A recent survey carried out by BBC Radio 1 showed that a quarter of young British people didn't trust Muslims. Of 1000 people interviewed, when asked about religious groups, 27% said they didn't trust Muslims, 16% said they didn't trust Hindus or Sikhs, 15% said they didn't trust Jewish people, that figure was 13% for Buddhists and 12% said they didn't trust Christians. It is then not a surprise that in the last month alone we have seen a hate crime take place on a Sikh Gurdwara in Milton Keynes and heard reports of assaults on Muslim women who had their niqaab/hijab ripped off their head. But a lot can be done to counter the negative prejudice of faith and culture through interfaith dialogue. And Student Unions across the UK are well placed to facilitate that dialogue between young people.
After hearing about these distressing incidents, I used this chance to reflect on my journey and how I came about to feel so strongly about interfaith and what change it can bring. It was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was killed outside his business in the first of several cases across the United States, that were reported to the police as acts of retaliation for the terrorist attacks. The killer mistook Sodhi's turban and beard as a sign of support for the attack. I remember feeling that the world was still ignorant of the Sikh faith, and the significance of the turbans on our heads. For the first time, I could empathise with people of other faiths who had suffered racist, fascist abuse due to sheer ignorance of others.
In an era of globalisation, in which we are far more likely to share society together because society is becoming more diverse and the Internet is creating a more global sense of community, the existence of such respect and mutual understanding becomes essential. That is why this task of openness to different faiths has to be undertaken, in part, by those of faith.
Faith based societies at Universities have huge potential with their increasing number of members yet we have seen few actively engage with their students' unions. Any support they would require was readily given to them by their national organisations such as Federation of Student Islamic Societies, National Hindu Students Forum or the Union of Jewish Students. This meant that there was little, if any interaction, between the faith groups and the larger student population at the University.
It is important to demonstrate to these societies that the union offers a lot more than generic advice and can help empower them and their members by bringing the different societies onto one platform and opening up channels of communications between them.
Student Unions can also benefit from interfaith events with many more students feeling more engaged and empowered. Last year, as Vice President Education & Welfare at Birmingham City Students Union, I had hosted an interfaith event called "Around the World in 8 Faiths" which saw faith based societies, representing the 8 of the world's largest faiths, coming together for a celebration of multiculturalism. The event helped bring in students into the union, which were traditionally "under-represented" and led to the number of students engaged in student union elections increase.
But in my opinion the most important thing achieved from Union inter-faith initiatives is that now students graduate from university with more knowledge and tolerance of other faiths, beliefs and groups than ever before. And that is a skill that lasts well beyond the university years.
** National Union of Students as part of its "Campus Cohesion and Interfaith" project are looking to fund 15 projects run by Students' Unions or faith based groups to promote interfaith dialogue, collaborative action and increase understanding amongst students about different religions and beliefs. To apply for the grants worth up to £1000, log on to http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/faith/NUS-Interfaith-and-Belief-Funding-201314/