Religious Desire

Alexander Smarius
“I know already so much about Zeus, I need to learn more about God and Jesus now.’’

Alexander Smarius is a teacher at Vossius Gymnasium Amsterdam. He teaches Greek and Latin and is a Jehovah Witness. He has always had a religious desire, even though his parents were Catholic. After he got in touch with a Jehovah witness and becoming a father he knew he found the right way to fill it in. 

Do you have any struggles living your religion in your country?
In Holland and other Western European countries Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy their freedom of religion. We have meetings in our Kingdom Halls twice per week. Also, we are at liberty to approach other people with our offer of a Bible course free of charge. In my country and its neighbouring countries, most people appear not to be interested in communicating with us. Many tend to be prejudiced towards both the Bible and organized religion. Although we sometimes encounter some form of enmity, most of the time people are polite. Even if only a minority actually accepts our open invitation to benefit from biblical education, it is clear there is a great spiritual need. Every year new members in Holland join our global brotherhood.

Have you ever got excluded from anywhere or got problems because of your religion?
No. Sometimes I choose not to participate in social events myself and, when requested to do so, politely explain why.

Are you satisfied by your government’s religious tolerance activities?
Apart from our constitutional right to freely enjoy our religion, I have no specific knowledge of government involvement in promoting tolerance towards religion in general or my religion in particular. I feel very fortunate about our circumstances here and in most other European countries, for members of our brotherhood in several other countries around the world experience real difficulties or downright persecution.

Do you have any rights for minority religions in your country? (e.g. Non-Governmental organizations)
The global organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is called the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. It is a non-profit organization and as such is legally exonerated from taxation of donations in Holland and other countries.

What does EU integration mean for you and your community? How does it affect you?
As a religious group that makes an active use of the right of freedom of speech, we have benefitted from the existence of the European Court of Human Rights. For instance, some countries have tried to impose restrictions on our religious practices. Appeals were made to this European Court, which has repeatedly ruled in our favour, so that we can continue practicing our faith freely. We are very grateful for this. Apart from that, I think the EU is not a ‘union’ in the full sense of the word. People are still divided by cultural, political and religious views and of course by language. The key to true unification of a diversity of peoples is not to be found in the EU.

How do you (as a person and as member of a community) see the rest of society and other religious groups?
All mankind, whether in prosperous or poor countries, suffers from problems of which the most serious are as yet unsolvable: dysfunctional food distribution resulting in both over- and undernourishment, incurable diseases, violent armed conflicts, environmental degradation. I admire people, both individual and organized, who do not accept this and strive to deal with at least one of these problems. Sadly, most initiatives in the end come to nothing due to inefficient means, political inadequacy, discouragement or corruption. Furthermore, the greatest of all unsolvable problems, uncontrollable health loss due to ageing and inescapable death. The Bible clearly promises a universal Government that will solve all these problems. It will turn the entire earth into an ideal environment in which man can live for ever in peace and perfect health – no discord, no ageing, no death. It is both an enormous privilege to know this and a great responsibility to pass on this knowledge of the future to others. So I regard my fellow man, regardless of his or her ethnical, social or religious background, as someone who needs to know he or she can benefit from this. As for other religions, all of these are in some way or other involved in politics and warfare. By contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and never participate in War. This allows us to freely speak to people of all persuasions. Since we avoid political divisions, we are united as an international brotherhood, a true and growing union that already enjoys the practical biblical advice that helps us facing the many problems we have while we await the New World.

What is your opinion about religious education in the Netherlands and what do you think about the principle ‘’Teaching, not preaching’’?
To start with the latter question, when religion is the subject, teaching and preaching both amount to sharing knowledge about the teachings of a specific religion. The difference in my opinion is that teaching is merely explaining what persons of this or that religion believe, whereas someone who preaches is himself a believer who wishes those to whom he preaches will embrace his beliefs also. Preaching should be done in a situation that is different from the class room. The one who is listening should consent to the fact that he is preached to, and this implies an equal standing between both parties. In the class room, a teacher has power over his pupils, a power that must not be used to preach rather than teach when there is no way the pupils can consent to it. So, I agree with the principle. Of course it is useful when young people learn about religion as long as their teacher teaches without preaching.

