Next week, the international community will be marking World Interfaith Harmony Week designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February where there will be a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation. This week comes on the back of a conference held at the UN in November 2008 organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Appropriately called ‘Culture of Peace’, it looked at the concept of creating a new environment by the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The Saudi sponsored conference examined the need to build tolerant societies and durable peace by restoring values of compassion and solidarity and encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures. The conference noted that achieving a culture of peace required effort from ‘‘the forces that hold our societies together’’, which also included religious beliefs, among other worldviews and focusing on the shared values of these religions and not on the differences. The final declaration of the Saudi conference emphasized the ‘importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance as well as respect for all religions, cultures, beliefs’, whilst expressing concern over ‘serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths’.
Much can be said about the motives for the conference and the week (and it is not without its critics) but I think that the spirit that the two UN initiatives are trying to achieve cannot be criticized because it provides a space for conversations to take place that transcends beyond the local to the global, realizing that this is not only just a faith perspective but has political implications. This culture of peace requires real work from all stakeholders.
However it needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misconceptions that exist about the ‘other’ within all of us that is the starting point for any initiative. Too often, mention the word ‘Interfaith’ and people roll their eyes. The common perception (in itself a misconception) is that ‘interfaith’ conjures up a bunch of mature / retired ladies and gentlemen sitting around having tea (no disrespect intended!!). Pastor Bob Roberts in his latest book Bold as Love sees “interfaith as loosey-goosey, let’s all just hug one another and ignore core truth” (2012, 19). I could not agree with him more!!. We have to move away from just polite conversation about each other’s faiths to really seeking to understand our differences yet finding commonality to move on. Hence I subscribe to Bob Roberts’ term of ‘multifaith’ which says “we have fundamental differences, but the best of our faiths teach us we should get along.” (2012, 19).
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If 2011 was the year that shook the world and saw one Arab regime after another tumble and fall, then 2012 was the year when the Arab people grappled with the challenges, strains and opportunities of their newly attained freedoms.
Seldom in recent history has change happened so suddenly, dramatically and comprehensively, and never has it taken place with the eyes of the world following every detail. Not only were Arab countries changing and the Arab people successfully grasping freedoms, most of us take for granted and rarely give a second thought, our own perception of the Arabs and the Middle East was being re-booted, re-formatted and re-structured with every passing hour.
But as these things go and as most predicted, changing a reality is often much easier than operating and making a success of the new one. 2012 was the year when the wheel of democracy and civil society institutions turned for the first time in decades for some, and for others, was invented from anew. For millions, the first experience of standing in a line so to cast a free vote, for others standing up and expressing an opposing view freely and without fear of dire consequences. The downside of course, was that for a political arena somewhat inexperienced in the protocols of open and free debate, opposition, disagreement, alliance-building and constitution drafting within the practice of democracy, the challenges were also going to be fairly considerable as well.
To those that saw in the Arab Spring an advent of mostly negative outcomes, these difficulties provided evidence of their prophecies. To the majority however, they were necessary trials on the path to full and total shedding of the former hydes of tyranny, oppression, authoritarianism and dictatorship. There is an overwhelming realisation that the removal of the dictator does not mean the eradication of the dictatorship or the uprooting of the structures which cemented the former regimes. There is also an appreciation that society as a whole needs to go through its own transformation in order to adapt to the new realities and monitor the progression towards achieving the objectives of the revolutions, including the media, human rights organisations, monitoring bodies, unions and professional groups and other civil society elements.
Further, the entire region, including countries still not directly affected by the Arab Spring, as well as the world at large also watches events with a great deal of interest. Besides the dynamics of change themselves, matters related to economics, strategic interests, energy, social impacts, demographics and human mobility, security, and many more, are of great interest and concern to countless parties beyond the borders.
Therefore, the emergence of Islamic political parties as winners at virtually every round at the ballot box has understandably created heated reactions, within the countries concerned and beyond. Some are still discussing whether those parties will push their alleged agendas for the establishment of Islamic states and the enforcement of Sharia law, others are debating whether Al-Qaeda will regain a footing in the region as a result of these election results, and others still questioning whether international treaties, including those with Israel, will be observed or shredded and discarded.
