? First of all the many voids of the banlieue: the crisis experienced by the social network and by schools, and the institutions’ proximity to the people: the end of the Communist Party and its social roots, that moved proletarian conflictual issues to a political level; the crisis experienced by French Catholicism with its parish churches, which after the war addressed the problem of pastoral care in the red banlieues. Then there is also the crisis of the family, although they say that the families of immigrants differ from European ones. This is a problem shared by the whole Western world, which is seeing the disintegration of its families: so men and women grow up alone, uneducated to the reality of coexistence – the family precisely – where those who are different (by gender, age, generation, capabilities) experience a shared unity and sense of destiny.

By revolting, the young in the banlieues create an elementary identity for themselves, reacting to alienation in a society where the burden of inequality is increasingly felt. This is the revolt of the young against an "old" society. The interethnic characteristics of the gangs are the result of alienation, to the extent that most of these youngsters come from immigrant families. They use violence to attract attention. There is no request from them to be negotiated, just a revolt, a profound dissent to decipher. The young feel rejected by the city, by the labour world; this is not their France. How can they be integrated and how can their aspirations be satisfied? Is this the revolt of the immigrants against the majority state? The issue concerning the coexistence of the majority and the immigrants has at times been posed in a demagogic and aggressive manner. One should address it realistically without hysteria.

The terrorist attacks in London in July 2005 were already an alarm call. The fact that the men were British citizens (Muslims of Pakistani origin) emphasised a question that has hovered for years and that since September 11th 2001 has become persistent. How will Europeans of ancient origins live in peace and security with the new immigrants, especially Muslims? Can the Islamic communities be integrated? Do they hide potential terrible enemies? Did one not see this with the young attackers in London with their British passports and belonging to families well-integrated in society? Well then how is it possible to live together and even allow these minorities to become even stronger thanks to the new migrating flows? These are all questions concerning the large Muslim communities in Great Britain, France and Germany and also in Holland and Belgium.

European Islam is denounced by some, loudly, as the fifth column of Islamic expansionism in Europe. The great Polish traveller and novelist Ryszard Kapuscinski has observed that the integration of Islam "is one of the most fascinating questions Europe is obliged to address". It is perhaps the most important question in Europe’s tomorrow. The question also concerns all immigration (also the continent’s social and economic need due to is demographic decline). Are the communities of immigrants changing Europe’s character and identity? The British choice, allowing the development of these communities without imposing any specific integration (as happens instead in France) has been questioned after the events in London in July 2005. If Great Britain is in tears, France is not laughing at the revolts in the banlieues.

The issue concerning coexistence assumes different characteristics in different regions, but is however decisive for the institutions, religions, policies and relations between populations. Is it possible to live together when there are such differences? This question must be merged with other equally important ones: what does the word "differences" really mean? What is the threshold at which differences become compatible? During the Fifties, when I was a Roman child attending primary school in Northern Italy, I used to hear rather unpleasant remarks about southerners who had moved to these areas (at the time they were disrespectfully called "Moroccans") and about the working North compared to the South that simply fed itself. It makes me smile now to think of that tension between Italians from the North and those from the South, although the League seems to have reinstated it. Our problems today are greater and far more dramatic, while the idea of a multicultural society is deteriorating. Each historical period has its own perception of its compatibility threshold as far as diversity is concerned. It was thought that France would experience an identity crisis when the country was faced with emigration issues between the two wars (Italians, Armenians, Poles, East Europeans). This crisis never occurred, but nothing repeats itself in history. There is great concern nowadays in the perception of the compatibility threshold with regard to the coexistence of different populations.

The terrorism causing bloodshed in European cities renders this perception sharper. At all levels and facing the most diverse situations, the same question is repeated: how will we live together? It is asked by intellectuals and politicians, but also perceived by ordinary men and women watching daily events and find themselves with no solution to the problems and with no ideal society. And yet, as we ask ourselves this question, it is true that we already do coexist in many locations. It happens in Western Europe, where the great cities have multi-religious and multi-ethnic characteristics while maintaining their traditional Christian-Western framework or their secular institutions. It happens all over the world. In addition to coexisting with others, the result of physical and geographical proximity, there is also a virtual form of coexistence resulting in the lives, cultures and tastes of one group reach others through the channels of globalisation. Traditions and tastes merge in the global world. Travel takes one group to the countries of others. Emigration creates strong bonds. The mobility of human beings, their ideas and their customs, knows no borders. Coexistence appears to be an inevitable destiny. But it is not necessarily a reassuring one.

Is it possible to live together? asks a sharp observer of contemporary society, the Frenchmen Alain Touraine, in the subtitle to his book on Freedom, equality, diversity. This is the question I would like to address in these pages: how can we live together? I am well-aware that there is not one single answer. One must make an effort to find different answers for different situations, different culture and different countries. The answer one hears repeated insistently – especially at critical times or the outbreak of hostilities – is that one must strengthen borders and put up a few more protective walls. Fear however is not an answer. Nor are good intentions. As previously mentioned, contemporary life inevitably leads us to live close to different people. It is normal that such questions should be posed, questions that cannot be answered instantly, but perhaps it is necessary to try and address them patiently.

Translation by Francesca Simmons



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