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Finding Common Ground

Finding Common Ground

Issue 86 November 2011

Those that follow the Abrahamic faiths don’t always see eye-to-eye. Ali Khimji meets pioneers in the world of interfaith dialogue, who are attempting to heal old wounds.

 

Religion is often perceived as responsible for many of the world’s problems. In recent years, the Clash of Civilisations thesis; terrorism, and the War on Terror; the rise of the Far-Right; and more, have all had a religious dimension. History and current affairs dictate that when one thinks of Muslims and Jews together, the Israel-Palestine conflict crops up; of Muslims and Christians, the Crusades; and of Jews and Christians, the persecution of the former by the latter throughout the Middle Ages. Although there are positive examples of the faith communities working and living together in harmony, the media and general public are swift to label such conflicts and disagreements on the grounds that they must be theological.


Today, however, a number of far-sighted individuals and organisations have chosen to broker the divisions between the various faith communities, and to create shared spaces where dialogue and healing can take place, although approaches to the work, like the faiths, differ.


For David Ford, founder of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme (CIP), the work is about “respecting the integrity of all traditions”. While newcomers may feel that it is important to first and foremost identify commonalities, he feels that this “can be a mushy way to enter interfaith work”, preferring to focus “on shared space, rather than common issues”. James Kidner, Director of the Coexist Foundation, concurs, “We’re interested in the overlaps between faiths, but also the differences. It’s also an opportunity for people to deepen the richness of their own beliefs.”


The Woolf Institute’s approach is to focus on bi-lateral relationships between faiths. They have a Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, and a similar centre for Muslim-Jewish relations. Ed Kessler, Director of the Institute clarifies on this, “We don’t see it as excluding anybody, rather it is easier to talk about the customs between two faiths, and is also easier from a teaching and research perspective.” Beginning with a Jewish-Christian Centre, one of only two such research centres in Europe, the Woolf Institute then opened the Muslim-Jewish Centre, as “this was a relationship untouched by research, and overshadowed by the Israel-Palestine conflict.”


Another bi-lateral project is the Muslim-Jewish Forum, headed by Rabbi Herschel Gluck. They prefer their work to be seen as ‘inter-communal’, rather than ‘interfaith’. To him, bonds between certain Muslim and Jewish communities always existed, but it was important to give that connection a structured format. “We’re not trying to say we’re all the same, but we are good neighbours.

 

We have our differences and distinct communities, and neither wants to change the other, but merely live in mutual respect and to care, as good neighbours should.” One of the ways that religions may form the basis of a friendship is by sharing experiences of hardship. As Rabbi Mark Winer of FAITH, the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony, says, “As Jews we experienced prejudice that is similar to what Muslims go through now, we’ve had to deal with that and maintain our integrity.” Muslims cannot fight the prejudices alone according to Mark, “There is a fundamental need to build alliances with other religions for the good of society. Each one of us has a responsibility to heal the world. And the world is a sick place.”


David Ford agrees, and puts forward the challenge that religions face with modernity. He argues that religions seem to be faced with a range of options between two extremes; “either you bury your head in the sand and resist the forces of modernity or you completely assimilate and get rid of your core traditions.” He goes on to say that neither extreme is acceptable, and that “we must arrive at a set of judgements about what to accept, reject and critically assess.” By having this discussion together, faith communities can pool their experience in order to realise what is best for them.

 

At the very core of interfaith is an attempt to understand another faith, and many of the organisations use an academic approach to reach this goal. David Ford has confessed his dedication to improving religious literacy in society. To him, the objective is to have “intelligent, responsible and wise faith”, and high-quality debate is required. To achieve this end, a particularly innovative way that the CIP uses to help people of different faiths better understand each other is a practice known as Scriptural Reasoning. This has developed over recent years and brings together Muslims, Jews and Christians, with their respective scriptures, to choose passages that all follow a similar theme. Everybody is invited to respond, comment or ask questions about the passages.


