Interfaith is no longer all talk

Great article by Stephen Shashoua, Director of The Three Faiths Forum, on moving beyond dialogue.

“Interfaith work allows people to break through old prejudices and get to know the actual person behind the stereotype.”

Most people would probably agree that trying to establish better relationships between people of different faiths and beliefs is very desirable, in particular in today’s multifaith, multiethnic society. We have all seen what happens when those relationships are not working, with everything from inter-communal tensions to religious and far-right extremism rising to the surface. But fewer people have any concrete suggestions about how to actually go about improving the relationships. Interfaith work is a vital part of the solution, if it is done right.

The days when interfaith was all talk are long gone. Organisations like ours, the Three Faiths Forum, now place emphasis on generating shared action between people from different communities – at all levels of society. We work with teachers and pupils, with artists and professionals, doctors and lawyers, political leaders in parliament and potential leaders still at university.

Dialogue in the classical sense is still important, and we obviously want to see more religious and community leaders involved in interfaith initiatives – but we will not stop there.

So this National Interfaith Week, instead of going the well-trodden route of sloganising the promotion of interfaith harmony, we’ve organised an interfaith arts festival. Not only have lasting collaborations been established between artists from Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds, the festival allows the wider communities to see what co-operation across religious and cultural boundaries looks like in practice.

With this artistic backdrop, there is a school-linking morning for faith and community schools taking part in our and Pears Foundation‘s faith-school linking programme Shared Futures. We are also running networking events for women and young future leaders.

However, most of our work has little do with artists and festivals, and is about going into schools day after day, running workshops educating young people about different religions and traditions. Pupils get to meet presenters who hold a wide variety of beliefs (yes, including humanists and atheists) and can ask any question they like. There is a lot of myth-busting needed. The number of preconceived notions and simple factual inaccuracies that can be dispelled over just a couple of hours is amazing.

Interfaith work, at its best, allows people to break through their old prejudices and get to know something of the actual person behind the stereotype. This is above all a humanising process, where people discover similarities with those they previously saw as fundamentally different to themselves. And even when there are substantial differences of opinion, people often discover that these are not real obstacles to co-operating and getting to know each other. And they are certainly not a reason for hostility.

We see attitudes change on a daily basis, but it is a long process to really extend these changes into communities and society at large. Lack of funding does not help.

This type of work – call it interfaith, inter-communal, inter-cultural or whatever you wish – should really be part of our national culture. If we want to see a real improvement in community relations in Britain it’s not enough to just wait for things to get better. Interaction between faiths and cultures has to be actively encouraged and facilitated at the outset – until it becomes a natural part of everyday life. The cost of doing nothing is too high.

We don’t pretend that interfaith work is a panacea for all of society’s ills. There are tensions and problems between communities that can’t be solved by more inter-cultural understanding. But by getting over the negative attitudes that keep us divided, we are in a better position to work together to deal with the real issues at hand.

Promoting understanding and co-operation between our diverse communities is a crucial step towards building a more united society, free from hate and intolerance. That is why interfaith work is needed today more than ever.

Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/26/interfaith-work-break-prejudices

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