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KAY VAN DER LINDE: The way he talked about these issues, he said, “Look, you may call me a racist but I think you have to talk about these things. Because there’s a lot of frustration about these problems that exist in Dutch society. And before you know it we’ll have a really extreme right party. And then you’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, rough and tumble politics in the Netherlands.
PORTER: Plus, the debate over German healthcare reform
JOHANNA RENZ: [via a translator] Now more often than earlier, they ask, “Does he need this surgery now or can we postpone it?” Or when he needs new tooth he wouldn’t get the very expensive one.
PORTER: And Europe’s black market for human organs.
MIKHAIL ISTRATI: [via a translator] A colleague told me I could sell a kidney, get some money and let us live a bit more. I was in very bad health. I was in pain. I had difficulty sleeping for a long time.
PORTER: These stories—coming up next.
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PORTER: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Keith Porter. Kristin McHugh is off this week. A year and a half ago, the placid politics of the Netherlands were thrown into turmoil by a series of events, which changed them forever. First the entire cabinet resigned after a report showed that Dutch armed forces had failed to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia from being massacred during the Bosnian War. In the turbulent election that followed, the right-wing party—the Lijst Pim Fortuyn—finished second in the polls just days after its outspoken, anti-immigration and openly gay leader Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by a Green Party activist. The coalition government fell apart seven months later and Fortuyn’s political heirs have fallen out of favor. But as Max Easterman reports, the legacy of Pim Fortuyn lives on.
[The sound of a Dutch political town hall debate]
MAX EASTERMAN: This is the council chamber in the Raadhuis, the Town Hall, in Hilversum. Hilversum is the Dutch equivalent of Middle America: middle-sized, middle income, middle of the road. And yet, it was the birthplace of Leefbaar Hilversum—Livable Hilversum—a radical movement of local people standing up for their local interests. It quickly became a national party—Leefbaar Nederland—and it also spawned Pim Fortuyn. If you go into the town, you’ll find plenty of people still prepared to defend what Fortuyn did—or at least to give him the benefit of the doubt.
DUTCH MAN ON THE STREET #1: He was a very smooth talker and we needed a person that stands up because it was all flat and boring.
EASTERMAN: [interviewing the man on the street] Was he right to raise the problem of immigration?
DUTCH MAN ON THE STREET #1: Yeah. I think it was good.
DUTCH MAN ON THE STREET #2: He was capable to tell what’s wrong in this country. Tolerancy in Holland has gone too far. That’s it.
DUTCH WOMAN ON THE STREET #1: I can appreciate his intelligence, his style, his courage, what he did to stick his neck out.
DUTCH MAN ON THE STREET #3: He broke some taboos and I think that’s good. He said things a lot of people could not say. It was political not correct so you didn’t mention it.
EASTERMAN: So do you think that he has changed Dutch attitudes, people’s attitudes?
DUTCH MAN ON THE STREET #3: I think so. Yeah. About being honest in what’s inside of you.
EASTERMAN: [reporting from a train station concourse] I’ve spent over an hour here at Hilversum station, talking to commuters and in that time only one condemned Pim Fortuyn, out of hand. That indeed is one of many startling contradictions about him. He was a founding member of Livable Netherlands, he became its leader, then was thrown out for being too radical. Those who knew him say he wasn’t a racist, but the political party he put together for the elections, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, had racists in it. It also got support from all quarters, even the most unlikely.
EASTERMAN: [reporting from a railroad crossing] That’s Afshin Elian, Professor of Criminal Law at Amsterdam University. Now, the extraordinary thing is that Professor Elian is himself an immigrant, a refugee from Iran, and a Muslim. But he’s a passionate defender of Fortuyn’s right to challenge the cozy Dutch political consensus on the multi-cultural society. Back here in Hilversum, not everyone sees it his way. On the other side of these railway tracks live most of the town’s non-ethnic-Dutch community. Abdel Afiri is a Moroccan and he says that even if Pim Fortuyn wasn’t himself a racist, what he unleashed certainly was.
ABDEL AFIRI: I discovered after 17 years Dutch tolerance was an illusion for me. For example, there is a very, very popular program on the public radio, it’s a phone-in program, and people say live on the radio, “Muslims have to assimilate in this country or have to leave because they are not like us.” Such statement was impossible in this country before the coming up of Pim Fortuyn. And his killing, his self killing, I thanked God the murderer wasn’t a foreigner because it would have been near civil war. There was a lot of racism here.
EASTERMAN: Pim Fortuyn came from Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ biggest city. Just over a year ago Leefbaar Rotterdam seized power in the municipal elections and Fortuyn used this to seize his chance on the national political stage.
[The sound of a railroad train.]
