News and Comment

Big Society and community cohesion – Ideas from Europe

Tuesday 21 September 2010

The Council of Europe asked me to speak recently in Ohrid, Macedonia about inter-cultural dialogue at their 2010 Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue.

Based in Strasbourg, France and with 47 member countries, the Council of Europe aims ‘to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals’.

While the 2010 Exchange focused on inter-religious issues, some of the examples of work going on in Europe strongly resonate in relation to discussions about the Big Society.

There were many examples of locally-developed, civil society projects with religious leaders from different backgrounds getting together to run services, such as local newspapers, community centres and community events aimed at promoting integration.

A good example of promoting community cohesion

One impressive example comes from Germany, where there is growing concern about conflict between the non-Muslim and Muslim populations. Here, the local Muslim community has received funding to set up community markets in local town centres. The community markets try to reflect how markets operated in early Muslim societies. But while they aim to promote aspects of Muslim society, the markets also involve non-Muslim traders and stalls selling traditional German food and other goods.

The following quote comes from a flyer produced by the European Muslim Union, which promotes the markets and their impact:

‘We hold events in venues such as beautiful town squares, as well as in a courtyard of a Bosnian community mosque on the edge of an industrial area. We transformed the venue into a social arena in which people come to meet, talk, have a good time, and enjoy the atmosphere – and the traditional Bosnian food. We stage live music – students of a music school, for example, found the opportunity to promote their work. Or, for example, traditional dances performed by young Bosnian women. But one of the most important things for us is the children’s programme. We want to offer something for the whole family. Our market is not a place for drinking alcohol, as many other festive events are. The response is very positive. The local press is coming to the event and is reporting about it.’

With the UK government demonstrating its commitment to the revival of local festivals, markets and ‘big lunches’, could these kinds of markets be a further addition in building inter-faith and cultural dialogue and understanding?