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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 107, August 2008



Inter-cultural dialogue to the benefit of the members of the family and for an integral life  



Lecturer and Research Associate

City University and Cambridge University

United Kingdom


Distinguished Audience,

Your Eminencies,

Your Excellencies,

Dear Organisers,  

It is an honour for me to be here today and to deliver this presentation on the meaning of intercultural dialogue in connection with family life and the context of migration. 

1. Introduction

Intercultural dialogue (ICD) has lately been a much-utilised but little defined expression in policy circles and international organisations. It has often been adopted to refer to a range of issues: from public diplomacy, to institutional dialogue with Muslim communities, to soft preventative approaches to countering terrorism. Little attention has been paid to the meaning, means and objectives of this concept, though. In my previous work, I have insisted on the importance of ICD, not as an end in itself, but as a resource, as a ‘practice’ that should inform the actions and thinking of individuals, policy-makers, and organisations, especially in the social sector and not just in relation to Islam (Silvestri 2007a; 2008a). I was therefore very pleased to note two very profound definitions, that move away from superficiality, proposed by two Catholic voices.

His Holiness Benedict XVI, in his message to the Muslim community in Cologne, on the occasion of the World Youth Day in August 2005, implicitly defined ICD as a concrete way to address shared concerns and conflicts that are rooted in cultural differences and in ideologies of power and violence. In particular, the Pope has highlighted that the modality to engage in a fruitful dialogue with Muslims is to focus on the ‘recognition of the centrality of the person’. Working with individuals and for individuals, rather than focusing on more abstract notions of religious ‘systems’ or ‘civilisations’, is, for the Holy Father, the essence of dialogue (cf. Madigan 2005; Samir 2006). Attention to concrete aspects of the human condition and to the ‘lived’ experience of the faith have indeed been central in the Pope’s articulation of the meaning of Christianity and of the hope of redemption offered by this religion (cf. Benedict XVI, 2007).

Dialogue was identified as an immediate consequence of Christian identity by Mgr Giordano, Secretary General of the CCEE, who in 2004 said: ‘nel dia-logos le differenze non diventano conflitto: il rapporto fra loro diviene lo spazio dell’accadere del “Logos”’ (‘in dia-logos differences do not become conflict: the relationship between them becomes the space of the happening of “logos”’).

So, what I would like with this paper is, first, to briefly review the way ICD has been utilised and defined in the past; then I will explain why it is of particular relevance to the experience of immigration; thirdly, I will briefly illustrate how the process of migration impinges on the family life of the immigrant person, paying particular attention to the experience of women, and also drawing on my own area of specialism, Muslims in Europe. 

2. Definitions of intercultural dialogue

The idea of ICD is not as new as it seems. For the experts and the practitioners in the fields of culture, psychology and communication studies, ICD is about inter-subjective communication, shared experience, mutual exchange and borrowing in a mode of reciprocal listening. In the age of awareness of ‘difference’, ICD also stands for a particular sensitivity to minority issues embodied in the production and respect of anti-discrimination measures.

In the post-Second World War era, interfaith and ecumenical relations constituted a driving force in the reconstruction and reconciliation of Europe. This drive could be seen in particular in the Christian-Jewish encounters that took place in Germany and in the discourses of key figures of the early years of the Christian Democratic parties, who called for intensifying peaceful contacts between the peoples of Europe and of the Mediterranean.

Historically and institutionally, the cultural dimension has always been at the heart of the mandate of the Council of Europe, and it has also been a key term also in the European Communities (EC) / European Union (EU). Since the inauguration of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, in 1995, the EU has increasingly referred to ICD as a resource to strengthen and to give a more human dimension to its policies in a number of fields, from migration to education, to security, almost as if ICD was a new articulation of the idea of European integration. It is sufficient to look at the multifaceted activities promoted by the EU in this 2008 ‘Year of Intercultural Dialogue’ to realise how much ICD has become a key element to define the approach of the EU to domestic and international politics. It appears that the idea of ICD seeks to counter and move away from the polarised world-view proposed by Huntington (1993).