EASTERMAN: So it’s to Rotterdam I’ve come, to meet Professor Anton Zijderveld. He’s a political scientist at the Erasmus University here. He was also Pim Fortuyn’s boss, when he worked at the university. He knew him well and he says his politics were a throw back to a nastier period of European history.
PROFESSOR ANTON ZIJDERVELD: It is a very dangerous kind of movement, based on emotion of distrust towards representative democracy. They want direct democracy—”We should listen more to the people.” We have heard that before but what does that mean? I mean, I’m very much afraid of the concept of the people, Das Volk. We had this in Germany before. That has come back now. That has changed politics in a direction which I’m very anxious about, in the direction of proto-fascist.
KAY VAN DER LINDE: That’s ridiculous. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. He’s flat wrong. I think that Pim Fortuyn was good for Dutch government. I think he shook up the government.
EASTERMAN: Kay van der Linde is a political consultant, who learned his trade in the United States. He was Pim Fortuyn’s political agent until Fortuyn was thrown out of Leefbaar Nederland. He was, says Mr. van der Linde, the walking definition of a loose cannon. But he was also absolutely what Dutch politics needed.
KAY VAN DER LINDE: The way he talked about these issues, he said, “Look, you may call me a racist but I think you have to talk about these things. Because there’s a lot of frustration about these problems that exist in Dutch society. And before you know it we’ll have a really extreme right party. And then you’ll be in a lot of trouble.” The way you have in Austria with Jorg Haider in Austria and in Belgium with Philip de Winter. The irony is that if you look at the political discourse now in Holland it’s almost as if Pim Fortuyn is still alive. Because all the politicians in the Hague are now talking like he’s talking. Now all the politicians in the Hague are almost falling over themselves and saying, “Holland is full.” So in that sense things have changed.
EASTERMAN: [with the sound of town bells ringing in the background] Well, that’s certainly true. Before Pim Fortuyn, if you said Holland was full, no more immigrants, you would have ended up in jail. Now politicians are singing from a very different song sheet. The Dutch Labor Party, the PvdA, was in power for eight years, then Pim Fortuyn came along and punched it in the stomach, as Marine Brouwer, its chair here in Hilversum, has been telling me.
MARINE BROUWER: It was comparable to an earthquake, really. He made us wide awake because he played on the dissatisfaction of people that we hardly knew existed. The message of people complaining about how they felt a minority in their own country. They said there’s a big part of criminal activities is under the hands of foreign people. That was a message that couldn’t be ignored. It was suicide for a political party to say that that wasn’t true. So what you saw in the elections that came afterwards, big paragraphs of party programs were devoted to security, and immigration and the need for immigrants to integrate. And that’s not cosmetic. It’s real. The parties listening much better to the public than they used to.
[With the sound of music in the background.]
EASTERMAN: The immigrants in the Netherlands are also hoping the parties will also listen to their voices. They’re not as loud as the music they’re playing here, and certainly not as happy. Abdel Afiri has noticed a subtle but worrying change amongst the Moroccans and Turks that make up the Muslim community in Hilversum.
ABDEL AFIRI: After Pim Fortuyn, a lot of people are not integrating. You see girls with headscarf, the hejab, and learning about the Islam and go into the mosque and asking about their identity. Instead of integrating they are moving away and I think Pim Fortuyn and LPF has contributed to this phenomenon. And I don’t think it was the goal of Dutch society as a whole. It’s not in the interests of this society to have ghettos, but I fear we could have split between the Moroccans and Turkish people and Dutch people on the other side.
EASTERMAN: That’s been happening in many Muslim communities across Europe when they come under pressure. And it may be that the Fortuyn phenomenon will also reverberate further afield. That is certainly what Hans Hillen believes. Mr. Hillen is a former center-right politician. He says that Pim Fortuyn tapped into a deep vein of middle-class resentment and fear, resentment that they are paying for the welfare benefits for immigrants and fear that their own jobs are no longer safe.
HANS HILLEN: It’s far more serious than people think. It’s middle class which is rising up, which has new demands, which has new statements to make and who feel lost and alone. I think that in Holland we were one of the first countries where we made visible that there is something new on the agenda. And I think in America as well as in England or France it will go as in Holland. The middle class will politically reorganize itself, will search for new leadership. They’re waiting for the one, the personal leader, who is there at the right spot at the right time in the right moment. And if there’s a Pim Fortuyn in the United States such a person also can have the same result and add the same possibilities as you had in Holland. I think the United States shouldn’t ignore what is going on. It’s just not some radicalism in some tiny country on the other side of the ocean or something like that.