On face value, this may seem as a set-up for countless confrontations and heated arguments over certain beliefs and verses, but Sarah Snyder, who leads on Scriptural Reasoning at CIP, explains that the sessions are as much about deepening your own faith, whilst reading the scriptures together and learning more about each other’s faith perspectives. “To me, as a Christian, the Bible is the way that God speaks to us in this world, and I respect that this is the same for Muslims and the Qur’an,” she relates.


Scriptural Reasoning was recently used in an Israeli hospital to engage the staff in the context of faith. It was initially presumed that institutions such as hospitals and universities would be the perfect place for interfaith to establish itself, but when the organisers questioned participants, it was found that many would hesitate from discussing religion in the building. After participating in the Scriptural Reasoning sessions, many of the hospital stuff re-iterated that they had learnt more about other’s faiths, as well as seeing their own beliefs in a new light.


The Woolf Institute also has a project which it has taken to hospitals in partnership with the NHS. It looks at end of life issues for Muslims and Jews. “It’s all about finding out the best way to help someone in that process, in compliance with their faith and beliefs.” One of the factors that had been identified in the project is how Muslim patients need to be washed soon after passing away, and many hospital staff either couldn’t cater for this, or didn’t understand what was required. “We need to combine academic excellence with a practical output, because the academic work will have no purpose or context in society without it,” says Ed Kessler.


With so many organisations working on interfaith work, one wonders if they actually work together. It would seem that cooperation extends to the organisations too. Coexist and the CIP have launched a pioneering online platform which is called Nurani.

 

Designed to foster dialogue between scholars around the world who wouldn’t necessarily speak the same language, the website has an advanced, in-built translation system, which allows English and Arabic-speaking academics to discuss pressing issues and hot topics that are at the forefront of the interfaith discussion.


Coexist has also utilised technology on ‘Understanding Faiths’, a series of films about the beliefs and practices of the monotheistic religions, available as apps and online. “The essence of the package is producing rigorous and authoritative programmes which help you understand what it means to be a Muslim, Christian or Jew, without being evangelical,” says James Kidner.


Whilst all of this work seems very noble, is there actually a thirst for it? James believes there is, “However cynical the media may come across, there is a huge appetite to learn about faith and globalisation.” He points to the shared Coexist/British Library exhibition ‘Sacred’. “The British Library anticipated 60,000 visitors, but received over 200,000.” A similar project with the New York Public Library entitled ‘Three Faiths’ had a comparable attendance.


Perhaps buoyed by such interest, the CIP has plans to launch a London centre, a museum and educational centre dedicated to the religions. Miriam Lorie explains the thinking behind the idea; “We’re hoping to create the equivalent of the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, but dedicated to religion. When you look at the landscape of museums in London, it does appear to be the missing link with nothing to recognise the importance of religion in the world.” With a number of exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, the centre will have an emphasis on educational output, and a dream of every school child in the United Kingdom attending the museum at some point. “We envisage something that is colourful, noisy, and vibrant, and provides a transformative experience for all those who attend.”

 

But whilst interfaith does have the ability to bring people together, not everyone is enthusiastic. Rabbi Mark Winer continuously comes up against Jews and Christians who tell him that he is working on a hopeless cause, and will never find Jews or Christians that will work with Muslims. “But people forget that 50 years ago we had the same issues with Catholics and Jews working together, and this eventually proved a fruitful relationship between both communities.” Time does make a difference, and James Kidner does not believe that problems are confined to just interfaith work, “There was a time when people would claim not to be interested in business and economics as they were Classics scholars. Ten years ago people could say that they didn’t ‘do technology’. Now, it saddens me that the only topic that people can proudly claim ignorance of is faith and God.”


It should sadden all of us that in the ‘Information Age’, many stereotypes and prejudices are still apparent in people’s views of religions. But we shouldn’t let that hinder our efforts. Human beings have a great thirst for knowledge, in all its forms, evidenced by the scientific, technological and cultural advancements of the past few millennia. We must now take that yearning to religion and theology.


Interfaith work isn’t the ‘tea and biscuits’ that it’s sometimes painted. It is hard to engage with someone whose beliefs maybe so profoundly different to one’s own. However, the stark reality is that we are living in an ever more complex society, and mutual respect and understanding are key for us to be able to progress our world  further.




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