European integration, historically, has primarily been concerned with the economic domain; however this dimension has progressively affected the life conditions and aspirations of the inhabitants of Europe by facilitating their free movement and the protection of individual and group rights. At the same time, the success of the EC/EU has also increasingly attracted immigrants from outside the borders of its member states. This process of migration has certainly benefited greatly both immigrants and European countries, economically and culturally. However, a number of difficulties have emerged for the receiving societies – where notions of nationality and welfare systems were shaken by swift socio-economic transformations – as well as for the immigrant populations, who had to pursue their aspirations whilst seeking to preserve and negotiate their specific identities in new and fast-mutating socio-economic and cultural contexts.

One of the main challenges for contemporary Europe and for the EU in particular is to be faithful to its foundational ‘dialogic’ identity. This implies moving away from the idea of a ‘fortress Europe’ closed in its wealth, and behaving instead ‘like a continent that becomes more stable in order to better realise the exchange of gifts with other regions of the earth’ (Giordano 2004). 

3. Why ICD in relation to the family

Following the ‘pragmatic’ approaches suggested above for intercultural dialogue, and considering that the family has been recognised throughout history as the ‘first institution’ of society, as the primary place where the individual discovers gratuitous love and a sense of community, where s/he experiences solidarity, and absorbs religious, ethnic and cultural values, then, the family seems the most obvious ambit where to start the ‘practice’ of a dialogue centred on the dignity, the needs, and the identity of the individual (cf. the excellent relevant presentations in this Pontifical Council meeting).

Active engagement in ICD becomes an urgency in those households where the two spouses come from two different cultures, ethnic groups or religious traditions. Such an encounter is often the product of migration and very often one of the two partners involved is Muslim. However, consideration of intercultural dialogue becomes important also for single migrants and for those who have immigrated into the receiving country with an already constituted and mono-cultural family. More broadly we could say that, since we are all immersed in a multifarious human, cultural and religious landscape, the ICD approach becomes relevant and even essential to every individual of the 21st century. 

4. The difficulties of migration and the potential for ICD

In this age of globalisation and of increased migration movements due to a range of reasons (economic labour, natural calamities, refuge from conflict zones, demand for specific skills, family reunification, education, etc), considerable transformations are affecting not only the lives of individual migrants but their families too. Whether their families have moved with them or have stayed in the home country, everybody’s life is affected, and the economic outcomes (whether gains or losses) heavily affect emotional ties and the overall well-being of each person.

Regardless of what country or culture of origin a person comes from, sociological and psychological studies tell us that the first experience of emigration often entails a cultural shock and a sense of marginalisation and alienation, which are felt to different degrees, depending on the character and on the socio-economic conditions of the person(s) involved.

For transnational elites (a sociological category that is considered to include professionals of various sectors as well as students and their families), the process of migration and adaptation to a new country and socio-cultural environment is normally much smoother – though not stress-free – than for other categories of migrants, such as low-skilled labourers, illegal immigrants, and refugees fleeing environmental disasters or conflicts.

It is especially when the non-elite migrants move – either alone or with their families, with or without children – that the equilibrium of the household appears most shaken. Tensions arise for a number of reasons, partly caused by the encounter with a new social cultural and economic reality, and partly caused by the stressful bearing that the journey, the financial dept incurred, and the whole process of migrating has on individual emotions and psyche. Let us illustrate some examples.

New living conditions demand a change in the spouses’ roles within the family, when both of them have to be in employment in order to support the family and also when only one spouse has a job. Economics is the major driver of migration and moving to western countries is a big opportunity for most migrants. However, although the west officially espouses values of social justice, social equality and protection of human rights, this is not always reflected in the experience of migrants who end up working in the illegal economy or who have to face disadvantages, discrimination and racism. All these experiences can lead to sense of frustration and depression of the individual concerned. In turn, these problems are reflected in family relations. If the family is abroad, the immigrant can find her-/himself very lonely in facing all these challenges. If the family is also present in the country of immigration, s/he might be able to find comfort and support there, but not always. There are also occasions when the frustration is translated into family disagreements or violence against family members.

The fact that employment in the west is principally needed in particular low-paid sectors has led many immigrants to accept under-qualifying jobs in order to make ends meet. This again can impact negatively on self-esteem and on the harmony of the family.