[Easterman is again reporting from the Raadhuis council meeting]
EASTERMAN: Hans Hillen isn’t suggesting that a third force is going to make a successful bid for the American presidency, or indeed the British Prime Minister’s job. But he is cautioning about taking the middle classes—Middle America and Middle Britain—for granted. In the Netherlands, the questions were over immigration and crime and whatever Pim Fortuyn’s failures, he put those questions center stage. Right now, in the US and Britain there are still questions about the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction. If those governments can’t find the right answers, their middle classes might just make them big issues in the next elections. For Common Ground, this is Max Easterman in Hilversum, the Netherlands.
PORTER: German healthcare reform, next on Common Ground.
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PORTER: Germany has one of the most comprehensive healthcare systems in the industrialized world. It relies on an extensive system of health insurance, which uses neither the free market concepts of the US, nor the single payer system of Canada. As the German population ages, however, the system is coming under financial strain. The government is proposing reforms that anger some poor and working class Germans. Reese Erlich visited several cities in Germany and files this report.
[The sound of someone walking up stairs]
REESE ERLICH: On a busy street in downtown Stuttgart, homeless men trudge into a shelter run by the Catholic charity Caritas. They can take a shower, sleep the night, and get a hot meal.
[Kitchen sounds from a shelter for the homeless]
ERLICH: Under German law, everyone here—no matter how long they’ve been homeless—is covered for full health, dental, and eye care. Rudy Weiler, a former carpenter, has been homeless for seven years.
RUDY WEILER: [summarized by a translator] He doesn’t have to pay anything. Also, if you earn less, have income that is under a certain level, you don’t pay anything.
ERLICH: But shelter director Johanna Renz says while healthcare remains free, the quality of government care for poor people has declined over the past 10 years.
JOHANNA RENZ: [via a translator] Now more often than earlier, they ask, “Does he need this surgery now or can we postpone it?” Or when he needs new tooth he wouldn’t get the very expensive one, but the cheapest one. For drugs usually they prescribe cheaper ones…
ERLICH: …the generic ones. Yeah.
JOHANNA RENZ: [via a translator] …not the very expensive. Yeah.
ERLICH: By law every German receives heath care from either nonprofit or private insurance companies. Premiums are split evenly between worker and employer. Unemployed workers are fully covered. But, says Renz, as healthcare costs rose, the employers balked at paying more money.
RENZ: [via a translator] There was a partnership between all the different groups of our society, which is kind of based on solidarity, and that is now, is being broken. Yeah. That is the slow now, here in our society. And I am against it.
ERLICH: The Germans are proud of their healthcare system. Because the government strictly regulates prices for medical services and drugs, such comprehensive coverage averages just under 15 percent of a worker’s wage, with half of that paid by the employer. Dr. Axel Weist, a professor of medicine at Martin Luther University in Halle and an expert on international healthcare, says the German system has come under financial strain in recent years.
DR. AXEL WEIST: We have challenges such as demographics, people living longer. Medical technology is getting more expensive. And we have a high unemployment rate and, and high labor costs as well due to high premiums. These are general problems that industrialized countries do face.
ERLICH: Recently, the German government, led by the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, has agreed with conservative parties to make significant changes in the healthcare system. Patients will pay for more services and other benefits will be cut. Dental care and hospital maternity services, for example, will no longer be covered. Professor Bernd Raffelhuschen, an economist and advisor to the government on healthcare issues, says patients will bear more of the new costs. He says employers’ high costs for healthcare, pensions, and other social security benefits inhibit economic growth.
PROFESSOR BERND RAFFELHUSCHEN: We need to relieve the German employers from all these burdens of the social security systems because they have to produce growth, and that is, that is what we don’t have at the moment.
ERLICH: Raffelhuschen admires the US healthcare system which, he says, is more fair.
PROFESSOR RAFFELHUSCHEN: The poor and elderly should have some guaranty of services. And those who can afford them themselves, they should pay. It should really move more towards a US system.
ERLICH: That view rankles advocates for poor and working class Germans. They argue that the US free market system leaves tens of millions of people with inadequate healthcare coverage or none at all. Leni Breymaier is Vice President of the German Union Federation in the state of Baden Württemberg in southern Germany.
LENI BREYMAIER: [via a translator] There has been a kind of solidarity principle. Half of insurance is being paid by the employers and half is paid by the employees. With this being stopped now we have to try to keep up this system of solidarity where the young pay for the old ones and the healthy ones for the sick ones and the rich for the poor.
ERLICH: But not all Germans agree with that solidarity principal. The wealthy and some in the middle class ask why should they pay for other people’s healthcare?
