What Difference Can Dialogue Make?

Education

What Difference Can Dialogue Make?

27 May 2014

Kristen Looney, the Head of Face to Faith North America, recently spoke at the International Interfaith Conference in Prizren, Kosovo. She spoke on a panel examining the question, What Real Difference Can Interfaith Dialogue Make? Her remarks can be found below:

In 2008 Tony Blair set up the Faith Foundation, driven by his belief that religious ideology will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century.

Five years on we believe that to truly understand our globalised world - we need to understand the role of religion within it.

There is international recognition that a growing number of conflicts around the globe have complex, and often seemingly intractable, religious dimensions. We can't ignore the rising evidence that manipulation of religious explanations and ideology is being used to "religionise" conflicts. Of course, the extent and nature of the religious dimension is hugely variable. It can be a root cause, or it can emerge later in a conflict, as it has in Syria. And every scenario in between.

But in conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Russia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines - just to name a few – show there is a religious dimension that we need to better understand.

Worldwide, the numbers of those identifying as religious continues to increase. The Pew Research Center has released data that shows that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa.

Therefore we need to understand those who are practicing, worshipping, and living out these faiths. Without an understanding of the complexity of religions and the lived experience of religious people around the world, we won't ever have a true understanding of the religious dimension of these conflicts.

One of the best ways to understand the other is through dialogue. Dialogue is a set of specific skills that needs to be learned and practiced – dialogue is different from conversation and certainly different from debate – where there is a clear winner and loser.

Dialogue is an empowering process that enables a person to encounter the other in a safe environment; transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar. Dialogue is profoundly reciprocal, and rooted in an open, mutually respectful approach.

For interfaith dialogue to have long term behavioral and attitudinal impact in society – dialogue must happen between ordinary citizens. For too long interfaith dialogue has taken place behind closed doors of universities or between small groups of clergy. High-level dialogue has an important role to play, but until dialogue is brought out into the public square – we will continue to see intolerance and disrespect towards those of different faiths. Until average citizens have opportunities to engage in interfaith dialogue we will continue to see an increase in hate crimes and violence.

Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of hate crimes where the perceived cause was religious bias nearly tripled from 2004-2012.

If interfaith dialogue remains cloistered, we won't see an end to hate crimes that devastate communities – such as the recent killing of three people at two Jewish facilities in Kansas City on Passover Sunday by white supremacist Frazier Glenn Cross. If interfaith dialogue is kept behind closed doors, the religious roots of intolerance that led Boko Haram to kidnap school girls and force them to convert won't be understood or challenged.

For our part the Tony Blair Faith Foundation believes we all need to do what we can to provide the practical support to help prevent religious prejudice and conflict. This includes encouraging interfaith dialogue between everyday citizens as a counter narrative to the voice of the extremist. We are currently supporting this dialogue in three ways and in each case we have seen success.

First, we believe governments must start thinking about education as a security issue. Before the digital revolution, young people met those from other countries and cultures in relatively restricted circumstances, such as on holiday abroad or in a school exchange program. Today, they can interact with people anywhere in the world in seconds on their smartphones. Many of these connections take place on unmoderated platforms that expose children to a variety of opinions.

This means that it is up to our education systems to intervene early to help the connected generation interact safely in today's digital world. If we can teach children to recognize what they have in common with those from other cultures and faith traditions, we can also help them to resist the prejudices of those who seek to distort the truth and divide people.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation's schools program has made an important start. It provides a moderated space in which 12-17 year olds worldwide can discuss challenging issues from a variety of perspectives, in a respectful, safe way.

Our unique model combines education and exposure. Through interactive lessons students learn the skills of dialogue. These skills are practiced and honed within the classroom. When students have practiced these skills, Face to Faith offers opportunities for students to meet peers around the globe who have different world-views, faith traditions, beliefs and perspectives.

In the past 4 years we have facilitated 1000+ videoconferences with students around the world- from Quetta, Mindanao, Delhi, to New York City, Mexico City and Jakarta. This combination of education and exposure is a profound way of learning – one that produces deep understanding and recognition of the other.

The antidotal evidence is clear – when students meet face to face – previously held stereotypes and prejudice are challenged and replaced by a new and deeper understanding of their peers. Dialogue lays for groundwork for significant and authentic relationships between students where they recognize each other as individuals. This recognition is vital for peace building.

On a recent videoconference between high schools in the USA and Jordan, one of the students spoke about the impact of interfaith dialogue in his own life:

"I have learned two things from this programme. The first is understanding more about my religion, understanding that Islam is not only a religion but it's also a way of life. When I tell someone I'm Muslim I'm not telling them that I go to the mosque every Friday. I'm telling them how I live my life - the things I do and the things I don't. The second is getting over my fear - the fear of talking to different people from other religions or cultures. But with help I've realise that it really doesn't matter. We are all human, we are all the same and we shouldn't treat someone differently just because of his beliefs or religion and it was very wrong for me to think like that. Finally I ask myself, why do I need a programme to understand all of that? I found out it was the ignorance inside me that caused all of that misleading ideas and huge misunderstanding. Not only all of the religions are also more my own, all of our actions should be based on knowledge and not ignorance and that's what this programme is working to put an end too."

This is one of many reflections we have heard from students on how dialogue has significantly impacted their lives.

We are currently working with Oxford University to measure the long-term impact of behavioral and attitudinal change in students engaged with our program.

Second, as a Foundation we are supporting those groups already working on the ground to counter extremism. When people of different religions work for the good of the wider community, they come to understand one another in a way that helps them resist the call of extremists. We have seen the power of interfaith dialogue first hand how this can make a difference in our work with religious and community leaders in Nigeria.

Third, we are proving that when dialogue and understanding lead to action around a common cause, significant impact can be made in communities. In Sierra Leone, our program Faiths Act tackled malaria- the biggest threat to children under five and pregnant women. In two years, 250+ faith leaders have been trained; they in turn have trained members of their congregations who have gone house-to-house spreading important malaria health messages. Working together Muslims and Christians have reached 2 million people – 1/3 of the population with life saving malaria messaging.

Interfaith dialogue is making a difference in communities around the world. The greatest impact is seen in communities were dialogue is happening in the public square. Our prospects for peace in the future rely on helping all citizens (especially our youth) become at ease with differences – global citizens working to secure an open-minded society.

Interfaith Kosovo Initiative, with the support of Community of Sant'Egidio and Tony Blair Faith Foundation, organised the Second International Interfaith Conference in Prizren, Kosovo. The conference, titled "Religion and Politics: Enhancing Interfaith Dialogue as a Means for Democratic Development," aims to contribute to the wider interfaith debate, based upon historical, political and religious references, towards solidifying democratic development.