The specific demand of European countries for female immigrants to work in the caring sector (i.e. looking after children and the elderly) clearly shows the two-sided effects of 21st century migration. Western women are able to make relative strides into the job market once they are able to delegate part of the housework and of child rearing to female immigrant workers. Simultaneously, immigrant women working in this sector have to sacrifice their own family life, delay procreation, and are unable to properly look after their own children, who are often left with grandmothers back home. Surely, these migrant women are able to feed the children and maybe even spoil them with presents and money sent from abroad, but they have to pay the heavy price of geographical distance that compromises emotional ties and the possibility to bring up mature and balanced individuals.

Another typical difficulty for immigrants coming to the west is the process of adaptation to the receiving country’s attitudes towards gender roles in the family and in the employment sector. Although women moving to the west from developing and poorer countries are likely to find more societal support and means for independence in the receiving country, migrants coming from conservative cultures – both men and women – can find the new context morally too loose and offensive, especially insofar as sexual behaviour and gender relations are concerned.

Another concern for migrants is the preservation of the culture, the language and the traditions of their country of origin. This not only consists in a personal effort to keep their links with the homeland and its traditions, but is also translated in a deliberate effort to pass on a set of knowledge and practices to the children. This effort can become imposition when the children are unwilling or uninterested to accept it; and this situation, in turn, can generate reciprocal hostility and misunderstanding between different generations cohabiting in the west.

In addition, migrant parents meet challenges in relation to the education of their children in the receiving countries. Especially because of schooling, the younger generations are, more than the parents, exposed to, and capable to absorb, not only the language but also the popular culture and the lifestyle of the country of settlement.

For instance, a major difficulty felt by Europe’s Muslims (both immigrants and citizens) is to cope with, or to resist the secular mentality that is pervading the continent. What they complain about is not the existing separation between state and church in Europe but, rather, the continent’s indifference (cf. Tauran 2008) and hostility to religion – more explicit against Islam but in reality directed against any religion. The almost paradoxical consequence of this is that many Muslim parents categorically prefer to send their children to Christian schools rather than to state schools that have a secular (i.e. a-religious or anti-religious) outlook. Muslim parents trust Christian (in particular Catholic) schools for the fact that these institutions teach the existence of one God, support family values, and educate children in a disciplined way.[1] In such situations, Christian schools emerge as excellent privileged workshops for practicing ICD.

I am convinced that helping Europeans to re-appreciate the meaning of religion (not just in the shape of institutions but in terms of certainties and values that are alive in people’s actions, feelings, and thinking) is as important as helping migrants to ‘integrate’: integration, like dialogue, is a two-way process and not just a duty for immigrants.

The acculturation to the new context does produce of course enrichment of the individual and cross-fertilisation of cultures that can potentially open the path to a new plural and open society. However I would like to continue this paper by focusing on particular difficulties encountered by migrant women and also by paying specific attention to the challenges for Muslim immigrant women in Europe, a topic that I recently explored in a study that I conducted for a Belgian foundation (Silvestri 2008b). 

5. The feminisation of migration

The feminisation of migration started in the mid 1970s, when European countries began to close their immigration policies due to the global economic crisis of 1973 and a decline in production. At this stage, those labour immigrants that were already in Europe and the former colonial subjects who had pre-acquired the citizenship of the host country decided to settle in Europe for good and began to call their spouses and families into Europe. This was possible thanks to universal Human Rights provisions that protect fundamental freedoms and the right to have a family. This widening and diversification of the immigrant/Muslim population impacted strongly on the welfare system of European societies because immigrants stopped being net contributors to European economies and began instead to compete with the autochthonous European population in demands concerning state education, social housing, and healthcare (Bommes & Geddes 2000). It is also between the 1970s and the 1980s that the first forms of Muslim associationism appeared, initially around prayer facilities and celebration of religious and national festivities; by the 1990s, better organised community groups emerged, mobilised around more comprehensive or more specific issues (Silvestri 2007b). They also began to cater for and to involve women, for instance by organising cultural or ethnic events, skills- or language-oriented training sessions, childcare, and counselling services.

As civil society awareness began to expand and advocacy groups supporting women’s and migrants’ rights, fighting discrimination and violence began to emerge in the 1990s, new outlets became available to immigrant women to find practical assistance and spaces to articulate their views and to exchange their experiences in European society.