[The sound of a door closing, followed by domestic sounds such as the clinking of dinner dishes]
ERLICH: Retiree Erna Schluter, who lives in the middle income Frankfurt suburb of Bad Viebel, receives generous healthcare benefits. She is a former office worker. Her husband, a former cameraman for state TV, gets an excellent civil service retirement package. Their insurance covers all doctor and hospital visits and dental care. They pay no more than eight Euros for any drug prescription.
ERNA SCHLUTER: [summarized by a translator] She’s content with what she did because she was planning ahead of time and paid into extras for her healthcare and pension.
ERLICH: However, Schluter sympathizes with those in parliament who want to reform healthcare by reducing benefits and increasing costs to patients. She says otherwise the system will go broke.
SCHLUTER: [summarized by a translator] She thinks it’s necessary, these reforms, because the costs are too high and nobody can pay for it anymore.
[The sound of street traffic, footsteps, and a gate closing.]
ERLICH: Across the street, gynecologist Dr. Ruth Peter walks into her house. She lives upstairs and the doctors offices are down below. She’s retired now, but two other doctors continue the practice.
[The sound of someone walking into Dr. Peter’s office, then a patient making an appointment.]
ERLICH: Dr. Peter, like many doctors, strongly criticizes the German healthcare system. She says since patients get everything for free, there’s a lot of waste.
DR. RUTH PETER: They go to doctor too often because they haven’t to pay anything. And the same thing is with medication because they get their medication also free. Patients don’t know how much the costs are. It is wasteful.
[The sound of a clicking computer keyboard]
ERLICH: The nurses pull out a huge box of assorted prescription drugs. Some of the foil wrapped packages have only two pills missing. Pharmacists routinely give 20 or even 50 pills to patients. The pharmacies and drug companies make a lot of profit, but it’s quite wasteful, says Dr. Peter.
DR. PETER: Patients only took some of them. Yeah. And we put them to the pharmacy and put them away, yeah.
ERLICH: So what do you do? Can they be used by other patients?
DR. PETER: No. It is not allowed to do.
ERLICH: Critics charge that doctors cheat the system by conducting unnecessary tests and over prescribing drugs. Most Germans agree that there is waste in the system but they can’t agree on how to eliminate it and who should pay for the needed reforms. When out of power, the Social Democratic Party of Gerhard Schrader opposed healthcare reform saying it was an attack on the working class. Now the governing coalition of the SPD and Greens is spearheading the reforms. Union official Breymaier feels betrayed.
BREYMAIER: [summarized by a translator] She’s a member of the Social Democratic Party. And she says what they are doing now is unbearable. They are just doing thing what they promised they would never do.
ERLICH: Government advisor Raffelhuschen says SPD members such as Breymaier have good reason to feel angry. After the SPD came to power in last year’s elections, it flip-flopped on the healthcare issue.
RAFFELHUSCHEN: She is being betrayed. Some of the suggestions which were made before the elections were quite the opposite of what it is being done now. But it is the pressure of the system, it’s a pressure that we need more market, which makes even social democrats more or less moderate conservatives.
ERLICH: It appears likely that some kind of significant changes in the healthcare system will pass parliament this year. Healthcare analyst Dr. Weist says that even with extensive changes, however, German healthcare is still better than in the US.
DR. WEIST: Compared to the American system, we see that the German system produces the same heath or even better outcomes for half of the cost. There’s a lot of positive sides on the German system.
ERLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Frankfurt.
PORTER: The German parliament is expected to debate the proposed healthcare reforms later this month.
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PORTER: Trafficking in humans receives a lot of press. But just as emotive and potentially destructive of life is the trade in live human organs. Around the world, a general shortage of organ donors means there’s a black market trade in potentially life-saving organs. European nations are now debating ways to combat the trade. Alastair Wanklyn met one victim—a Moldovan man who sold one of his kidneys.
ALASTAIR WANKLYN: Three years ago Mikhail Istrati had no job and was finding it difficult in Moldova to make ends meet for his family. Then an acquaintance offered him a solution.
MIKHAIL ISTRATI: [via a translator] A colleague told me I could sell a kidney, get some money, and let us live a bit more.
WANKLYN: Istrati contacted local traffickers. They fixed him up with a woman minder, who took him to Istanbul. There, a surgeon removed a kidney. Istrati was told the recipient was an Israeli man who’d been living on kidney dialysis. Istrati received $3,000. He assumes the black market broker took a cut. But immediately Istrati felt himself a criminal. His minder disappeared, reportedly because Turkish police were searching for her. Istrati was alone and had to get out of Turkey and make his own way back to Moldova.
ISTRATI: [via a translator] I had very bad health. I felt pain, I had difficulty sleeping for a long time. But today I have recovered quite well and can work again.
