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How it all started...

The idea was born on a train ride returning from the ‘Religion Revisited’- conference of UNRISD and the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin last June
Ute Seela
19 April 2010

I had shared the experience of the Pluralism Knowledge Programme. Learned about the recent studies of UNRISD affiliates Deniz Kandiyoti, José Casanova and others. Joined a workshop by Cassandra Balchin on the myths about religious fundamentalisms that AWID had collected. Crossing the Dutch landscape of polders (reclaimed land) I realised that our three programmes should be more intensely connected.

All three programmes share the same concern for human rights, especially women’s rights being threatened by the global rise of religious fundamentalisms. Research is a major part of what we do, but we all want to go beyond the stage of publishing knowledge. We all hope that the knowledge acquired will be taken notice of and lead to changes in practice. To make a difference our initiatives should not remain isolated.

Back in The Hague I got in touch with openDemocracy. A respected international current affairs platform seemed to me an ideal space to share articles based on our research, and build a database with profiles of academics, activists and practitioners which would make it easier to invite each other for conferences and events. Perhaps, even more importantly, it would be a channel for debate with a wider public.

So, here we are! I hope this initiative can grow into a meeting point of academics and practitioners from a wide range of societies that struggle with polarization - be it religious, ethnic, class or otherwise. Although Samuel Huntington has received loads of critique on his theory ‘clash of civilizations’, one basic idea certainly holds: a great deal of contemporary conflicts is about values. Regularly women are the bone of contention. If the Freedom House Index can be used as an indicator, human rights and liberal values are loosing ground globally. Not only do governments seem to become more authoritarian. Also large chunks of the population seem to take recourse to conservative religious and/or cultural values – dismissing human rights as a Western agenda.

Do we understand what is happening? Do practitioners from other countries share the observation of one human rights defender from Uganda who said that “we need to run as fast as we can to stay at the point we are now”? How can we reclaim the public space for the value of pluralism, respect for diverse identities and the right to ‘be different’?

If you would like to join the debate please send your ideas and comments to jane dot gabriel at opendemocracy dot net.

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