Interview by Shinouk Ettema

May 2015, Amsterdam

About the author:

Shinouk EttemaShinouk Ettema (16) took part in the Dutch edition of “My Europe” in 2014. When coming home from Vossius Gymnasium in Amsterdam, she loves to go horse riding, play the guitar and do fun things with her friends. Shinouk is not quite sure yet what her profession should be, but it should involve making contact with other cultures, lots of travelling and writing.

For me, My Europe is…

…a place where everyone can interact with each other to achieve more together than they would have on their own.

Black Flag Poetry

Black Flag Poetry (Part 2/2)

Black Flag Poetry


Read the second part of Bogomil’s interview on Spotlight Europe and discover this young poet’s thoughts on the future. For his poems, have a look at Bogomil’s blog ‘Black Flag Poetry‘.
1. Is poetry  only a hobby of yours or eager ambition to start a career as a poet?
Both ambition and career imply a desire to reach a final destination. I can’t say the same is true of the art of poetry. To be a poet, one has to already be where he wants and ought to be which excludes the possibility of him trying to elevate himself and to reach some kind of an ideal. I don’t think you can learn that art much more than you can learn how to laugh at jokes. You can’t really get much better but you can stop being as bad at it as before i.e. you can manage to say more in less words and thus increasing the presence of the only known to humanity weapon of truth – silence. I’d like to enclose a poem by Basil Bunting right after this sentence:

Basil Bunting, 1900-1985

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory–
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week–
married, aren’t you?–
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts, all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher, he ought to know.
Go and find work.

2. From you view: Will books still be read in 2030 or will everyone read via digital devices like smartphones, tablets etc.?
Whether people will read their favourite novels enclosed in hardcover books or from digital devices remains a trivial subject as long as the content of the book in question remains in the Gutenberg era i.e. a static immutable printed text with fixed positioning on paper or screen. A more important question regarding the future of literature is not how the mediums of reading will change or how the visual representation of a text will evolve, but rather how would the enormous capabilities of our machines affect the way we “encode” and create literary texts. I’d like to think of the future of poetry through an allegory which I’d name “Poetry as a constellation observed in the night sky”.

Poetry can be seen and researched as a natural phenomenon instead of as a dusty artefact in a museum.

The idea is that future literature will have dynamic representation instead of static one, it’s shape will shift and morph with time. Imagine a text which changes everyday because it relies on external input (let’s say on the content of ten different online magazines). In that way poetry can be seen and researched as a natural phenomenon instead of as a dusty artefact in a museum.


3. What advice could you give to other young writers?
I won’t give any advices, but I’d say what I will never do myself and that is I won’t get obsessed with the question of creativity. I consider the very word obscene and preposterous. I believe it’s a meaningless term whose place is in the same category as free will, freedom, the meaning of life and so on. It is an unsuccessful and arrogant attempt by our simple-mindedness to break the intense complexity of human thought into simplistic categories that we like to believe we control, into squares and circles, equators and meridians. Striving for creativity in your writing is like trying to paint a mathematical equation. By desperately trying to match the people’s evaluation of a work and studying how to appease them by fitting into the accepted ideas of originality leads to infertility and disappointment. A much better process, in my opinion, is to instead divert your attention towards deep comprehension, appreciation and contemplation of the world driven by what moves you around. Every time I was advised to read an article on creativity, I’d take my dog for a walk and let it lead me on my own leash.


About the interview partner:
Bogomil Gospodinov - Author at Spotlight Europe
Bogomil Gospodinov – Author at Spotlight Europe

Bogomil (20) participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2012. He currently studies Computer Science at the University of Southampton in England. He loves poetry and playing football.

Black Flag Poetry (Part 1/2)

Picture Bogomil Todorov Gospodinov

Bogomil is a young Bulgarian poet studying in England. He publishes his work on his own blog ‘Black Flag Poetry‘. For Spotlight Europe, he gives an interview on his work and inspiration.

