Peace through religious understanding is an admirable goal, argues Edna Fernandes. But who should be paying for it?
When Tony Blair launched his new Faith Foundation in New York earlier this year, he went out of his way to confront the doubts of those who saw the entire enterprise as another pious attempt to increase the influence of religion over world affairs. His real concern, he stressed, was to save religion from its own internal enemies.
“You cannot understand the modern world unless you understand the importance of religious faith. Faith motivates, galvanises, organises and integrates millions upon millions of people, [but] if faith becomes a countervailing force pulling people apart it becomes destructive and dangerous. ... There are elements of extremism in every major faith. It is important that when people of good faith combat such extremism that they are supported.”
This is as good a definition as any of the philosophy of interfaith, the belief that the horrors of extremism can only be mitigated or avoided if well-meaning organisations can bring together all those whose commitment to their religion is sufficiently flexible to allow co-operation with those of other faiths.
There have, of course, always been such organisations. The first World’s Parliament of Religions, which met in Chicago in 1893, marked the birth of formal inter-religious dialogue, and it has been meeting irregularly ever since. Closer to home the Interfaith Network was founded in Britain in 1987, with the explicit aim of “promoting good interfaith relations”. The Network managed to attract representatives from most of the faiths that make up modern Britain including Baha’I, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian. But despite such eclecticism and laudable aims the endeavour made few headlines. It was worthy but not newsworthy.
Other such organisations owed a great deal to the personal commitment of their founder. Sigmund Sternberg, the 87-year-old philanthropist and co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum, which fosters Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogue, was drawn to this work because of horrors he witnessed growing up in Hungary in the 1930s. “I was born amidst a great deal of anti-Semitism and so I decided to get involved in this work in Britain,” he told me.
Sternberg remains an important player in the interfaith world. He was an informal advisor to Blair on the setting up of his Foundation and he also persuaded the World Economic Forum at Davos to regularly discuss these issues, believing that one cannot address key world problems without putting religion into the debating mix.
The Three Faiths project is typical of many more established organisations in its focus upon diminishing interfaith suspicion by presenting positive images of different religions – by, for example, exhibiting the historic sacred texts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity at the British Library. For Sternberg education – whether for children or adults – is the key to bringing down barriers.
But the founders of such initiatives are relatively modest in the claims they make about the significance of interfaith dialogue. Stephen Shashoua, Director of the Three Faiths Forum, is forthright about what interfaith can and cannot do: “We’re not going to the extremes. We’re going to inform and address ignorance out there, rather than target extremists. It’s not really helpful to offer interfaith as a solution to extremism because that’s not our primary focus. It’s eradicating ignorance. If addressing ignorance leads to someone not doing something bad, then great.”
Sternberg too is cautious, admitting that there is a hardcore in every faith which resists these efforts and sees any kind of dialogue as undesirable: “Some are not interested in dialogue, but they are a minority. Enlightened people are interested. I can’t talk to people who are blind and deaf. I talk to people who want to see and understand.”
Few would wish to be critical of such essentially good-hearted private attempts at fostering interfaith dialogue. But matters changed significantly in the field of interfaith after 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks on London. Suddenly such initiatives had a new political character. “9/11 legitimised interfaith dialogue overnight,” explains Reverend Fergus Capie, Director of the London Interfaith Centre. A project that was initially viewed with scepticism now has the government stamp of approval: “The government itself seeks to spread this dialogue.”
With the promise of legitimacy and government funding on offer, a dizzying array of new local, regional and national interfaith initiatives began to spring up. Suddenly it seemed that everyone from the members of small-scale local groups in Kingston and Southampton to the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, was talking the language of interfaith. (In May this year, the Islam Channel even launched the world’s first interfaith game show, “Faith off”, where different religious groups compete, in a friendly way, for cash prizes.)