Yet, what appears to be happening is that these Islamic political parties, or Islamists as the West prefers to call them, are hard at work trying to sort out impoverished economies, eliminating institutionalised corruption, re-building civil security elements, forming parliaments, and doing what any political party with a public mandate would be expected to do. They also appear to be adopting a narrative that is inclusive and of a nationalist rather than partisan, theological or exclusive in nature. Notable therefore, that many of their most staunch critics are mostly saying that those parties are not to be trusted when they speak such a positive language, rather than being critical of their policies or stands.
2013 promises an equal helping of bumps, challenges, tumbles and hurdles. However, the wheel is not turning back and despite the upheavals, the people of the region have breathed the air of freedom and have decided that they will not agree to be in shackles again. Once the Syrian revolution achieves its objectives, the next phase of the Arab Spring will be ready to commence. That particular phase will most likely see a different set of events taking place; a set that see governments opening up to their people, initiating public forums of dialogue, allowing for elections, the formation of political parties and entering into a discussion with recognised opposition groups and figures. Radical change but via a different set of methods and dynamics.
What remains to be seen is how the West, governments and societies, react to all of this. Part of the radical change that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have seen, involves a change in the dynamics of dealing with the international context. And it goes both ways. No longer can we or should we expect a submissive partner, or a partner that doesn’t have national interests to further as well. No longer should we expect to address, engage with and listen to Arab governments and not Arab societies, in order to form a picture or a policy. No longer can we continue to disengage with Islamic political parties en mass on the basis that some of what they say is to our disliking.
The Arab Spring might have been the best thing to happen to tens, probably hundreds of millions of Arabs. However, it could also be the best thing to happen to the West, which is gradually changing to adapt to a new partner in what is arguably the most important region in the world.
On November 16th, it will be the International day of Tolerance, one of those UN designated days that are designed to gather global support around a cause, this one being the need to tolerate each other. However, as attacks over the last couple of months in Nigeria and Myanmar and now the recent incidents once again in the Middle East have shown, tolerance is in short supply and there is now shadows over the future of peaceful inter religious and cultural coexistence.
I think the concept of tolerance itself is problematic and deserves some reflection. Whilst the dictionary gives a slightly different definition of the word, in my opinion, tolerance is about accepting the status quo without necessarily doing much about it; it is about putting up with something, not because you want to. Ultimately it is a sign of ignorance, as you tolerate someone because you need to and because convention dictates it, but it doesn’t mean you know that person or want to know that person. Hence through tolerance, you perpetuate ignorance.
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The latest wave of violence between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has raised fears of growing radicalisation and regional instability.
The violence has left 36,000 displaced, bringing the total number of displaced since June to 110,000. Scores are reported missing at sea and satellite images released by Human Rights Watch revealed the almost-near destruction of part of a densely-populated Rakhine town.
Humanitarian conditions, already dire after the outbreak of violence in June, now stand to deteriorate further.
Camps for the internally displaced are unable to accommodate the influx and many of those affected by the violence are not receiving assistance as humanitarian agencies face threats, restrictions on access and severe funding shortages.
The renewed violence raises fears that the crisis initially originating in Rakhine state is not only spreading to other parts of the country, but also threatening Buddhist-Muslim relations in the wider region.
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On the 26th of October 2012, it was the Feast (or Eid ul Adha) symbolizing the culmination of the pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca (the Hajj). These few days of light and love are supposed to characterise meditation, blessings and prayers for peace.
It also serves as a symbol of unity in diversity as Malcolm X wrote “…we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood…. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.”
Whilst for Muslims worldwide, Eid ul Adha is the second most important holiday in their calendar, for a select few who have the privilege of actually performing the hajj, it is the most spiritual of journeys, answering the invitation from God to visit Makkah, and completing one of the essential pillars of Islam. It is a journey that asks for God’s forgiveness, as the human being is stripped to its core representing the destruction of the inner demons and an equalization with one’s peers.
