A message from Astana: EU, be alert, the fascists are coming

Marek Halter in Astana on 11 October 2018. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Inter-religious dialogue.

Marek Halter, a Jew and Holocaust survivor, used the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to warn Europeans that there is a high risk that fascists campaigning on the Islamophobia ticket win big in next year’s European elections.

Although there were few Europeans at the two-day Congress in Kazakhstan, which gathered religious leaders from across the world in the capital Astana, Halter turned to the European audience, warning about the risks at the May 2019 European elections.

“We are going to European elections and the fascists are growing,” Halter said, adding that the reason for that was Islamophobia. He compared the situation with the Nazi attitude to Jews.

In recent years, Halter, a writer, has been campaigning in France against the stigmatisation of Muslims and the amalgamation of their religion to terrorism.

He made a short reference to his activities in France organising marches of Imams for Dignity. In a recent letter to French President Emmanuel Macron, he wrote that millions of Muslims living in France see themselves caricatured in public debates. Consequently, their religious identity becomes a defence, while they see the forces of order as oppressors.

Halter has also criticised Macron and his government for being afraid to set foot in the neighbourhoods where Muslims live and to talk to the people.

He said he hoped there would be a journalist in the room to send the message: “Don’t worry, you don’t have to be afraid [of Muslims]”, adding that those in power “are afraid to say it”.

Halter’s life deserves a novel. He was born in 1936 in Poland. During World War II, his parents escaped the Warsaw ghetto and went to the Soviet Union, ending up in Kazakhstan.

When EURACTIV complimented Halter on looking very young for his 84 years, he replied: “It’s because I’m fighting. Everybody who has ideals and is ready to die for his ideas will die young.”

He said that his family escaped the Warsaw ghetto with the help of Polish Catholic friends to the Russian part of occupied Poland, from where they were sent to Moscow.

“Stalin sent us to Kazakhstan, Almaty, a total of a million refugees. My little sister died of hunger. Then they sent us to Uzbekistan, and then after the war, on Victory Day (9 May in Russia), they sent me to give flowers to Stalin in Moscow. And then we came back to Poland, but anti-Semitism was very strong. We found family in Paris so we went to Paris,” he said.

In Paris, where he arrived at the age of 14, he later became a writer and his books have sold millions of copies.

“I share my ideas with millions of people, but it’s not enough. I try to fight for peace, I organised the first contact between the Israelis and the Palestinians, between Arafat and Shimon Peres. I brought Sadat to Israel, and he was killed. I brought Rabin to Arafat, who was a good friend of mine, and Rabin was killed,” Halter said.

Asked how he had succeeded where diplomats failed, he said:

“I love people. I went to Egypt, I met [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, we changed the epoch. This was a time of ideology. All the people around Nasser were Marxists. And they understood that on the Israeli side, they had brothers too, poor people who are fighting for a better life. With Arafat it was the same. Arafat was a nationalist and when I told him I will bring him another another nationalist in my home in Paris, Shimon Peres, he came.”

More fascinating anecdotes followed:

“And Arafat said – Peres is a good guy, but to make peace I need a general. And Peres told me – go to meet with [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s a general. And we did that. But Rabin was killed. History is always a recommencement, but it’s never the same. Because the world changed the day I brought Netanyahu – I wanted to bring Khaled Mashal But Netanyahu didn’t want to meet Mashal, he met Mahmoud Abbas.”

Mashal is a Palestinian political leader who has led the Islamic Palestinian organisation Hamas since the Israeli assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in 2004. He stepped down as Hamas’ politburo chief at the end of his term limit in 2017.

Asked if politicians abuse what they think is their right to speak in the name of God, he said:

“This is a good question. I ask politicians to do something together. It’s not enough for them to say “I did something in the church, or I did something in the synagogue, or I did something in the mosque. Do it together. We have to condemn everybody who is ready to kill in the name of God”.

Asked about his commitment to Kazakhstan, he said that a Kazakh had saved his life. One day when he was 8 years old, he was about to die of hunger, and in the market place, an old Kazahk told him “Malchik [young boy in Russian], come and eat this lepioshka [small bread], because if you don’t, you will die from hunger.

75 years later, he brought French President François Hollande to Kazakshtan. “I know all of them”, he said, speaking about the French heads of state.

He told Hollande he wanted to do something about the Kazakhs because they saved his life. “What do you have in mind”, Hollande reportedly asked.

“I want to give them a Sorbonne-Kazakhstan,” was his answer.

“So we went together to Almaty, I brought [the President of Kazakhstan] Nazarbayev, and we inaugurated four years ago Sorbonne-Kazakhstan. And at the end of the studies, hundreds of young Kazakhs obtain a Sorbonne diploma, one of the best universities in the world”.

The Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions ended with the adoption of a final declaration, pledging support to all efforts aimed at preventing attempts to fragment society on religious, racial or ethnic grounds.

The next such Congress will take place in three years but, meanwhile, a centre has been created to ensure compliance with the decisions adopted. Seminars and other meetings will take place all over the world.

Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, Yerzhan Ashikbayev, told journalists that one could not expect big changes to happen overnight and results to be valid indefinitely.

“We have to engage permanently in that dialogue”, he stressed.

Kazakh diplomats were present at the Congress but were very discrete, leaving the entire stage to the religious leaders.

Participants told EURACTIV that in its first editions, religious leaders found it very difficult to sit at the same table, and talks on adopting a common document lasted very late into the night. Nowadays religious leaders are said to have a completely different attitude and have started caring about the process they find useful.

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