1. Why did you choose this specific name for your blog and poetry work?

The black flag is the infamous insignia of the pirates, the symbol of the rebels during the German Peasant’s War and the Black Guards during the Russian Revolution. Ironically, it is also the flag raised in front of a prison signifying an upcoming execution. It is a flag standing for the absence of a flag, the Mare Liberum of the fleets of national identity. Ultimately, it represents the No Man’s land populated by the minds in exile, by those most unwilling to surrender.

What actually made me choose this title is a quote from the Bulgarian new wave musician Dimitar Voev which goes roughly like this: “Wave a black flag on which it is written without words “It’s filthy inside me”.”

2. What made you want to start a blog about poetry?

My blog is private and not indexed on the Internet. It’s purpose is bibliographical. It is a convenient way of having a holistic view on your work, as one is able to follow his progress through time summarised on a computer screen.

3. All of your poems are in English. That is quite remarkable as your mother tongue is Bulgarian – Why did you choose English as language for your poems?

Most of my poems are not initially written in English, but in Bulgarian. I am gradually translating them into English (following the steps of Brodsky and Nabokov), obviously because it is a lingua franca and because, in my opinion, the successful transition of a poem between several languages is a litmus test of its well-craftedness. It is not a novelty in the scientific or the philosophical world that human thought speaks in an universal language and I believe, ultimately, human languages are an important but trivial matter when it comes to fine literature. Such literature always speaks in strictly humanistic terms and stands on a higher abstraction level then let’s say what we call German or English.

4. What are the main topics of your poems?

Every time you had something on the tip of your tongue but couldn’t find the right words to express or the people to talk to – that is my topic.

As Adrian Mitchell once said:

“We must speak

instead of the poor,

instead of the deranged,

instead of the dying from hunger,

instead of the fighting for freedom,

instead of all children,

instead of all thrown into jail,

instead of the senile,

instead of the unborn, instead of the dead,

instead of the animals and the birds,

instead of the earth, the water and the sky.

These are our brothers and sisters. Every day one of them is being ridiculed. They are being destroyed, oppressed and murdered. The revolution, which could set them free, has just begun. In order to succeed, this revolution must be a revolution of empathy, which will bring us closer to a more peaceful and less vulgar world.

5. Is there something that especially inspires you?

Strangeness. I always fall in love with bizarre people and circumstances slightly (but not too much) detached from reality – people whose shadows are not copycats

6. How much time does it take you to write a poem?

A poem is not meant to be written. It is to be edited. For a long time. And then either the author and/or the poem dies. People then gather and mourn for a while and start reading it aloud. And then they get some ideas and start writing themselves expanding on the previous one. The original poem has started a long time ago with the first heartbeat of the first broken heart.

7. What do your friends and family think about your hobby?

If life is an exam, my poetry is my private notes. You can look at them on your own risk of being expelled.

8. Do you follow other poetry blogs? (Is there something like a poet network in the internet?)

I don’t follow blogs or magazines or newspapers. I follow my eyes. 21st gives us an unprecedented opportunity to choose and pick in an extremely fast pace. We have at hand the luxury to filter our information based on the quality of the content and form instead of blindly following blog X or magazine Y.


About the interview partner:
Bogomil Gospodinov - Author at Spotlight Europe
Bogomil Gospodinov – Author at Spotlight Europe

Bogomil (20) participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2012. He currently studies Computer Science at the University of Southampton in England. He loves poetry and playing football.

“He is one of us.” (2/2)

Two Bavarian musicians standing at a lake, Spotlight Europe
“He is one of us!” Why not present European TV spots in which every regional culture is introduced? (Flickr:Anna/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In the first part the author described his experiences during his professional sports career, namely that sports has the strength to unite people. This common spirit should be transfered to Europe so that people see themselves as Europeans. The second part deals with what can be done to achieve that spirit.

Can we not initiate a series of spots for Europe? In each spot presenting a person from any of our countries with a typical regional theme in the image, joyfully stating the testimonial: …”And here in Europe – I am at home.” Or: …. “And here in Europe – I feel at home”.

