After Woolwich: Who Are Our Leaders Against Hate?

As with other horrible tragedies, when the glare of media has dissipated, the effects remain and are added to a long list of issues that we must confront. It will always be a challenge, but with the right kind of leadership the challenge will be easier to overcome.

The calls from the press have gradually slowed in the 3FF offices over the past weeks. During the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich killing of Lee Rigby the media's calls were incessant, and as numerous as the well-intentioned and hastily put together invitations to meetings, marches and photo-opportunities.

3FF, the Three Faiths Forum, is what people would describe as an interfaith/intercultural organisation - our remit is to work towards a fair and integrated society, one with strong positive relations between people of different faiths, beliefs and cultures. Reflecting over the past month, the question we are asking is "How did we as a society react to the actions of these two murderers?"

There are indeed some great stories of positive work done by communities and individuals in response to the attack. We have also seen some inspiring responses by leaders, communal and religious, who have come together in a show of solidarity.

While a focus on leadership is important, people need to hear what their neighbours think and feel and for positive, personal connections to be built. Leaders releasing statements and taking part in photo ops do have a key role to play, as it's important to display unity across communities in tense and troubled times. But it is the personal touch locally which really makes an impact and will bring about lasting change. Unfortunately, the grassroots is often not sufficiently highlighted by the media nor engaged with by the political establishment.

This is one of the big challenges for leaders in a diverse society. Do media, political, and communal leaders have enough of an understanding of different cultures to make decisions based on a true grasp of an often complex situation? Do they have the networks of trust with people of different faiths and beliefs on the ground, who can give an insight into the heart of different issues? Do they speak from a place of knowledge of cultural difference, or do they lack those crucial insights - which cannot be acquired by reading a policy paper or news report alone.

As an organisation, our way of influencing the future of leadership is through our ParliaMentors programme, which equips university students with the skills, experience and networks they need to bring people together through their leadership. Students on the programme create social action projects and are mentored by parliamentarians throughout an academic year.

One month after the Woolwich attack, 45 students from different faiths and beliefs graduated from the 2013 ParliaMentors programme. We spoke to some of these young leaders about their thoughts on Woolwich and its aftermath. The nuanced and informed nature of their answers, in contrast to some of the more divisive, black-or-white debates in the media, were indicative of precisely the sort of inclusive leadership we need more of.

Heena, a Muslim participant, said it was valuable to have access to people from other communities to form an accurate view of what was going on:

"Everyone should take an active step in terms of tolerance and dialogue. Only when you talk to people of other faiths can you understand why things happen and why they deal with it in the way they do."

Esther, a non-religious student who worked with Heena on a social action project, highlighted how being able to speak to someone who had been personally affected gave her a deeper understanding of the situation:

"Having friends and contacts of different faiths when an attack like that happens is really beneficial. When it happened I went straight to Heena and spoke to her about it - because as a Muslim she faced a bit of a backlash. Having that personal connection makes you think more about what the media were doing and the way it actually impacts on people's lives."

Coralie, a Christian student, said:

"For me it's about not remaining silent. There's a silent majority on both sides of this debate who aren't condemning either side. Most of us are in the middle and we really need to make our voice heard."

She also highlighted the importance of not making generalisations based on what a few people from a community have done:

"It comes down to labelling. All these people were coming out and making statements about whole groups, but mainly it was just a few individuals involved each time. So you need to be very careful how you label things."

This sort of informed and inter-connected leadership can make a crucial difference in building good relations between communities, especially in times of crisis.

This leadership is one part of a larger puzzle, which is that of creating a more understanding, integrated society overall. To do this we need more opportunities for education and engagement between people from different backgrounds. We need to create spaces where people can interact in order to tackle ignorance, fear, prejudice and fragmentation - and build positive, lasting relations.

As with other horrible tragedies, when the glare of media has dissipated, the effects remain and are added to a long list of issues that we must confront. It will always be a challenge, but with the right kind of leadership the challenge will be easier to overcome.


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