Reducing extremism and intolerance with inter-faith dialogue
In September, the Communities and Local Government minister Andrew Stunell said:
‘Inter-faith activity is an important component of the Big Society we want to build, in which people work together for the common good. If we want to live in a truly integrated society, we need opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to come together – not just to better understand each other but also to work towards shared goals that benefit the whole community.’
As the minister said, done well, inter-faith society can promote more effective community action and build more integrated communities by breaking down barriers between people and exploring values. The challenge lies in how such dialogue is designed and delivered. Doing inter-faith dialogue well requires innovation, creativity and sensitivity to a range of issues.
Inter-faith dialogue needs to feel authentic
It is important to ensure that inter-faith dialogue mirrors, as far as possible, real life daily interactions. The setting and spaces where this dialogue happens can determine the authenticity of the experience. There is evidence to suggest that meaningful interaction can actually take place in ‘unexceptional and mundane’ environments. Bringing people together in spaces where they naturally tend to congregate and interact can enhance engagement.
Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and conducted with Muslim communities in Birmingham, Bradford and the London Borough of Newham (three areas where there are a large number of Muslims) asked participants to consider the types of spaces where they had meaningful exchanges with people from backgrounds different from their own.
The workplace, educational sites, parks and play areas, supermarkets and medical centres were the locations where this type of interaction most frequently happened. The point is that people are more likely to participate in inter-faith initiatives that do not require them to access unfamiliar spaces. For example, an appropriate setting for an inter-faith initiative for non-working mothers could be primary or secondary schools, as this is where they tend to congregate when collecting their children.
Inter-faith work needs to start early
For inter-faith work to improve tolerance and understanding it needs to start at a young age. More specifically, such work needs to start when young people begin to strive to establish a sense of personal identity. It is at this point, when young people begin to construct notions of self and other that inter-faith initiatives play a critical role in ensuring that the information that young people draw on is balanced, accurate and infused with messages of equality and tolerance.
Inter-faith work should be engaging and enjoyable
A common challenge for practitioners and organisers of inter-faith initiatives is ensuring that the content of such initiatives is interesting and engaging. This is particularly important when such initiatives are aimed at young people and delivered in schools. An important part of ensuring that young people find initiatives enjoyable is designing a format of delivery that does not make them feel that they are in a classroom or following teachers’ ‘orders’. Instead, young people tend to prefer informal working environments that include lots of discussion, question and answer sessions, small group exercises and plenary sessions.
Ensuring that initiatives are enjoyable for young people also means that practitioners should design programmes that align with the interests of young people. For example, having a group of young people from different faiths working together to create a film, or take part in a series of football matches, or working to set up a wiki database is often likely to be more successful than a lesson in race, faith and diversity.
Inter-faith work can leave ‘faith’ out
Inter-faith dialogue does not always need to be explicitly about faith. Rather than delivering a programme it is often better to simply provide the space for dialogue to occur organically. For example, inter-faith initiatives can focus on bringing people in a neighbourhood together to tackle a common issue, for example, a problem with graffiti and litter. Working in small groups with set goals creates a collaborative atmosphere where people are more likely to listen, respond and learn from each other. There is also a sense of pride and accomplishment as a result of having achieved something together. It can create solidarity and a sense of belonging.
The role of humour, drama and role-play
It is important for practitioners to remember that inter-faith dialogue can often require the discussion of sensitive topics and people can find it difficult to voice their opinions and concerns for fear of being regarded as inappropriate, ignorant or biased. A useful tool in constructing a safe space where dialogue can take place is the use of drama, role-play and humour. These act as safe vehicles that allow people to talk about controversial issues without having to express such ideas and opinions as their own.
A number of good practice examples can be drawn from the UK. Not in my name, delivered by Fuse Theatre is one such example. It is a hard hitting drama aimed at 13-18 year-olds in schools, which explores the aftermath of a fictional terror attack from the perspective of a range of young characters. It is followed by open forums that allow young people to speak and learn about issues relating to extremism and terrorism. The play has been performed in schools, community centres, lecture theatres and town halls.
Another good example is Choices and Voices which supports the Preventing Violent Extremism toolkit for schools and consists of a series of interactive digital role playing games where players are faced with a range of moral dilemmas in which their decisions have an impact on them and their families and friends. It encourages young people to explore underlying issues and influences that result in tensions between communities. Both examples have been met with resounding success because of the manner in which they have stimulated dialogue and discussion.
By Ewan King, OPM director and Sanah Sheikh, OPM associate fellow
 Cattell et al. (2008) Mingling, Observing and Lingering: Everyday Public Spaces and their Implications for Well-being and Social Relations, Health and Place, 14(3): 544-561
 Jayaweera, H. and Choudhury, T. (2008) Immigration, Faith and Cohesion: Evidence from Local Areas with Significant Muslim Populations, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, London