We all learn at school that Europe is a unique continent of rich cultures. This is true but it´s a remote, intellectual statement. Would it not be more convincing if we would raise more awareness and emotions for this incredible historical achievement, grown over 2.000 years, amongst the 500 million? Should the EU then start a series of ads in the media in all our countries, with the following content? :

Christopher Columbus, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Moliere, (and many more, each nation has contributed with geniuses)

….they are all: “one of us”. Us as Europeans.

“Let us build up the biggest family in the world.”

When, during this year, a German astronaut has been living and working in the International Space Ship for months and currently an Italian astronaut (a lady) accomplishes the same, all 500 million Europeans should be proud since both astronauts are: “he/she is one of us.”

Surrounding the globe, in addition to telling us how wonderful the World looks from space, could our European astronauts not also mention how wonderful it is to see our Europe?

(This is also a European mission and these astronauts are Europeans.)

“He is one of us” is obviously causing a feeling of family to all of us. Let us build up the biggest family in the world: 500 million Europeans. It will take much time – but it can become reality.

Finally for today:

We could invite, say 100 children from all our nations, wearing traditional, regional costumes, to stand in front or inside the European Parliament on the first day of a new term. Imagine the emotional, touching, colourful image, creating a strong emotional feeling and pride in all European countries, with all people.

It seems to me to be a promising plan that we in “MyEurope” propose the idea of the same lyrics to at last be written for the European Anthem (composer Ludwig van Beethoven) in all our languages, speaking about our great values, our common Europe so that all 500 million can sing to the same tune.

We need to foster and bring Europe forward, beyond intellectual arguments as valuable as they are.

Europe is about emotions. Europe in our hearts.

About the author:

Jochen BenderJochen Bender is a passionate European. He has lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, London and Germany. He is a developer of tourism and hotels. He travelled on business to almost sixty countries and spent a total of seven years in developing countries. More

About Charlie Hebdo

Nous sommes Charlie, Spotlight Europe
New and old questions arise since the attack on the Parisian satire magazin Charlie Hebdo. (Flickr: ActuaLitté /licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I cling to no religion in particular and all of them at the same time. In the end, don´t they all advocate the things we are striving for? Happiness, justice and clairvoyance. However, I do have some beliefs: I believe in believing, in freedom and in humour. I believe in humour to the point of being rude. If an action is assured to make someone laugh later on that day, it is almost completely justified. (Take notice: almost! Because some things are just not acceptable.) I guess it´s Stuart Mill´s utilitarianism applied to laughter.

Now it gets tricky. Everyone should believe in something. It is a human right and need. I not only respect but also cherish it, because it is a sign that there´s still freedom and diversity in this world. But how can I respect someone who justifies murder with ideas like “unbearable disrespect for the prophet should be severely punished”?

“I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me”

I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me and I am afraid I might develop a biased opinion on muslims. And I am certainly not the only one because, whereas I am writing and pondering about what concerns me, there are people who forgot not all muslims are terrorists and decided to make justice with their own hands.

I´m afraid a violent comeback is to be expected: ignorance generates hate, which will develop into rage that will spread and produce terror. It´s how it is but it doesn´t make it less frightening. And I feel very ignorant: I don´t understand a lot of muslim beliefs and they don´t understand mine. Yet it could be the case that a muslim kid is thinking the same thing, the other way round.

So this is a call for those who are feeling concerned and confused: enough with the killing, enough with the bias. All I want is to read my Garfield strips tomorrow without having to worry if Jim Davis is about to be attacked by a bunch of angry persian cats who are tired of being fed lasagne.

About the author

The author once participated in one of My Europe´s workshops but wishes to stay anonym. In the light of the horrible attack in Paris on Wednesday, 7. January 2015, it was felt to express an opinion.

Women in Islamic States

Young Muslim students taking a break.
The Muslim society has changed and so did the role of women. They see themselves as multiplicators of Islamic culture. (Flickr: David Rosen/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In the last few decades an interesting development has been coming its way in Islamic states all over the world. The women are taking hold of their voice and making it louder than ever before. They are fighting for their rights, which they aren’t only entitled to according to human rights laws but apparently also according to the Koran.

