Ambassador Christopher Dell Remarks for Ecumenical Council at the American University of Kosovo, May 16, 2012
Good morning everyone. It is really a pleasure to be here and to be given the opportunity to make a few remarks on the topic that you all have been wrestling with these past couple of days, although I have to admit that addressing an ecumenical council is somewhat different from the kind of thing that I normally do for a living. Yet this conference covered two themes that remain essential for the Balkans and all regions in the 21st century – tolerance, and respect between ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. These issues present every day challenges for many countries in the Balkans and elsewhere, and so in a sense we the diplomats, politicians, political leaders do indeed wrestle in the so-called real world with the themes upon which you have reflected these past two days.
It is clear that even tolerance – much less respect – intercultural, interethnic, interreligious respect remains a challenge for many communities, including here in Kosovo. People often fall into a comfortable “us versus them” mentality, ignoring the common links in their history in favor of mistrust and hate, and in the worst case using religion as a tool to sharpen the distinctions between groups and as a weapon to incite hatred. In Kosovo, for example, we have seen this thankfully, the professors underscored this – not recently – in ethnically-motivated attacks and in the desecration of churches and mosques. We have also seen how a climate of intolerance can encourage people to turn against their neighbors and pursue the path of violence. And recently we have witnessed political figures, both in Kosovo and in Serbia, using anti-ethnic language to build political support for themselves. It doesn’t matter how this message is disguised or how it is justified. It is hate speech. And it hurts everyone.
And your message hereof tolerance and peaceful coexistence offers people a much better, much more positive message - one of hope and the possibility of a brighter tomorrow.
It is no secret that Kosovars admire the United States, and look to us for inspiration and as a model for what Kosovars think they would like their own country to become. Thus, I think it is important to mention in the context of today’s seminar, that diversity and tolerance are two of the critical features of American life and culture. While the United States is, of course, a relatively young country, it has had to overcome a long history of racial and cultural divisions to reach a time of relative tolerance today. I would be the last to claim that we are perfect in this respect or that we have finished our journey. Far from it. That said, what makes America, America, is the diversity of our history and the diversity of our cultures.
Moreover, I believe that what makes America unique, is that very early in our history we realized, and we consciously embraced, the idea that we were engaged in a project to create a new culture out of many different threads, all brought together in one place, in one very special place, where for the first time, people had the chance to consciously forge a new identity for themselves. And while Kosovo was not founded on a new continent with such a clean slate, I think that your recent independence is, in a sense, an opportunity for you to start anew, to build a new identity, a new heritage, a new culture, woven of all of the different strands that make up the history and the peoples of this great country.
Over the past several months we have seen the issues of tolerance and respect re-emerge at the fore of Kosovo’s political life. The contentious debates over the laws on the Village of Velika Hoca and the Historic Center of Prizren reminded us of how difficult these issues still are in Kosovo, and how fragile is the veneer of tolerance that has been built since the end of the war thirteen years ago. It was a reminder of how far Kosovo still has to travel before tolerance can grow into mutual respect and even appreciation for your differences. And of how quickly politicians will resort to the same old, tired themes of hatred and division if they see critical opportunity in it. Fortunately, thanks to the government’s commitment to the undertakings the Kosovo nation made at the time of the adoption of the Ahtisaari package, the laws were passed and you have taken a significant step towards preserving at least some of the physical aspects of your diverse cultural heritage.
The laws on the Village of Velika Hoca/Hoca e Madhe and the Historic Center of Prizren, which you will visit later today I understand, make sure that the historic houses, religious heritage sites, and other cultural structures will be preserved and enjoyed by future generations. Though some, during this debate, argued that religious communities should not be consulted in the process of preserving Kosovo’s cultural heritage, claiming that such decisions in a secular state could only be taken by elected leaders, I disagree. I disagree completely. National culture is not limited to the secular realm, but involves the whole of society, and includes history, architecture, art and handicrafts, as well as faith and worship. It involves talking to everyone and taking into account the interests of all stakeholders.