This new governmental commitment to interfaith is already raising secular hackles. Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association estimates that tens of millions of taxpayers’ money has already been pumped into interfaith projects and argues that this represents the creeping infiltration of religion into public life. He wants to see such money going not to religious groups but to community-based organisations such as youth centres where people come together through local interests and ties rather than through their religious affiliation. “Can’t people see that present governmental policy will undermine the secular nature of British society?” he asks.
But his words seem to be falling on deaf ears. In July this year, the government announced £7.5 million of funding for interfaith projects in the community. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears described the new Framework for Partnership policy as a means of fostering social and religious cohesion by getting disparate religious groups to cooperate and address local problems such as homelessness and drug use. The buzz phrase is “faith in action” and it is one that is echoed in initiatives such as Blair’s. His Foundation aims to promote collaboration between the faiths in initiatives such as tackling malaria in Africa. “Faith can be a civilising force in globalisation,” he declared.
What does this mean in practice? Ruth Turner, chief executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, explains. “The eradication of malaria is not a religious cause. It’s a cause for humanity and I suspect that no-one in any humanist organisation would want to argue about that. Millions of people die every year of malaria but it’s preventable, it’s unnecessary. So why is the Faith Foundation involved? Because if you look at where malaria kills people, at sub-Saharan Africa and India, a number of things become apparent. These are also places in which there is more than one religion, in which there is often religious strife. They may not have clinics but they do have mosques and churches. Religion is part of the infrastructure. And you have a much better chance of success if you work through that. Religion is a current reality. And anyone who wants to understand the world or deal with its problems will just have to accept that whether they like it or not.”
But what worries critics of such initiatives is their insistence upon framing entire debates in terms of religion. When government adopts this approach, as it increasingly appears to be doing, it means that the non-religious are simply excluded from the picture and, perhaps, more crucially, from the funding. It means that government is legitimising religion. The strength of feeling generated by this development is evident in one blog posted on the National Secular Society website by Terry Sanderson under the headline “The Interfaith Fantasy”: “The interfaith project will not solve the problems of terrorism, nor will faith-based welfare bring the benefits that its enthusiasts promise. We must get religion out of the state. We must get theology out of politics.”
The comment highlights the risk of ignoring the opinion of people with no faith at all. It is a flaw that is acknowledged even by some interfaith devotees. Capie says there is a great danger in having a debate about social cohesion, identity and tolerance within a purely religious framework. While the threat of terrorism and religious extremism stems from a fanatical fringe, the impact is felt by all groups in society and so needs a universal response.
“The religious and non-religious in Europe need to sit at a table and revisit the significant underlying shared aspects of identity,” says Capie. “The dialogue needs to evolve beyond interfaith. There is a danger of defining the debate by religious parameters. What about the humanists, secularists, the non-believers?” he asks. “One of the dangers we face today is to range religion on one side and everyone else on the other side. A simplistic battle between the religious and the non-religious.”
Many secularists would agree with Andrew Copson that the interfaith process should broaden its constituency to include those of no faith at all, and that non-religious organisations should have the opportunity to compete for government funding ring-fenced for social cohesion. At present fewer than 10 per cent of interfaith groups have humanist members.
What is indisputable is that a broader dialogue is needed to address the threat of religious extremism. Religion is shaping the political world, but there are dangers in tying personal identity to faith alone and in so doing offering a platform for self-promotion to fringe groups eager to sup from the interfaith trough.
Perhaps, also, there might be something to learn from rather more direct methods of getting across the interfaith message. Back as far as the 16th century, the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, a devout Muslim, was an ardent champion of interfaith dialogue, inviting Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and even Jesuits to court to debate spiritual matters. When confronted by extremist disputes between mullahs and priests in his kingdom he sought a settlement through an ordeal of fire in which each religious disputant was challenged to throw their sacred text into a pit of flames so that the survivor could be finally revealed as the true text. No one chose to accept the challenge. Blair’s new Foundation seems unlikely to produce such instant evidence of abandoned extremism.