WANKLYN: Assuming his health remains good, Mikhail Istrati could live for many years on one kidney. But critics of the trade say his prospects have been reduced by a speculator in human life. Human rights monitors at the Council of Europe, a pan-European parliamentary body, are debating tighter measures against traffickers. Swiss Deputy Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold is calling for international legislation.
RUTH-GABY VERMOT-MANGOLD: One case of organ traffic I’m alarmed. And we have to do something against the organized crime.
WANKLYN: [interviewing Vermot-Mangold directly] How extensive would you say then the problem of donation?
RUTH-GABY VERMOT-MANGOLD: [via a translator] I think it is extensive, it is large enough. We have in Moldova only, in Moldova we have 35 cases. It is, it is too much, it is, it is a lot of cases so it is very important that we fight against this crime.
[The sound of a political discussion in the Council of Europe.]
WANKLYN: In the Council of Europe’s parliamentary chamber a debate is underway. Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold has proposed a European convention on organ trafficking. Speaking through a translator, she says mere greater scrutiny by nations could drive out the traffickers.
RUTH-GABY VERMOT-MANGOLD: [via a translator] You can follow the case history of any donation normally because there are national committees set up for that purpose. If you can’t identify the origin of the organ you can start from the assumption that that transaction must have been illegal and then you dig in and try and go a little further.
WANKLYN: Currently much of Europe’s known organ trafficking comes from Russia, Moldova, and Romania. It seems black marketeers find easy pickings in the impoverished former socialist bloc. So the government of Moldova wants help to target the underlying causes of trafficking. The Moldovan ambassador to the Council of Europe, Alexei Tulbure, says more effective than a convention might be economic investment.
ALEXEI TULBURE: We are very happy that at last this issue are discussed because Moldova shouldn’t be blamed and only blamed for the problem we have with trafficking of human organs. What is our expectation? Let’s say as Moldovans, we expect more investments, more assistance in respect of developing infrastructure and creation of new jobs.
WANKLYN: [Interviewing Alexei Tulbure directly] It’s a question of poverty?
ALEXEI TULBURE: It’s a question of poverty for sure.
[The sound of Mikhaeil Istrati speaking]
WANKLYN: Mikhail Istrati felt $3,000 would lift him from poverty. And true enough, since selling a kidney he has found himself a job and enjoys good health. But he says he would dissuade others from selling their organs.
MIKHAEIL ISTRATI: [via a translator] I regret what I did but it’s too late now. I would warn all people thinking of selling one of their organs against doing so. It’s better that you stay as you are and find your own way to solve your problems.
WANKLYN: It seems for one payment, Mikhail Istrati received a lifetime of regret. But if the Council of Europe has its way, new international safeguards might reduce the chance of other people following suit. For Common Ground I’m Alastair Wanklyn at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.
PORTER: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
PORTER: I’m Keith Porter. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, the American-European religious divide.
JUSTIN VAISSE: In the States it’s almost politically correct to be religious and to invoke God in public statement. In Europe it’s almost the reverse. It is politically correct to be secular. It is seen as something almost bad to seem to make a religious point when talking about politics.
PORTER: Plus, poor job prospects for Iran’s college graduates And this week’s Destination Spotlight—Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square.
ED LANFRANCO: You gotta have a huge public space for a country of 1.3 billion people, I suppose. And it was really because Mao wanted to show how red he was; that he was even surpassing the Soviet Union insofar as his revolutionary ardor. So that’s why the square is as large as it is.
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PORTER: According to recent polls carried out by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans believe the President strikes the right balance in how much he mentions religious faith. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say religion plays a very important role in their lives. The polls reveal a deep divide between Americans and their European counterparts, who claim to be a lot less religious. Europeans appear to distrust the emphasis America places on religion. Is this a passing fad, or evidence of something more profound? Nina Maria Potts reports.
NINA-MARIE POTTS: Oscar Wilde once famously described Britain and America as two nations divided by a common language. If Wilde were alive today, events of the past few months might well tempt him to alter his remark, to the observation that the UK and US are two allies divided by a common religion. The contrast could not be more striking. Two broadly Christian countries, both led by men of deep religious faith, who joined together in the war in Iraq. As American troops shipped out to the Gulf, President Bush, like every war time president, called on God to bless the soldiers and their country. But in England, when Tony Blair wanted to end a televised address on the eve of war with a call for God’s blessings, his horrified advisers overruled him, fearing a public backlash. In the words of his chief spin doctor, “We don’t do God.” A recent Pew Research Center poll showed an extraordinary difference between the United States and its closest Western allies. Though majorities of Canadians, Britons, and Europeans still consider themselves Christian, respondents left no doubt that religion does not play a central role in their lives.
