Opening up to new ideas in Germany

(This is the unedited version of a report I wrote on October 30, 2018 for Friedrich Naumann Foundation South Asia.)

I have just returned from having one of the most exciting experiences of my life — the opportunity to live and learn in Germany for almost two weeks as part of a seminar called ‘Foundations of open societies: individual self-determinaton and tolerance’.The major part of this time was spent at the International Academy for Leadership in Gummersbach where the Friedrich Naumann Foundation hosted me and over 20 other participants from diverse fields such as politics, activism, academia, journalism, human rights advocacy, business and research. I enjoyed the programme to my heart’s content, and I am sure that my writing and my work as a peace and human rights educator will be benefit tremendously from it.

Our daily schedule was quite intense, and I am glad that the programme was designed in a manner that left me intellectually stimulated beyond my expectations. It was slightly overwhelming in the first couple of days but I got used to the tempo soon. It is a pity that the work of liberal thinkers is rarely taught at the school, college and university levels in India. Their scholarship is so relevant especially when it comes to thinking about democracy, rule of law, decentralization, free markets, integration of refugees, minority rights, hate speech and social justice.

Group discussion at the seminar

It was helpful to have Stefan Melnik and Sven Gerst as our facilitators who were thoroughly prepared to answer all sorts of questions, provide additional reading material on request, and field dissenting opinions from the participants. I like robust learning environments such as this one because there is an exchange of knowledge, not a unidirectional flow of information. There were several opportunities for discussions in smaller groups, and the use of digital tools to review individual and collective learning. I would have liked some more case studies but this was the first time this seminar was offered, so changes will be made next time based on the feedback we gave on the final day.

My fellow participants were from Sri Lanka, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Palestine, Libya, Romania, Israel, Lebanon, Georgia, Russia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Ukraine, Malaysia, Honduras,Thailand, Argentina, Panama and India. Our learning environment was rich with insights from all these places because participants spoke from their experience on the ground. We got to know each other better during mealtimes and at the academy’s bar after dinner. Without each person’s contributions, the structure of the programme would have fallen flat. Theory and practice inform each other. Left to their own devices, they have little meaning to offer.

Group photo at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

The seminar also included excursions to Bonn, Cologne and Berlin where we met experts who spoke about various aspects of open society in connection with their own work. My favourite speaker was Dr. Hidir Celik, Head of the Protestant Migration and Refugee Work of Ev. Kirchenkrais (Emfa)/ Integration Agency Bonn, and also the Chairman of the Bonn Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Learning. It was heartwarming to learn about the initiatives being undertaken to support migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. He explained the difference between assimilation and integration. The former approach expects new entrants to give up their culture and imitate the society they wish to be part of. The latter expects new entrants as well as members of the host society to make sustained efforts to learn about each other and co-exist peacefully.

We also learnt about the challenges that come up in the process of integration, not only with respect to language and religious identity but also cultural attitudes towards gender equality and queer rights. Additionally, there is resistance from right-wing groups, both Christian and Muslim. I am always happy to learn about socially engaged work spearheaded by faith-based institutions, particularly those who welcome people of all faiths as well as individuals who identity as atheist and agnostic. Good-neighbourliness is an important value for Protestants, and that is what motivates this organization to keep working towards building bridges between people of diverse cultural heritage living in Germany.

The other speaker I loved listening to was Helmut Metzner, Member of the Board of the Federal LGBTQI Association of Germany, a politician affiliated to the Free Democratic Party, and Founder of Polifaktur Consultancy. He was terrific in terms of wide coverage of topics as well as attention to detail. He spoke with passion, humour and clarity. He was also willing to respond to a variety of queries ranging from sexuality education in schools to medical insurance for gender reassignment surgery, from the criminalization of homosexuality in colonized societies to Germany’s own horrific past with the Nazi regime systematically exterminating gay and lesbian citizens.

Left to Right: Hindi Shahar (fellow seminar participant), me, Helmut Metzner

Apart from the formal study that formed the core of the seminar, the immersive experience in Germany gave me an opportunity to learn other things. I picked up some German words and phrases from my conversations with the kitchen staff and the reception staff as well as the assistants who helped our facilitators with the programme. I got acquainted with aspects of German culture and society that would not have been as interesting to know about from reading a book. I experienced immense kindness everywhere I went — at supermarkets, on underground trains, and on sidewalks when I wanted help with directions. I would like to visit Germany again, and also be an ambassador for Indo-German friendship. There are many things that our countries can learn from each other, especially in terms of cultivating efficiency, establishing rule of law, building democratic institutions, engaging with cultural diversity, tackling corruption and promoting queer rights.

Exploring the neighbourhood in Gummersbach

What added considerably to my experience at the seminar was the setting in which it was located. The academy is a quiet place surrounded by greenery, and it offers an ideal environment for contemplation and long walks. We always had access to coffee and green tea, and people with food allergies and special dietary requirements were efficiently supported on request. Morevoer, the comfortable beds and adequate heating provided a good night’s rest. For those who do not enjoy solitude, the excursions provided open time to go shopping, eat at restaurants, hop on to crowded buses, and explore museums. It always feels good to have one’s needs respected and taken care of, especially in a place that is unfamiliar. The Germans, I must say, looked after us really well.

(All photographs — except my solo — courtesy Friedrich Naumann Foundation)