How can (better) interfaith relations help build a safer, more equal society?

Last week was UN World Interfaith Harmony Week which brought another important reminder to reflect on interfaith relations and peace building within our community. This reminder was even more crucial barely two weeks before, when on 27th January, we also marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

On this day in particular we remember the six million Jews massacred by the Nazi regime, along with other marginalised and persecuted groups such as the Roma and LGBT communities.

We also remember that despite saying “Never Again”, we have since witnessed further atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Throughout this period of remembrance and reflection, we are reminded of our ongoing struggle against hatred, discrimination and genocide.

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Preventing discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide

As a society, it is imperative that we work together to actively tackle discrimination and prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide. We must remember the lessons of the past and work towards building a safe harmonious space for all, regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, nationality, faith and sexuality.

To do this we have to actively and continuously reflect upon past events and identify key principles and approaches which can tackle discrimination, hatred and “othering” narratives. As a multifaith society, it is also imperative to consider the role of faith and interfaith dialogue within this mission.

In 2018 in fact, we are still seeing discrimination, hatred, division and violence amongst members of various faith groups and ethnic communities. Just last August, we witnessed an outbreak of violence in Myanmar against Muslim Rohingya and Hindu minorities. Since August 25th, at least 6,7000 Roghingya individuals have been killed and around 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in search of safety and security.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the unfortunate increase of both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime is also proving that we still have a lot of work to do in regards to promoting social cohesion, interfaith relations and tackling hatred.

In addition, intrafaith violence between Sunni and Shia groups remains an ongoing polemic. The Ahamdiya Muslim community in particular also continues to face a range of discrimination and violent attacks across Morocco, Pakistan and even here in the UK with the murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016. These unfortunate realities are also proving that hatred and violence know no boundaries.

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These alarming, hate-fuelled and violent behaviours must be tackled. We must never forget that genocide itself ultimately stems from hatred and indifference to injustice. It starts with the “othering” of those different from ourselves, by essentialising someone’s identity to magnify difference, failing to find common ground with someone seemingly different from yourself in some form and from ultimately seeing others who may be different in faith, ethnicity or cultural origin as in fact alien to yourself and somehow unequal in worth.

By failing to respect and appreciate difference (whether it be religious, ethnic or cultural) and recognise the universal self-worth and innate dignity of all human beings, othering can and does lead to discrimination and de-humanising and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Doctor Gregory Stanton, a professor at Mary Washington University and Vice President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, documented this degenerative scale in his “10 Stages of Genocide“.

The pattern starts with stage number 1: Classification – in other words developing an “us and them” narrative. This is followed by symbolisation, discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to polarisation, preparation, persecution and finally extermination and denial. Quite crucially, let’s not forget that this is the denial that we are still seeing today by certain members of the non-Jewish community regarding the Holocaust.

Where does faith fit into this?

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Faith is often cited as a means of dividing people and inciting violence. For example, we find the othering “us and them” narrative within jihadist rhetoric which concentrates heavily on the notion of “infidels”, demonising non-Muslims and declaring them as the “enemies of Islam”.

As witnessed by the Holocaust, the Jewish community were discriminated against because of their faith. However, this wasn’t simply due to difference in religious doctrine. This after all is a personal practice. Medieval narratives of anti-Judaism stemming from the death of Jesus were also intertwined with centuries of socio-economic division, stereotypical “othering”, propaganda and exclusion.

This is in fact a complex issue but behind it all I believe that the answer is really quite simple. Violence and hatred have no faith but faith can and must play a key part in tackling these issues.

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Firstly, if we are to tackle hatred we must start with an inclusive open dialogue which respects the key elements of people’s identity and one of these elements is faith. This requires engaging with and including religious leaders of different faith backgrounds when tackling social, cultural and political issues such as discrimination and the further abuse of human rights.

Politicians cannot combat discrimination and build long-lasting social cohesion without collective, inclusive dialogue and understanding. Without the commitment of faith leaders, they risk forming ill-informed, exclusionary or subjective policies. Respect for and the protection of human rights in a multifaith society is built by developing mutual understanding, respecting the diverse and collective needs of communities and forming a collective unified identity, developed and nurtured over time.

Secondly, not only should politicians not simply exclude faith communities in political and social solutions but I also believe that faith is in fact a crucial but often overlooked tool to actively and positively promote social cohesion and peace.

Faith is in fact an active uniting force. Whilst there are key principles and bonds that can cross cultural, national and social boundaries within a single faith group, faith in its true spiritual sense is also a unifying force between people of different faith traditions and backgrounds. Our faith holds us accountable to a higher power and calls upon us to respect God’s creation and to therefore love and respect one another – regardless of a person’s individual or collective background.

The Golden Rule

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Faith in fact holds the precursor to combatting such “othering” behaviour thanks to a basic universal principle known as “The Golden Rule“. This rule quite clearly calls upon us to simply: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated”.

This principle can be found across all major faith traditions. In Islam for example, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”.

Judaism also teaches: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18.

Similarly, in Christianity in Luke, chapter 10, verse 27, Jesus says: “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

This very same principle can also be found in Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism and the Baha’i faith – the world’s biggest faith traditions.