A recent conference organized by the Pew Forum and the Brookings Institution in Washington concluded that the old world is not just irreligious next to America. Participants agreed that Europeans are suspicious, even offended, by the way that God is so frequently invoked by American political leaders. Justin Vaisse is a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for the US and France. He is originally from France. A mere 11% of French told the Pew Research Center that religion was central to their lives, as opposed to 59% of Americans. If Europeans are lukewarm about religion in their private lives, they are positively hostile to any intrusion of religion in public life, says Justin Vaisse. So squeamish are Europeans about religion and politics that a draft constitution for the European Union fails to mention God at all. Justin Vaisse explains.
JUSTIN VAISSE: In the States it’s almost politically correct, as you would say, to be religious and to invoke God in public statement. In Europe it’s almost the reverse. It is politically correct to be secular. It is seen as something almost bad to seem to make a religious point when talking about, you know, politics or history or social problems, etcetera.
POTTS: In Britain, Tony Blair’s deep religious faith and public church going marks him out as unusual. To Robert Boston, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Tony Blair’s Christianity barely registers on the American scale.
ROBERT BOSTON: Blair’s religiosity is a lot less high profile. I don’t think there’s anybody who hasn’t heard about Bush and his conversion experience and hears his constant use of religious rhetoric. And although Britons might find Blair’s adherence to Christianity a little stronger than some past leaders, by our standards, it’s barely noticeable.
POTTS: The reasons for the divide owe much to history says Justin Vaisse, pointing to the fundamental difference between America’s founding settlers, who built a new society to protect their religious freedoms, in sharp contrast to Europe where the slow road to democracy was all too often stalled by established religions.
VAISSE: At the very foundation of the United States you will find religious freedom as almost a necessary precondition for other freedoms. In Europe, it’s exactly the reverse. Actually religion was to be fought in order to impose the republic and to impose democracy. That’s why, let’s say, religion has a bad name, because it was opposed to democracy, it was opposed to, you know, liberalism.
POTTS: In Justin Vaisse’s home country of France, there is an official separation of church and state, just as in America, but he argues the reasons for that separation are very different.
VAISSE: In Europe, the separation of church and state is conceived as basically shielding the state from the church in the 19th century context, shielding the state and the republic and the new democracy from, from the Catholic church, which was socially conservative. But in the US it’s the exact opposite. The separation of church and state is conceived as protecting their churches—the churches, that is to say, and I use the plural—to make the point that there were all these many different churches. So to protect them from the state.
POTTS: Robert Boston, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, draws attention to a more modern difference. Most European Protestants, Catholic, or Orthodox believers did not consciously choose their denominations, but simply inherited them from family or regional tradition. America, the great consumer society, is far more likely to see believers shopping for a church that suits them or even adopting a pick-and-mix approach to different faiths, says Robert Boston.
BOSTON: One of the brilliant things about the separation of church and state is that it creates what some scholars have called a religious free market place, to use an analogy from economics. If you decide for whatever reason that you’re not happy with your religion, you have hundreds of thousands, probably, to choose from.
POTTS: Sometimes mutual differences have spilled into bitter resentment, says Justin Vaisse. Before the Iraq war, some European demonstrators called America a land of fundamentalist Christians, to be feared just as much as Islamic extremists. He describes the European perspective as follows.
VAISSE: Well, basically, these people are dangerous on both sides. They both invoke God, and they both say, you know, as Bob Dylan has said “With God on our side,”‘—they are both claiming sort of religious legitimacy to their fight. We in Europe know this is inherently bad and destabilizing because we’ve seen that in our past.
POTTS: The religious gap between Europe and America is embedded in historical and cultural differences. And the signs are, this is one divide unlikely to be bridged any time soon. For Common Ground, I’m Nina-Marie Potts in Washington.
PORTER: We’d like to know what you think about the role of religion in public life. Why does religion have such a high profile in American politics? Should the Europeans pay more attention to the role of religion or should the Americans be lower key about faith in the political arena? Email us your comments at [email protected] We may use part or all of your comments in a future program.
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PORTER: Spend a couple days in Iran’s capital and you’re likely to meet a few Ph.D.’s working as taxi drivers. Indeed, Iran is facing a peculiar challenge—highly educated college graduates unable to find jobs. The country’s official unemployment rate is about 16 percent, though some analysts believe the number is double that. More than half of the country’s unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24, and many of them have college diplomas. As Roxana Saberi reports from Tehran, many college students and graduates are not finding jobs in their fields and many are not finding jobs at all.
