THE BLOG

Interfaith Relations After 9/11

12/09/2011 15:17 BST | Updated 11/11/2011 10:12 GMT

Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese author, got it right when he noted after 9/11 that it was a dangerous presupposition to ask someone with different cultural affiliations whether they felt more inclined towards one culture than the other. "How many times, since I left Lebanon in 1976 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt "more French" or "more Lebanese?" He always responds the same way - "both!" - only to be asked again, "Of course, but what do you really feel, deep down inside?"

To look for a person's 'real' identity, Maalouf says, reflects a view of humanity which is widespread and dangerous. It presupposes that deep down inside everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters. "Would I exist more authentically" he asks, "if I cut off a part of myself?"

The answer, naturally, is of course not. Yet we often act as if people are always one thing or the other, part of totally separate cultural or religious groups, rather than trying to find the aspects of our identities that we have in common - the things that can unite us.

The issue of reconciling relations between faiths and communities took on a new urgency after September 11, 2001. Not long after the twin towers had fallen, the rational fear of terrorism performed by a small group of individuals began to turn into an irrational fear of Muslims and Islam in general.

These anxieties have brought into sharp relief some of the deeper fissures of our societies, highlighting questions about identity, values and perception of loyalty. We have seen tensions increase between and within communities. Tackling problems related to Muslim communities has become a focus for many governments and well-intentioned civil society organisations, but less close attention has been paid to building relationships between communities.

If we are serious about tackling intolerance and hatred, we need to think long-term and engage in the continuous work of bringing our communities closer together, building understanding and countering prejudice before it is allowed to take root, particularly in the minds of young people.

While it is important to address the threat of terrorism, many measures have eroded the trust of Muslim communities towards wider society. The most significant issue with the UK's Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (PVE), in terms of inter-communal relations, was that it singled out the whole community as potential extremists, creating barriers with other communities.

This thinking has been compounded with the idea of using interfaith dialogue and activities to fight terrorism. After the 2007 Glasgow International Airport attack the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stated in his anti-terror speech in the House of Commons that "a green paper will be published to encourage interfaith groups to come together in all constituencies of our country."

9/11 and its aftermath certainly gave added urgency to inter-communal activity, but we should move on from the counter-terror aspect of this work and see that interfaith, if done properly, can demonstrate ways for diverse communities to live and thrive together.

Ultimately, building understanding and stronger connections between our communities cannot just be a means to an end of a security agenda, it has to be an ongoing, integral part of any healthy, functioning society. We need to ask ourselves, are communities equipped and willing to engage with each other for the benefit of all, and do interfaith groups have the knowledge and reach to take up the challenge?

Interfaith work has often been kept to the fringes of communities and society, being limited largely to well-meaning religious, communal and even political leaders. This form of interfaith dialogue has an important part to play, but these groups alone have often been unable to create significant change in communities overall.

In order to be truly successful, interfaith engagement must be a part of everyday life, happening in the places where people already live and work. In our organisation, 3FF, we now focus our efforts on running programmes in schools, universities and for young professionals. We are seeing attitudes change in the communities we are able to work, but a lot more work needs to be done - and on a much larger scale - for these changes to have wider impact.

The past decade has given us an opportunity to take a closer look at our society and how people of different faiths, beliefs and cultures get along or - as is often the case - don't. There is often a distinct lack of knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, while there are frequent calls for education through interfaith initiatives from political leadership, there is surprisingly little of this kind of activity in schools, and almost always outside formal education. And while there is some education for young people, our society has somewhat neglected serious engagement with the adult public.

Addressing this means embedding interfaith initiatives at different levels of society, and giving many more people opportunities to engage. If everyone had chances to learn from, and work closely with, people of other faiths and beliefs they would see a more nuanced picture, far from any scare stories or cultural stereotypes they may have grown up with. They would know from personal experience that 'they' are a lot like 'us', and that while there are differences, there are also many similarities.

As Amin Maalouf pointed out, we must question each other's cultural affiliations less, and instead actively work to build bonds of trust, for all our sakes.