What this rule lays bare is that no one would want to experience the horror of the Holocaust or Srebrenica. By following the Golden Rule each within our own faith traditions, we can build a greater sense of responsibility, empathy, unity and solidarity amongst people of all faiths. This also crucially includes those of no faith.

We must therefore firstly go back to our own traditions and find common ground with and mutual love and respect for our neighbours of other faiths. We must speak out against hate speech and harmful narratives and we must actively reach out to other faith communities to build bridges, friendships and unions. In this way we can prevent these othering narratives forming and developing into toxic practices such a discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Putting faith into action

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This approach however must be nurtured on a variety of levels. On an individual level we must evaluate our behaviour in how we treat and defend the rights of others. On a micro level within our own families and communities we must teach the younger generations in line with the Golden Rule and lead by example.

On a macro level as larger societies and nations, combatting discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide in a multifaith society therefore requires faith leaders of various religious teachings to enter and be part of wider national, international and political discussions. The Golden Rule is a universal principle which should in fact guide the teachings and work of religious representatives. Faith leaders must actively promote unity and commonality between members of different faith communities and none. They are also obliged to stand up against hatred, discrimination and violence towards members of every faith community and none.

If an imam for example is preaching an intolerant, divisive narrative, then he is not doing his duty as a religious teacher. Individual and community faith members must call religious leaders to account if they do not take this responsibility seriously. Likewise, if religious figures and teachers are not addressing such attitudes within their own religious communities, then they are allowing toxic narratives to fester, instead of promoting social harmony. This is in fact contrary to religious teachings. Education, intercultural and interfaith dialogue in line with the Golden Rule must therefore form a fundamental part of their approach to teaching their faith. Responsibility must be taken on every level. There must be honesty, dialogue and transparency.

Faith is a much-needed key element to promoting peace and harmony amongst different communities and wider society. Greater interfaith dialogue on a variety of levels – just as intercultural understanding – is the way forward and the key to breaking away from the 10 steps to genocide and instead build more cohesive, equal, safer and fairer societies.

Whatever our religious or spiritual background and whatever our position within our religious communities – from church goer, to imam or even the Pope – each and every one of us can and must play our part of this movement as a member of our wider, collective multifaith society which respects human rights and declares “Never Again”.

Peace, salam, shalom ♡

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust, Srebrenica and all other genocides.

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Ten faiths, one message…

Today – 27th January – is Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day we remember the barbaric massacre of millions of Jews (alongside other people classed as “undesirables” by Hitler), barely one century ago. As we are called to remember the genocide and we repeat: “Never again“, we must truly reflect. For the utterance of these two words have not stopped the violence, the prejudice, the bloodshed. War, torture, genocide…is carrying on as we speak.

In light of this, I’d like us on reflect on the following – especially as we remember the past and we envisage an unknown bleak future in the current socio-political climate and the fear rising from Trump’s new role as POTUS: we are the people. Humanity is one and we are responsible for the way we treat others and the way we respond to hate rhetoric. Regardless of our differences we must unite, remembering our similarities and enjoining in good. Are we all really that different?! No! Embrace your differences – it’s what makes you unique. The world would be so dull if we all came from one mono culture! However, at the same time: unite in solidarity.

With this in mind, I’d also like us to remember one thing in particular: The Golden Rule. The teaching of: treat others the way you wish to be treated! Whatever your faith, it’s there! And wouldn’t the world be a safer, happier, more tolerant place to be if we all remembered this “rule”? I’m convinced so! So here’s The Golden Rule according to the world’s 10 largest faith groups (listed in ascending order of population size). Enjoy!

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Shintoism

  • ~4 million followers worldwide (0.01% of the world’s population)

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Jainism

  • 4.5 million followers worldwide (0.06% of the world’s population)

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Confucianism

  • 7 million followers worldwide (0.1% of the world’s population)

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Bahá’í Faith

  • ~8 million followers worldwide (0.15% of the world’s population)

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Judaism

  • 20 million followers worldwide (0.3% of the world’s population)

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Sikhism

  • 30 million followers worldwide (0.4% of the world’s population)

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Buddhism

  • 400 million followers worldwide (7% of the world’s population)

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Hinduism

  • 1 billion followers worldwide (15% of the world’s population)

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Islam

  • 1.6 billion followers worldwide (23% of the world’s population)

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Christianity

  • 2.3 billion followers worldwide (32% of the world’s population)

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So, there we have it: 10 faiths, one rule, one humanity. If we really want “never again” to mean something in terms of action, then we need to respect our differences yet remind ourselves that we all have the same obligations towards ourselves and our global brothers and sisters. Ask yourself this when you’re in a situation: Would I want this? How would I feel in such situation…?

Salam! Shalom! Peace! ♥

Sources and credits:

Statistics from: Waterlow, R. (2017) ‘Top 10 Largest Religions in the World‘, World’s Top Most

Original photographs:

Feature image: Leo Reynolds

All images are edited versions of photographs first published under a Creative Commons licence, unless otherwise stated (see credits). For terms of usage visit Flickr.

Photo editing and design: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

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