[The sound of a Elham Ramin speaking in Farsi]
ROXANA SABERI: Today is a big today for Elham Ramin. She’s worked three years on her master’s of entomology thesis. Now she’s defending it in front of an audience of professors, family members, and friends, at the University of Tehran.
[The sound of a Elham Ramin speaking, followed by applause.]
SABERI: The professors huddle to discuss her score. The result—19.75 out of 20. An A+ by American standards. It should be a day of celebration but instead Elham’s relief is mixed with uncertainty about her future.
ELHAM RAMIN: [via a translator] I feel very happy that I’ve accomplished my duties but I’m worried about what might happen next because I don’t know whether I can go on to get a Ph.D. or even to find a job. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the future.
SABERI: Elham isn’t the only one here worried about her future. Around two-thirds of Iran’s 70 million people are under 30. The UN has reported that 800,000 of them enter the job market every year. This means many of Iran’s college students are having a tough time finding jobs after graduation.
PROFESSOR MEHDI TAGHAVI: We have too many graduate who cannot find work. They have invested their money and time in studying at university and then when they come out there is no job for them.
SABERI: Mehdi Taghavi is an economics professor at Alama Tabatabaei University in Tehran. He says Iran’s college graduates are entering an economy that is getting poorer and poorer every day. Per capita income is around $1,200, the same as it was about 30 years ago. The problems, he says, have included the economic costs of the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and it’s ensuing eight-year war with Iraq. He also cites Iran’s dependency on oil exports, a need for more planned privatization, and not enough foreign investment.
PROFESSOR TAGHAVI: When our country get poorer, the ability of people, national economy—people and national economy, to save is reduced. When you don’t save you cannot invest. When you are not investing enough so you cannot provide jobs for laborer, for college graduate.
SABERI: Elham’s family friend Reza is aware of these problems. Despite holding a medical degree he’s spent the last two years searching for a good job.
REZA: I’m looking for a job but I can’t practice but in village, in very small towns and with low income. And I do not do that even though I feel hungry.
SABERI: Reza says that in Iran having a higher level of education often doesn’t mean earning a better income.
REZA: No matter how much you know, how level of information and the knowledge are you, and no matter how much you like to make the resources to your society, it’s not important.
SABERI: So Reza is looking elsewhere for a brighter future. He’s hoping to get permission to live and work in Canada or England. He’s not alone in this regard. The tough job environment for Iran’s graduates is leading to what has been referred to as “brain drain”—the export of the nation’s educated people to other countries for work. Indeed, it’s Iranians with more education who have a tougher time finding jobs here than those with less education. Iran’s official statistics center has reported that the unemployment rate for illiterate or less educated people stands at just over 20 percent, while for people with a high school education or higher it’s about double that. Professor Taghavi says one solution would be for the country to offer short programs for hands-on training.
PROFESSOR TAGHAVI: We have many engineer—bachelor degree, master degree—but in factories we need technician. We don’t have technician. If you say that you or I are plumbing, we can earn six times of a Ph.D. in Persian literature in this economy.
SABERI: At the same time, the professor says, the job market is more welcoming for people with degrees in certain fields. He says right now, for example, there’s a shortage of accountants. So students studying accounting can find jobs more easily. Architecture student Hussein Abrand says students in his field can find jobs relatively easily. He found one after completing just three years of his seven year college course.
HUSSEIN ABRAND: [via a translator] Compared to other people my age and graduates I think I have a suitable income. And even if it’s not so good I can earn enough to live on. And this work, building models, is artistic. So it satisfies me.
SABERI: Hussein believes he’s one of the lucky ones. But Elham does not.
ELHAM RAMIN: [via a translator] Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic at all. As a wife and mother it’s very difficult for me to go to far-off places and do difficult tasks. Instead I should be employed by a university, which are already full of employees. I’ll have to see what happens in the future but I think it’s impossible for me to find a suitable job.
SABERI: Iran’s government says it’s working to solve the problems by moving toward privatization and trying to provide more security for domestic and foreign investment. But some analysts say Iran’s economic woes are rooted in the country’s politics. They say Iran’s Islamic ruling system must be politically reformed and its relations with certain industrialized countries improved. Until then, they say, the economic situation for many Iranians like Elham will only get worse. For Common Ground, I’m Roxana Saberi in Tehran.
PORTER: Coming up next, a trip to Tiananmen Square. You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
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PORTER: When most people in the West think of Tiananmen Square, they immediately remember the violent and deadly 1989 student protests in the square. But the meaning of the square is much more complex for people living in China. As part of our occasional Destination Spotlight series Celia Hatton visited Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square.
[The sound of martial music and marching soldiers.]
CELIA HATTON: Sunrise on Tiananmen Square. Even at this hour of the day, tourists have assembled to watch the daily procession of Chinese soldiers raise the Chinese flag in the center of the city.
