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Building Bridges between East and West

Khaldoun Dia-Eddine is a consultant, lecturer, researcher, crisis manager and entrepreneur. Among other things. Born in Syria, he is so busy that you wonder how he manages everything. "I sleep about five hours on average. My wife doesn't like that much," he says with a smile.

When I met Khaldoun Dia-Eddine in his office, he just came back from the Middle East a few days ago. With participants of the international Executive MBA program at the ZHAW School of Management and Law, he spent ten days touring Saudi Arabia and Dubai, establishing contacts. What is the image of Switzerland there? "Excellent! It is synonymous for peace, quality, beautiful landscapes, stability and prosperity. Stability is particularly important because it is lacking in many Arab countries." Have minaret, headscarf or burka ban damaged Switzerland's reputation? “Many people wonder why such laws are legislated, when objectively speaking minarets here are no problem at all and apart from a few tourists, hardly any women is wearing the burka. However, they do understand that Switzerland is afraid of radicalization."

Radicalizations have already occurred in isolated cases. This also applies to Winterthur, near the An-Nur-Mosque. As vice-president of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland, I am of course aware of this," says Dia-Eddine. One problem is that many imams are not sufficiently well educated or are barely familiar with the local conditions. The Federation works closely with the authorities and tries to improve the situation. Dia-Eddine is one of the founders and is a member of the advisory board of the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society at the University of Fribourg, where imams continue their education. This is not about theological education, but about conveying local conditions and preparation for tasks in the social sphere or in pastoral care. Imams should also speak a national language. "The goal is that we have imams who promote and support the integration of Muslims and work against extremism or radicalization."

Promoting mutual understanding
Khaldoun Dia-Eddine also wants to promote mutual understanding and bring the Islamic world closer to the Swiss. He does it in different ways. He is co-initiator of the Museum of Islamic Civilizations in La Chaux-de-Fond, opened in 2016. Its aim is to classify the role of Islamic civilization in world history. “I consider historical education in Swiss schools to be Eurocentric. Oriental civilizations are hardly considered. I am referring not only to the Arabic, but also Chinese, Indian or Persian civilization. We don't know enough about that."

Dia-Eddine also advises tourism professionals in dealing with Arab guests. In doing so, he often has to break down false prejudices: “Many people believe that women in Islam have nothing to say about it. The woman often makes the decisions, especially during the holidays. In addition, many people are afraid or inhibited from speaking to women wearing veils or headscarves. There is no problem at all.” On another occasion he teaches Ticino police officers how to enforce the ban on veiling that has been in force since July 2016, without provoking conflict. "Correct communication is crucial. The police have a duty to enforce the law. But you don't want to scare away the Arab tourists. So it's hard to be tough, but soft in tone."

In order to bring the culture and traditions of the Islamic world closer to a wider and younger audience, Dia-Eddine collaborates with the Valais comic strip artist, Patrice Zeltner. Together they have published two volumes of the comic "Nassredine". Nasreddine, the hero of the stories, has the traits of different characters from different eras and regions of the Islamic world. In the short episodes, many of which are based on well-known oral traditions, historical events are told, problems are illustrated or the origins and backgrounds of Muslim traditions are discussed. “Many of the stories could also take place in the West in a similar way. The comic strips, which are currently only available in French, are not only meant to entertain but also to provide information.

As a professor for economics, Dia-Eddine, is also intensively engaged in the way of doing business in the Arab world. There are major differences with Switzerland: "Relationships play a huge role. Trust and sympathy are much more important in the Arab world. And it takes time to build them.” Speaking of time, the way in which it is handled differs greatly, for example with regard to the duration of the negotiations or the timing of the decision. "The concept of time in the Arab world is less strict. Tomorrow may mean the day after tomorrow.” Furthermore, it is important to meet always on an equal footing: "An engineer cannot negotiate with a CEO. The hierarchy levels must be congruent.” He recommends Swiss entrepreneurs to work with local trusted third parties. “It helps enormously if you are introduced by a local, well-connected person. Moreover, Europeans often do not understand the complex and cumbersome local bureaucracy and lack the patience for it. People who have grown up with it can handle it better."

Actions instead of words
Of course, the civil war there places a heavy burden on the native Syrian. "It makes me very sad! The whole country is broken and I mean not only the infrastructure, but also the social structures, the culture and so much more." The war showed not only what dictators are capable of, but also what the early disinterest of the world community and the later interventions of various world powers could accomplish. “All this chaos and the strengthening of extremism are leading to large flows of refugees. We in the Western world must be aware of this consequence. We can't tell them to stop killing themselves there and complain about people trying to escape from misery." At least, Dia-Eddine helped personally. Together with other employees of the ZHAW School of Management and Law, he founded the "Swiss Emergency Relief Group" in 2013. Three of them travelled to Turkey to buy auxiliary goods with the donations collected and transported them by truck to Azaz, north of Aleppo. Unfortunately, this became too dangerous later on, so they instead supported local organizations that tried to run a school for the children trapped in Aleppo despite bombings and a state of siege. "Studies show how important education is at a young age. What is lost can often not be compensated during a lifetime”. He speaks entirely as economist of the "educational ROI". This is what characterizes him: the graduate engineer with a master's degree in business administration and economics combines his professional know-how, his intercultural skills, his historical and religious knowledge and his great interest in various subject areas in the best possible way. This often results in projects with innovative approaches and a high degree of practical relevance.

The attitude towards Islam and Islamic countries is changing in many ways - not for the better. This is due to the rise of populism in many regions and the role of the media: "Today, stereotypes are quickly used to keep news short. This harms integration, encourages mistrust and overall prejudice. So far, integration in Switzerland has been comparably positive. There is no such thing as a ghettoization as in France." Successful integration requires a great deal of resources and energy, which need to be used in a positive way. He therefore hopes that positive examples will receive more attention in the future: "Many successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, etc. are foreigners and contribute significantly to the progress and prosperity of Switzerland. This must not be forgotten." Khaldoun Dia-Eddine will undoubtedly have a lot of work to do in the future to promote mutual trust between East and West. Hopefully, he will find enough time for his wife, his two children and enough sleep.