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For those of us working in the field of intercultural dialogue and understanding, it has been a frustrating few weeks. Just as you think progress is being made between communities, global events peg you back displaying once again the vulnerability of human endeavours in trying to achieve peaceful coexistence and showing the very challenges that need to be overcome in order to ensure that the wheels are kept on the track.
For me this past two weeks has shown two different perspectives on the issue of the Freedom of Speech and how difficult it is to draw acceptable boundaries of such freedoms that people can readily and wholeheartedly agree on.
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The two most repeated words in the English Language are “Never Again”, heard in commemorations of the Holocaust to express the commitment that genocide will never again take place. Yet “Never Again” has also come to symbolise the absolute weakness in the will of the international community to act against genocide. This weakness was exposed in Bosnia and in Rwanda and now it seems that it is being exposed yet again, now in Myanmar with its ethnic Rohingya people, a Muslim minority living in the Arakan region.
As reports of mass killings, mass graves, rape, and torture come out of Myanmar with figures of at least 20,000 Rohingya killed since June 28, it seems that like Rwanda and Bosnia, a group of voiceless people are once again being systematically wiped out. This seems to be sanctioned by their government, under the eyes of the international community. The pictures in circulation (although it is hard to verify their authenticity sometimes) depict the horrific nature and scale of the existing tensions in Myanmar.
Many of the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to Bangladesh by boat with some reportedly travelling for days on end to escape the trauma of the current situation. However, they have been refused entry by the Bangladeshi government which has also suspended aid agencies from working in the camps which harbour Rohingya refugees.
Perhaps what is even more shocking is the complicity of the entire country of Myanmar, from the President down to the grass roots. The President has come on record to tell the UN to “establish refugee camps and allow for the deportation of ethnic Rohingya as the ‘only solution’”, whilst Buddhist monks have backed calls for the extermination of the race of Rohingyas. This statewide support for the killing of “Kalaras”, which is the pejorative slur that has become a popular and casual way of referring to Muslims of South Asian decent – or the Rohingyas – is once again reminiscent of Rwanda which witnessed an exhortation for mass killings over the public airwaves.
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What a difference a year makes. This time last year, London and the rest of the United Kingdom were in a state of shock as riots (and subsequent looting) held the authorities hostage for over a week. Writing on this subject back then, I stressed that what was needed was a collective response from both the government and wider society in dealing with the complex background context that had fermented the riots. I talked about the need to engage with each other and to start the process of ‘linking’ to not only understand each other but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made, as well as work undertaken across the partnerships. Linking, partnerships, and engagement all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding that should be encouraged and supported. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, and harmonious living.
However, since then, despite assurances of addressing some of the real issues, it seems that not much has really been done. Some compensations have been paid out (though it appears not in amounts promised), damaged buildings have been rebuilt and looters have been jailed. But there has been very little done to address some of the underlying factors that precipitated the riots.
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I am a sports fan and love watching the Olympics. It symbolises all the best in the human sporting excellence and dedication and somehow also represents an opportunity to hit a pause button (rightly or wrongly) on world affairs, as for about two weeks much of the world’s focus is on the athletes.
I see the Olympics as a great opportunity to learn and understand from each other, as athletes engage with people from countries they probably would never engage with, and a time for reflection as the Olympic Truce is observed for about 100 days. Finally, it is a time for learning, as you actually discover countries that you have not even heard of. Politics, corporate sponsorship, tickets aside, the Olympics is probably one of the more unifying events around the world.
When the Olympics was awarded to London, I remember the excitement that greeted it, followed by the sudden realisation of reality as the next day, the 7/7 terrorist attacks took place. In the seven years since, the Olympics’ engagement with communities took a back seat in some respects as security took a higher priority.
For the Muslim community in particular, the scrutiny of radicalisation and constant obsession with identity and affiliation has meant that they have been justifying themselves to the British public. This is a shame as many Muslims in London reside close to the main Olympic parks and thus perhaps have not been able to fully participate in the pre-program as they should have with the hope that they can enjoy the social regeneration that is anticipated afterwards.
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