[The sound of the Chinese national anthem being played at the flag raising ceremony.]
HATTON: Tiananmen Square lays both literally and figuratively at the heart of Beijing’s capital, at the entrance to China’s ancient Imperial City. When the massive gateway to the palace was built five centuries ago, it was meant to serve as the opening to the emperor’s lavish inner sanctum. Now, although tourists arrive every day to gape at the architecture of the palace buildings, it is the square in front of the gate that usually gets the spotlight.
[The sounds of crowds at Tiananmen Square.]
HATTON: When most people first arrive on the Square, it takes a few moments to digest its sheer size. Covering over forty hectares, or roughly 90 football fields, the vast open space in the middle of Beijing is lined with imposing buildings, from the politically central Great Hall of the People to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. Longtime Beijing resident Ed Lanfranco writes a weekly column on landmarks around Beijing. He says that the size of the square has a lot to do with Communist Leader Mao’s urge to compete with the Soviets when the modern square was built in 1958.
ED LANFRANCO: You gotta have a huge public space for a country of 1.3 billion people, I suppose. And it was really because Mao wanted to show how red he was; that he was even surpassing the Soviet Union insofar as his revolutionary ardor. So, that’s why the square is as large as it is.
HATTON: Just a few years after the modern square was built, the chaotic Cultural Revolution began. Teenage Red Guards would travel from all over China to catch a glimpse of their beloved leader, Mao Tse-tung, when he appeared on the Square.
[The sound of fanatical teenagers cheering for Chairman Mao.]
HATTON: That was the last time for a while that the Square would be filled with such happy souls. For years after that, people instead came to Tiananmen to voice their anger, first to denounce the so-called Gang of Four who engineered the bloody Cultural Revolution, then to mourn the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai. But it was the prodemocracy demonstrations in June 1989 that really put Tiananmen on the map for most people outside China.
[Sounds from the 1989 prodemocracy student protests]
HATTON: In April 1989, prodemocracy demonstrators began to camp in the Square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a popular leader who was in favor of reform. Over time, more than a million people took part in the protests and the real mandate of the demonstration voiced widespread anger at government corruption, the slow speed of reform, and a general lack of political freedom in China.
[The sound of gunfire.]
HATTON: June 3, 1989—Chinese tanks began advancing towards the unarmed protesters who had been camped in the Square for more than six weeks. Few know for sure how many died for the two nights of shooting that occurred in and around Tiananmen Square. Most groups outside China say the total hovers around 1,000. This gruesome event shaped the way that many foreigners view China itself and heralded a new era of political suppression that still exists across the mainland. In a testament to China’s rapid pace of change though, just over 10 years later, the same spot was the focal point of a gleeful celebration.
[The sound of enthusiastic crowds cheering over China being selected as the host country for the 2008 Olympics]
HATTON: On this July evening in 2001, Tiananmen Square came full circle. Once again, almost a million people filled the Square to celebrate—this time because of Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympic games. In a sign of how quickly China is changing, joyous crowds welcomed the same government leaders into the Square whom had been the target of protests in 1989. Because of its frequent appearance in recent Chinese history, Ed Lanfranco likens Tiananmen Square to the ground zero of Chinese politics. In 2000, four members of the outlawed Falun Gong sect set themselves on fire in the square to protest their lack of political recognition. Despite the government’s violent reaction to the democracy protests in 1989, Chinese people still view the Square as the ultimate place to go to voice their opinions.
ED LANFRANCO: Whenever Chinese or foreign adherents to the Falun Gong go to Tiananmen Square, they’re going right to the heart of the Chinese government. It’s almost like poking them right in the eye. It’s the one place you are sure to get a response.
HATTON: Today, Tiananmen could be one of the most tightly patrolled places in the world. In response to the 1989 massacre and the more recent Falun Gong protests, police cars, trained dogs, and plainclothes officers litter the Square. Those who are very brave, or very desperate still come here to voice their opinions.
[The sound of people speaking out in the Square.]
HATTON: Despite all of the security measures, Chinese people still flock to the Square to enjoy themselves on weekends. On an average Saturday, Chinese kids come to Tiananmen to learn to fly kites with their grandparents and tourists line up to pose for photos in front of the massive portrait of Mao Tse-tung that hangs on Tiananmen Gate. And so, this is how the Square remains today—in a precarious position as a tourist destination, the blood-spattered scene of a historic massacre, and the place where some Chinese still go to speak out. Perhaps there is no other place in the world that has so dramatically witnessed the growing pains of a modern empire. With this week’s Destination Spotlight, I’m Celia Hatton in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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