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What Can We Learn From the 'World Interfaith Harmony Week'

10/02/2016 10:19 GMT | Updated 09/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Last week, the first week of February was traditionally the 'World Interfaith Harmony Week' as designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February. This week was seen as a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation.

Given the very bloody start to 2016, now more than ever is there a need for such spaces to pause and reflect on how to create a new environment for the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The incidents around the world whether it is the violence in the Middle East, the anti immigrant feelings in Europe, the rise of racist nationalism in Asia, or the xenophobic rhetoric stemming out the of the US presidential election campaigns, all emphasize the need to build societies that are shared by everyone. These 'shared' societies are uniquely imagined as places where a durable peace is maintained through values of compassion and solidarity and by encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures.

This is of course the idealistic aspiration behind the Harmony week but with a realistic recognition that it requires real work from all stakeholders that constitute society as a whole. In other words, it is not the purview or responsibility of one component. It needs commitment to an understanding of the driving contexts and causes for conflict, and also of the real tangible aspects for peace. This lofty goal can be challenging to understand. After all what do we mean by peace? For me, the closest definition for this term is that 'Peace is possible when people can live in safety, have fair and effective laws, participate in shaping political decisions, make a decent living and secure their wellbeing'. The question then becomes how do we arrive at this possibility? From the perspective of the Interfaith Harmony Week, how can such a culture of peace be developed?

Simply put, there needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misperceptions that exist about the 'other' within all of us. We have to have honest and open discussions about faith and its role in society and what exists within the faiths of mutual co-existence. This centers around common values which espouse the notion of a shared humanity; social responsibility; social justice and ethics

In essence, we will have to rediscover a spirituality of commonality which will allow us to recognise the common space and substance amongst all doctrines that will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities possible. These values and ideals will have to be living, which cannot find expression on paper or monuments or in the annals of history books, but which remain alive in the hearts and minds of people inspiring us to pride, duty and sacrifice. These living values will have to help us to build on shared understandings and should be the glue that binds every healthy society. However whilst dialogues are a beginning it is important that engagement goes beyond this. Interfaith (and increasingly intra-faith) dialogue has to produce something tangible for communities on the front line

We are now living at a time where increasingly across the world, political violence flavoured by faith, culture and identity is being used to justify positions of identity and power. This often leads to misconceptions and misperceptions about certain faiths and its followers. The tragedy will be if we lose this battle. Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture and faith will continue to be a strong rallying point for global communities. We as people of faith and spirituality have to retake the reins and change the paradigm.

The week offers us an opportunity to do so. Yet outside certain circles it is not known or widely practiced even by the UN itself. There are of course doubts as to the integrity of the week given the Saudi Arabia (not one known for its pluralistic appreciation of inter and intra faith dialogue) was one of the initial sponsors. It also skirts around much needed intra-faith dialogue as well. Nevertheless, the space has been created and it is now up to those to make use of it. We have to address the challenges and the polarization that is tearing apart the fabric of the global society. This will never be easy, but remains vitally important. This week offers some opportunity for this