According to two professors from the The Open University in the UK, ignorance is the biggest obstacle to peace.
Academics from the United Kingdom are offering a program for formation of religious leaders in that country, and are calling younger generations to acquire a greater knowledge of the variety of beliefs present among them.
Knowledge is key for interfaith dialogue. This is the conclusion to which many academics in the United Kingdom have arrived. For decades, the country has been home to millions of people who came from other countries. However, are they all really living in harmony? Is there dialogue among cultures and religions? The recent terror attacks in Great Britain have made this debate more urgent than ever.
Jessica Giles and Tariq Mahmood are law professors and researchers who specialize in religious studies at The Open University. Both are convinced that understanding is a key ingredient for fighting against narratives that teach hate and, of course, for combating attacks against different religions. “The easiest way to advance radicalization is to ensure that people neither know nor understand the particulars of different religions,” Giles told Aleteia.
Living with difference
Giles and Mahmood make a clear appeal to education as a solution, and they back it up with powerful arguments. The one that stands out most is the “Living with Difference” report, prepared by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, published in December of 2015, which analyzes the country’s situation, consulting with specialists of all faiths and gathering together their problems, doubts, and suggestions. One of the report’s main recommendations was for:
Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society, and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programs and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognize and celebrate best practice in the media.
Jessica Giles supports this recommendation and takes a clearly critical position towards a measure taken by the British government to eliminate obligatory religion classes. “As the report makes clear, this is a decision that hurts us all, because knowledge of religions among young generations is insufficient.” She adds, “This situation worries me, above all as the mother of a 12-year-old adolescent.”
According to Giles, a lack of knowledge makes it easier for people to believe false information. “Information has recently come to light about various areas of the country, in which the unemployment rate is high, where people are especially critical of Muslims and believe that there is a higher percentage of immigrants than there really is.” She reiterates that this kind of narrative without arguments to back it up creates social damage that can become irreparable.
Formation of religious leaders
“What we are trying to do at our university is promote interfaith dialogue in different ways and at all levels, because there is definitely a lack of understanding, and we must resolve it,” she declares. Thus, Giles and Mahmood started their project, inspired by this report and its request for “a national conversation … launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life” which “would take place at all levels and in all regions” and have as its outcome “a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.”
Their project goes beyond the students at the university. It works with mosques. “We form religious leaders, especially, at the moment, Muslim imams,” Tariq Mahmood explains. The main goal of this training is to put religious practice into context. “Faced with the plurality of religions in the United Kingdom, it’s necessary to contextualize, for example, Islam.”
According to these academics, existing formation for religious leaders has not been, until now, very uniform. “It doesn’t matter which religion we’re talking about; its leaders should understand the context in which they find themselves,” he emphasizes.
In this case, their project is pioneering, because “no one has stopped to ask the imams before.” In these training courses, participants work on acquiring knowledge and skills that will allow them to be active and manage their community in today’s environment. For example, according to Mahmood, “We find in these leaders a distinct lack of skills for talking with the media.” Education is, then, the name of the game for solving one of the greatest challenges of global society.