This is a lesson we have had to learn over a long period in the United States. In our early days we didn’t take care to preserve much of our physical culture, and priceless parts of our heritage have been lost forever. But for a long time now we have made a very conscious and concerted effort as a nation to preserve all the aspects of all the different cultures everywhere we can, recognizing that by protecting the physical traces of the past we also preserve something of the lives, the stories, the struggles and achievements that went into their creation.
Now, some would argue that it is wiser to downplay historical differences, to somehow wipe out the past, and to just focus on the future. While I concur that a focus on the future is crucial, I would also argue that in the United States, an important part of the reconciliation process, has been understanding how past injustices and mistakes helped define the path we are on today. Our historians and cultural preservationists strive to preserve all of our history, to show not only our inspiring heroes and leaders, but also to give voice to those who suffered at the hands of the powerful, so that all our future generations can learn and appreciate their full identity and cultural legacy. From the Indian pueblos of the southwest, to the Spanish houses of the first European settlers, to the ruins of Jamestown where the first permanent English settlement was established, to slave quarters on southern plantations and Jewish cemeteries in our cities, each of these cultures, each of these different historic traditions, each of these religions, has contributed to making America what it is today. I can only hope that in their admiration for all things American, the people of Kosovo will also eventually recognize the importance of this aspect of America’s story and that it will help them too to embrace the notion that diversity is an asset, not a threat.
In this spirit, I call on all of Kosovo’s leaders—at the central and municipal level, from all religious faiths, and from civil society—to fully implement these two important laws that were recently passed by the Assembly. The laws should not only promote the preservation of the rich cultural heritage in Prizren and Velika Hoca but also create opportunities for tourism and economic growth in those areas.
In the end, the preservation of Kosovo’s diverse cultural heritage is one more facet of Kosovo’s multi-ethnicity and one more facet of the nation it says it wants to become. I know that personally, one of the best memories I will take away from this time in Kosovo was the day last Autumn when I joined Bishop Teodosije in Prizren in dedicating the re-built Orthodox seminary there. It was quite a striking scene as the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer came through the windows even while the bishop offered his own prayer of thanksgiving before lunch. Later we walked together through the streets of the city to meet the young seminarians who were just settling in to their new home. And, in a truly memorable moment of cross-cultural exchange that is somehow seems to me to be emblematic of Kosovo, if not exactly highly ecumenical, one of the teenage seminarians entertained us by singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
The assembled bishops were delighted, but I think they were a little misled as to the depth of the boy’s religious feelings.
While I may perhaps have largely focused on a more secular note today, it would be wrong not to mention the role of religious leaders in promoting tolerance. You also shape how we remember our cultural, social, and religious past as we build towards the future. You and your fellow leaders of faith organizations have an intimate connection with members of the community and guide individuals through life’s tough choices. I have seen that voices of moderation can help individuals and help nations rebuild after a conflict, and also seen the discord that a few radical leaders can sow with their words.
There has been no more inspiring figure in America’s recent history than the Rev. Martin Luther King, who, himself inspired in large part by the teachings of Ghandi, taught America a lasting lesson in racial tolerance and forever changed who we are as a nation. I know that you work every day to promote peace and mutual understanding here in Kosovo. And I applaud this work in moving us all beyond our past differences. We need more leaders like the religious leaders here to take on this role and to play their part in this society.
Just in closing, I would like to thank Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi, President of American University in Kosovo Chris Hall, and the other organizers of this conference for your dedication and your courage in taking the risk to stage a conference like this on a delicate topic at a delicate time in Kosovo. I think that speaks well of the prospects for open exchange on questions of ethnic tolerance and cultural diversity in this country. I applaud the effort and I think we need more, not less discussion of these issues in a context like this.
I hope that the conference has sparked new thinking, developed new relationships, and forges new ideas for how each of us, how each of you can contribute to moving beyond the divisions of our past and moving towards a better future. With that, I thank you once again and wish you good luck for the rest of the conference.