At the turn of the new Millennium another sociological transformation became evident. About half of the total number of migrants in the world (48% according to OECD figures for 2001) turned out to be women (Morokvasic-Müller et al 2003, Castles & Miller 2003). Immigration inflows into the EU have increasingly been characterised by arrivals of single females, whether unmarried, divorced, or forced to leave their family at home in order to make a living in Europe (Kofman et al 2000; Caritas-Migrantes 2007; Pittau 2007). These female migrants present a very heterogeneous social profile. In Italy, for instance, a young destination for migration, most of these women were initially from the Philippines, Eastern Europe and South America, but recently, more and more women also came from countries like Morocco. This indicates an important shift in the causes and implications of the migration process of people coming from a Muslim region.

This general transformation in the character of immigration into Europe has allowed for new inflows of Muslim women as ‘independent’ individuals, with a specific set of motivations, expectations, problems and aspirations. This picture is quite different from that of the immigrant-Muslim women of the first and second generation, who were seen essentially as ‘dependents’ of male immigrants, were not economically active (at most, Asian women from the subcontinent would have home-run sewing businesses for instance), and were more subject to male control and the norms of the religious and ethnic community.  

6. Closely-knit family, economic inactivity and social exclusion

It is interesting to note that the migration process for those women of the first generation produced a situation of isolation, exacerbated when their men began to experience difficulty in finding jobs in a shrinking European labour market in the 1980s. Compared to their home countries, where they could rely upon and move freely among large networks of family members and female friends, these women would now be trapped at home, in a foreign country, increasingly controlled and abused by their husbands, as the latter would hang around home, feeling more and more frustrated about their inability to find a job or to sustain their family as they had wished (Buijs 1993; Kofman et al 2000). Research has also demonstrated that women in general have been particularly resilient individuals in the migration process, more able to withstand difficulties and to adapt to new environments than men. This difference is likely to have caused tensions in migrant households where men felt that they were losing control of their families and ought to impose on them stricter traditions, including religious ones (Bujis 1993; Shahidian 1996; Kofman et al 2000; Morokvasic et al 2003;).

These considerations suggest that tense gender and family dynamics involving Muslim immigrants in Europe might have more to do with psychological dynamics, the constraints of the new socio-economic context, and the fear to lose touch with one’s country of origin rather than with specifically religious values, prescriptions, and impositions on behalf of family, societal structures and religious leaders (all factors that remain nevertheless important). Processes of exclusion and isolation tend to affect every person in a similar situation of emigration, whether the move took place by choice or by force. This is because, as many scholars have pointed out, the experience of migration in itself, especially when geographical distance from the home country is accompanied with economic deprivation and emotional isolation, produces marginalisation (Anderson 2001). ‘Exilic life’ causes a ‘crisis of meaning and requires a restructuring of the exiles’ emotions and beliefs’ (Shahidian 1996: 47); this in turn may produce strengthening of religious points of reference and, potentially, further segregation, although there is also plenty of evidence that religious and ethnic-based associations can also work as bridges for the integration of foreigners in their societies of settlement. 

7. The family as the privileged area of intercultural engagement

From the issues addressed above it is clear that the true meaning and successful performance of ICD relies on the possibility and ability to ensure that the integral life of the individual and of his/her family is protected and that basic socio-economic conditions for a decent life are guaranteed. Tensions among family members often emerge when one of these elements wavers or when socio-economic deprivation impedes the realisation of a harmonious family life and the ability to have and support your own children.

The composition of contemporary European society is increasingly diverse in terms of faith traditions, cultures, and ethnicities. Mixed marriages (where the two spouses come from different countries or cultural or religious backgrounds) are at the forefront of the fast social transformations caused by globalisation.

Although there is no fundamental ‘recipe’ for the day to day management of a successful intercultural conjugal union, it seems crucial that the members of these families are able to face potential difficulties by resorting to rationality and, most importantly, to some basic principles: mutual trust, love and generosity.