Recently I was invited to a podium discussion in the Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs in Austria on the topic of Women in Islamic states. A week before I had received an unexpected invitation in consequence to an interview that I gave in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I had criticized the Austrian government’s way to deal with the issue of the integration of foreigners and believe that the invitation was a way of showing me the opposite.

The occasion for the discussion was the successful conclusion of a training organized by the Ministry for female commissioners from Islamic cultures. These women are playing the role as “multiplicators” of the Islamic cultures, as they call themselves and are using their time in Austria not only to build functioning Muslim communities in Austria but also to develop connections to the Austrian government. The main ambition for the training, which the women also agree with, is the dissolution of stereotypes and extremism. Both sides are slowly coming together on one and are working on a “dialogue of cultures”.

In advance to the distribution of certificates to the participants of the training, the basis for the later following discussion was laid. A couple of people spoke about the general idea of the project and the problems it is supposed to fight.

Woman speaking at a conference
“The Muslim society is in a crisis right now.”, admitted some of the speakers. (Flickr: detail taken from Utenriksdepartementet UD/licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

They were very honest and admitted that the Muslim society is in a crisis right now. Instead of accusing others they say they want to solve their problems on their own and this training is one of the many initiatives to enforce this movement. Another point that was often made was that Muslims are becoming more self-critical, because if they are not critical of themselves others will be and in consequence prejudices will never come to an end. In recent years these ideas are supposed to be spread also by female commissioners in many European countries.

To enforce this movement the first congress for women “congrès international féminin pour une culture du paix” took place in Algeria with the motto: The word to the woman. Two participants of the congress were present at the discussion I attended and gave an overview over the themes and ideas raised. The conviction that was at heart of it is that the woman is the sole educator of the children and therefore the sole educator of the entire society. Taking this idea further these Muslim women are convinced that the woman is therefore the one in charge of the transmission of religion and freedom.

The congress focused on the main question of how freedom could be established and preserved in the world, with women as the starting point. On the path to solution, all 2000 participants from all over the world took part in workshops or discussions, visited exhibitions or other cultural events. In the course of these the main ambition was to reflect on femininity and the freedom culture from different aspects.

Femininity in context with ethics and education: The establishment of the pedagogy of freedom, the idea is to establish lessons on freedom in schools as it is already the case in a part of Switzerland with the project “grains the paix”.

Motto: “Educate a man and you educated a person, educate a woman and you educate a society.”

Femininity in context with religion and modernism: In recent years in many parts of the world, religion has been losing its importance in society and was replaced by the trend of novelty and modernism. Precisely these two contrasts are beginning to be unified now. The goal is for religion to put a brake on the intensity of modernism for the good of humanity.

Two women in Hijab with a small child.
“Educate a man and you educated a person, educate a woman and you educate a society.” (Flickr: kgbbristol/licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Feminist interpretations of the Koran: A trend has been coming up in Islamic states among women to reinterpret the Koran. These feminists and secular feminists, as they call themselves, want to reconquer their role in Muslim society. Apparently during the time of the prophet Mohammed women were the centre of society. They were present at all official occasions and their opinion was often valued more than men’s. Only after the death of Mohammed did the men change this perception and limited women’s rights to their advantage. The emerging feminists now want to bring back the rights they had during that time. Still, they remain very religious and bound to the Koran. The only way to change the perception of women is to change the perception of the holy book. Many women are spending their lives reinterpreting different passages to show the world that the Koran is indeed not sexist but actually in favor of the domination of women.

The proposed solution to attain freedom is to practice spirituality and love. They said this can be achieved by loving yourself first and then the people next to you. This idea has already been making its round in many countries where one can now see a trend in the detachment from the mere study of the Koran to an actual life according to it.

Do you think these movements in Muslim society could change the way Muslims are perceived among other nations? Especially in these times of international unrest, so many people say this is caused solely by Islamic radicals, do you think if one spreads the messages presented, one could erase the prejudices?

About the author

Picture Smaranda Stefania Vedrasco Smaranda (16) is a member of the Youth Council for the Future. She participated at the “My Europe” workshop in Vienna in 2013.