By Steven Shashoua
Girls in headscarves is not exactly what you would expect to see walking through the doors of a Catholic school in London. Yet for young people living in London today interfaith encounters are not as rare as they used to be.
While opportunities to meet people from other cultures are increasingly common, meaningful learning doesn’t always follow and they don’t necessarily bring about positive shifts in attitudes and real social change.
Over the past 15 years at the London-based Three Faiths Forum (3FF), we have developed models for creating understanding between people of different faiths and beliefs, with a particular focus on students and young people. For the last three years we have been creating links between different faith schools – some 50 in total – through our Faith School Linking programme.
At a school linking event, two or three classes from different faith schools will meet in the morning. Participating students divide into small groups and begin a task, like creating an art project, or sharing a story. They look at each other with some curiosity and hesitation at first, as they meet people very different from themselves.
About 25 minutes into the session, a familiar hum starts circulating the room. It is young people being young people, chatting about what they have in common as well as exploring differences – and usually the differences that emerge are less about faith or beliefs and more about personality. In that moment, interfaith starts to become interpersonal.
One thing we have learned from this programme is that while encounters between young people from different communities can break down stereotypes and prejudices, it is not enough to simply bring people together and hope for the best. To be effective, the engagement has to be positive, genuine and sustained.
Good interfaith engagement often begins by increasing people’s understanding of what others are like – by not just teaching the facts about what they believe, but instead by creating opportunities to meet and explore questions together. Single events often lead to positive changes in attitude. Yet, they have proven in many cases to be less effective over the longer term and are more likely to reinforce stereotypes because they don’t allow enough time to truly understand other people’s stories. Sustained programming, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to develop deeper relationships based on trust.
To create a successful encounter, it is essential to use a neutral or shared space to serve as a “safe space”. Within this framework, the participants develop ground rules. Maintaining this environment will enable the students from each of the groups to cultivate feelings of respect and understanding.
There has to be a process of preparation before, and reflection after, the engagement takes place. It is important that students have the chance to learn something about the other students they will be meeting, and that they are given time and space to process what they have learnt afterwards.
One misconception about interfaith engagement is that it can weaken participants’ own beliefs. From our experience, and that of many other practitioners, rather than diluting the participants’ own beliefs, exploring the faiths, beliefs and cultures of others actually makes students feel more confident and secure in their own identity. In their post-engagement reflections, students often tell us that they have realised they needn’t be embarrassed to express their religion, and that they can share their beliefs with other people even if they belong to a different faith.
3FF is currently working in over half of the Muslim faith schools in London, as well as a wide range of other religious and non-denominational schools. Many of these schools have rarely, if ever, worked with an agency outside their own community. As such, the process of building trust is often a slow one. However, we have found that investing time – sometimes up to a year – is worthwhile in ensuring that schools are ready to commit to the programme for the long-term.
Once the link is established, ensuring genuine communication is a key contributor to a successful linking partnership. Any issues or challenges that arise need be communicated honestly and openly. In this positive and mutually supportive environment, religious leaders, teachers, parents and facilitators have the power to act as positive role models for students.
Direct encounters through programmes like Faith School Linking is one way to address the challenges posed by diverse societies. These engagements create a trusting space between communities that can be expanded to involve more people.
Children who participate take what they learn home and communicate their positive experiences to their friends and family, acting as vehicles to reach the wider community and becoming catalysts for wider positive change.
Stephen Shashoua is Director of the London-based Three Faiths Forum (3FF).