Sharing the same faith proves to be an additional powerful resource for family members who can reinforce their family ties by commonly investing their religious beliefs in the family, by building a ‘project of life together’[2]. Potentially, even when people come from different religious traditions, they could be able to strengthen their family experience by referring to specific values that are particularly apparent in the monotheistic religions. In particular, I am thinking of the common resources that mixed families involving a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jewish spouse could draw upon. These include the sacredness of life (for instance translated into opposition to abortion and into respect and care of the elderly); the spouses’ shared love and mutual respect in God and for God; the disposition to generosity and charity; considering family life the fulfilment of the individual and rejecting precarious modes of co-habitation; the constant endeavour to live the present according to divine justice in preparation for the afterlife.

These reflections indicate that family life should be an area of particular attention for policy makers that are dealing with social cohesion and the management of multicultural societies. In addition, the resources that are available in family life could provide useful suggestions for a serious reflection on how to reconsider a practical and meaningful engagement with religious and cultural pluralism.


Anderson B. (2001)Different roots in common ground: Transnationalism and migrant domestic workers in London’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 27(4): 673-683.

Benedict XVI (2007) Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, November.

Bommes, M. & A. Geddes (eds) (2000) Immigration and the Welfare State. London: Routledge.

Buijs, G. (ed) (1996) Migrant Women. Oxford and Washington: Berg.

Caritas-Migrantes (2007) XVII Rapporto sull’Immigrazione – Dossier Statistico 2007. Rome: Caritas-Migrantes.

Castles, S. & M. J. Miller. (2003). The Age of Migration. International Population Movements in the Modern World. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave – Macmillan.

Giordano, A. (2004) ‘Dialogo ecumenico, interreligioso e interculturale, nel mondo dei migranti e degli itineranti’, People on the Move, 96, December.

Heering, L., R. van der Erf & L. van Wissen (2004) ‘The Role of Family Networks and Migration Culture in the Continuation of Moroccan Emigration: A Gender Perspective’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 30(2):323-337.

Kofman, E. et al (2000) Gender and international migration in Europe: employment, welfare, and politics. London: Routledge.

Madigan, D. (2005) ‘Parliamo piu’ di musulmani e meno di Islam’. (Interview with father Daniel Madigan),, 19 September.

Morokvasic-Müller, M., U.Erel, K.Shinozaki (eds) (2003) Crossing Borders and Shifting Boundaries. Vol.1: Gender on the Move. Leske + Budrich, Opladen.

Pittau, F. (2007) ‘Women Migrants in Italy’, paper presented at the IOM-ISESCO Conference on Women Migrants, Rome, September.

Samir, Khalil Samir S.J. (2006) ‘Benedict XVI and Islam’, Asia News, 26 April.

Shahidian, H. (1996) ‘Iranian exiles and sexual politics: Issues of gender relations and identity’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 9(1): 43-72

Silvestri, S. (2007a) ‘Islam and the EU: the merits and risks of Inter-Cultural Dialogue’, Policy Brief, Brussels: European Policy Centre, June.

Silvestri, S. (2007b) ‘Muslim institutions and political mobilisation’, in S.Amghar, A.Boubekeur and M.Emerson (eds) European Islam: the challenges for society and public policy, Brussels/Budapest: CEPS/OSI: 180-193.

Silvestri, S. (2008a) ‘Religion and intercultural dialogue in the EU: a counter-radicalisation strategy or reinventing integration?’, paper presented at the ESRC seminar series ‘Migration control and narratives of societal steering’, University of Sheffield, 14 March.

Silvestri, S. (2008b) Unveiled Issues: Europe’s Muslim Women’s potential, problems, and aspirations. Research report prepared for the King Baudouin Foundation, Brussels, April (publication forthcoming).

Tauran, J.L. (2008) ‘Intervento del Cardinale Jean-Louis Tauran’, Convegno sul Futuro del Cristianesimo in Occidente, Pontificio Consiglio per il Dialogo Interreligioso - Centro culturale Saint-Louis de France, Rome, 24 January.


[1] I have not conducted – and am not aware of – any systematic study of schooling preferences among Muslim families in Europe. However, I can report from a number of informal conversations and exchanges I have had with Muslim individuals in Italy and Britain over the past 5 years, that these feelings are a constant pattern.

[2] These are the words of a young Muslim woman of North African descent that was interviewed in Belgium in March 2008. She was explaining how important it was for her to marry another Muslim in order to be able to build this common project of life. It was interesting to realise how close these words were to the meaning that marriage has in the Christian tradition.