In a recent interview with Ruth Turner, Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, we discussed the significance of World Interfaith Harmony Week, the work of the Faith Foundation, ways in which we can engage difference, and more.
The full transcript is below and cross-posted at World Affairs Commentary.
Rahim Kanani: What was your reaction to the passing of the United Nations General Assembly resolution to recognize World Interfaith Harmony Week annually during the first week of February?
Ruth Turner: I think what is significant about this is the recognition by the UN that the world only really works if the issue of how different religions interact with each other and the secular world is not swept aside, but is proactively and positively addressed. Too often we put religion in the “too difficult box”. I can understand why. But it means so much to such great proportions of the world’s population that no matter how difficult it is to talk about religion, it’s dangerous not to. If we avoid tricky conversations, into that vacuum rush people who will distort ideas and convictions. Those who ferment religious extremism and prejudice have no hesitation about speaking out as loudly as they can, and claiming the dominance of their ideas. Why should the rest of us simply back off and leave them the stage? We need to hear a counter position. Having spoken to HRH Prince Ghazi, who with King Abdullah of Jordan was the instigator of this, I also appreciated the simplicity and directness of the idea. The silent majority need to speak up and counter the ignorance and the intolerance: this is a week when those voices of moderation, co-operation, open-mindedness and respect can all be heard together. I hope over time it will grow – with religious leaders everywhere knowing that at least once every year their congregations will expect to hear this message explicitly from them.
Rahim Kanani: How is your Faith Foundation using this moment of international attention to spark both dialogue and action towards interfaith understanding?
Ruth Turner: Well, our task is all year round, so in many ways this week is business as usual. In Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, India, the USA and ten other countries, high school students who are active in our “Face to Faith” program will be connecting their classrooms by video-conference so they can learn from each other about their religions and their lives. In the Middle East we’ll be training some more teachers in our interfaith dialogue techniques. In Mexico, Singapore and Australia, there will be a few hundred university students – across a wide range of academic disciplines – taking our “Faith and Globalization” courses, so they can better understand the role of religion in the world. They join students in five other countries, including the USA and China, who are researching these issues. In Africa, we’ll be helping Christian and Muslim religious leaders to work together to help combat diseases such as malaria.
Rahim Kanani: What are some simple ways in which the average citizen, anywhere in the world, can take a step forward towards understanding another’s religious tradition and practice?
Ruth Turner: When I started working with Tony Blair on setting up the Faith Foundation in 2007, we were determined that we’d try to find ways of working with people who didn’t normally “do interfaith”. I’d say about 80% of those who get involved with, for example, our “Faiths Act” campaign have never had a meaningful interfaith encounter before. The idea behind this is that very few people want to go to a meeting where they sit around a table and compare religious beliefs – but most of us want to live in a world where there is religious coexistence not conflict. We’re strong proponents of the idea that we often learn best from each other by doing something together.
We’ve built a simple campaign that allows people of different religions to come together with a common cause — combating world poverty by achieving the Millennium Development Goals. It’s as easy as organizing a meal, inviting people of different faiths, and raising a small amount of money together to buy life-saving bednets to protect a family from malaria. Volunteer groups and Faiths Act supporters are now active in 106 countries. Each person is motivated by their faith to act, and in the most natural and friendly of settings they’ll get to know each other. They need no special qualifications — just a desire to learn from others and to do something positive.
Rahim Kanani: The goal of interfaith understanding is perhaps most rooted in the pursuit of peaceful coexistence. Against this backdrop, how would you characterize the obligation that the older generation has towards the younger generation?
Ruth Turner: I guess that every generation has an obligation to help widen the opportunities available to the next. I don’t think we’ve been great in a lot of places at working out how to deal with differences between religion and culture. It’s not the only problem in the world, but look at any day’s international news headlines. Too many of the conflicts are fueled by this inability to manage relations between religions, or between religion and the state. That’s got to change. Our high schools program, Face to Faith, allows 11-16 year olds to get an education which teaches them how to have constructive conversations with people of very different cultures. I think that’s a vital skill in today’s world.
Rahim Kanani: What is at stake if we fail to meet this obligation?
Ruth Turner: It’s great whenever common ground can be found – but in a complex and inter-dependent world it’s probably more important to find ways to cope with difference. Interfaith is the antidote to extremism. It’s not some kind of warm, fuzzy, sideshow while the conflict rages elsewhere. It’s a direct and profound challenge to the idea that being deeply religious means you automatically have to exclude or disrespect people who believe differently to you. Religious extremists can gain ground within a wider constituency by saying “people not of our religion disrespect you: fight back against that”. Good interfaith relations is a way of saying: “that’s not true – whatever our disagreements, we do respect you.” It allows people who will always profoundly disagree with each other to do so with respect, and to work out how to co-exist peacefully despite those irreconcilable differences.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, as human beings, we tend to categorize ourselves in relation to or in opposition to some other category–whether politically, economically, religiously, or otherwise. What, in your opinion, is the most effective way to demystify the other, and to humanize the way in which we identify with other people?
Ruth Turner: This is so simple: talk to someone else. Ask them what motivates them. Listening respectfully to others doesn’t mean giving up or watering down your own beliefs – whether they be religious or secular. I hear a lot I don’t agree with and much I don’t understand – but each time I’m reminded of the rich diversity of human life and I’m never sorry I asked.
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