Posted by: Andrew | January 24, 2017

New Frontiers of Interfaith Work

After twenty years of involvement in interfaith work, the start of 2017 it seems a good time to reflect on some of the current challenges I’m seeing and suggestions some new issues that we might need to engage with. They are all a critique of the way I’ve worked, or events I’ve been involved in, over the years so it’s not a criticism of others but a personal reflection that might be of interest to others.

  • It’s too Middle Class.
    Most of the interfaith events I see happening largely involve middle class people of different faiths. However as more people of different faiths move into, what used to be thought of as white working class estates. This will become the new frontier of interfaith work. We have the opportunity to learn from good practice and mistakes in other communities in order to equip these areas to develop good relationships between people in the area. Specifically finding ways to welcome incomers whilst making the indigenous community feels valued and appreciated. Those of us involved in dialogue will need to learn how to work authentically with working class communities.
  • It’s too left wing.
    The vast majority of people in this field are broadly on the political left and socially liberal. Yet all faiths include members who are politically conservative and those who are socially conservative. I’m meeting increasing numbers of staunch conservatives of all faiths who want to get involved in dialogue but, consequently, have a different perspective on a number of issues compared to the majority of people involved. With the political right on the ascendancy it will be vital that people who are politically or socially conservative can be included in interfaith dialogue to both challenge and be challenged by those they disagree with.
  • It ducks too many difficult issues.
    With debates over immigration around the Brexit vote and matters of cohesion in the Casey review these are issues that matter to a lot of people but are rarely discussed within interfaith dialogue groups. Dialogue groups have started to discuss difficult issues such as conversion, however, if dialogue is to increase its impact on society it has to be willing to discuss these societal issues and model good ways to discuss difficult topics.
  • It’s too deferential.
    I think respecting people and listening to the wisdom of elders are good things, but when this becomes uncritical deference it renders dialogue impotent. Too often ‘faith leaders’ or ‘community leaders’ make pronouncements at dialogue meetings that many people in the room disagree with, or that outside the meeting would be considered controversial, yet go unchallenged because of their status. In dialogue have to be able to question even the most revered faith leaders if the conversations are to be genuine and not just one-sided pronouncements.
  • It’s too focused on Christian-Muslim Encounters
    This is, perhaps, understandable given the size of these faiths in the UK and the long history of encounters, good and bad, between Muslims and Christians. However, given the size and number of different faiths in the UK there needs to be more engagement with faiths other than Christianity and Islam. To draw people of other faiths into interfaith activities for the enrichment of all and to address issues other than ones relating to Christians and Muslims
  • It needs to grapple with Gender engagement
    From my observations over the years there is real disparity in the ways men and women are welcomed into interfaith activities or how they choose to participate. To put it simply I see too few women involved in leadership discussions and too few men involved in grassroots dialogue. We need to encourage more women into leadership, support the many local dialogue groups for women and enable more to grow, but also encourage a far greater participation from men in local, grassroots interfaith initiatives.

Adapting to these challenges will be hard for many of us. But if dialogue is to continue to have relevance and to have an impact beyond the ‘usual suspects’ I expect these are issues many of us are going to have to grapple with.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this piece, Dr. Joshvaraja connected me to your blog. You are right. I too have been involving in dialogue activities with the focus on peacemaking, but have come across a number of limitations on which I did my research. The work has been published last year http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-problem-with-interreligious-dialogue-9781474256421/

    • Thanks for your comments, I look forward to reading your research.

  2. Dear Andrew,
    Succinctly put. The issues of “class” are not adequately addressed in inter-faith dialogue. Working class indigenous British have more in common with low paid, struggling folk of other faiths than they realise; however it is often perceived- and in many cases correctly – that extended family ties and community affinities give the other faith communities an advantage: the stereotypical “open all hours” Asian corner shop, run by dad and family co-exist in many white working class areas, as do a multitude of takeaways. Maybe this sort of local, commercial co-existence has some merit as a topic of research. Are the “foreigners” running the local Kebab or corner shop tolerated because they offer an essential service or do they survive only because they keep themselves to their shops and do not figure elsewhere in the community? All such shops are targets of racist abuse.

    The other area where altering demographics in white working class areas can be seen on a daily basis is the school gate. Beyond this is the school life and its governance.

    • Thanks for the observations Larry, food for thought


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