Our Parliament is considering airstrikes against Islamic State. The reasons for this Commons debate are very different to the previous, defeated motion back in August 2013 when the government sought backing for air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad to deter the use of chemical weapons. Not only is the target different, but this time the argument includes solidarity with France, to strike back and punish in the name of justice. Longer term notions of peace and what it will take for Syria to return to some semblance of stability and order is trumped. There is talk of a wider strategy. And in this lie the seeds of longer term hope. But for now the urge to punish is strong.
In such an atmosphere, what is the best course of action for those of us involved in inter-faith work and wider community cohesion efforts here in the UK? No matter what outcome our MPs arrive at in the commons, those of us at the sharp end of community relations will have our work cut out. It is here that the long term struggle for sustaining peace is waged. It is here that we need to entertain the idea of a wider strategy.
With our lens trained on the near horizon we must continue to create spaces for meaningful interaction between those of different faiths, beliefs and cultures. We must hold the line as we feel the pressure to narrow the spaces that are so important to our long term strategy. As tension increases and as it gets more difficult to establish the levels of trust needed for different groups to come together, we need to be persuasive. For it is to those more persuasive than ourselves that we are arguably losing out to.
In such an atmosphere it becomes more important than ever that people know the benefits of dialogue and connectivity. If different groups are to be enticed to talk to each other and thereby better understand each other, there must be an agenda that appeals to them, which tells them that their interests will be discussed and heard, and that enables them to bring their values to the discussion.
Such agendas need to be locally driven since each context is different. Nevertheless, I would like to offer here five broad questions (amongst many others) that may provide food for thought when it comes to crafting local agendas for dialogue and action.
- What kind of leadership do we need?
The ability of our traditional political institutions to manage the problems we face may well be in question. But we should not confuse this with a disinterest in politics. ‘Britain is not disengaged from politics. But the current political model is entirely unsuited to the modern political world.’ (Matthew Flinders, Sheffield University). Traditional religious institutions are also losing ground, but similarly we should not confuse this with a decline in religious belief. ‘Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20%. People are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.’ (Linda Woodhead, Lancaster University). A different interpretation of leadership is emerging whereby individuals are expressing leadership outside traditional institutional frameworks. How can we best harness this in tackling the challenges we face?
- How do we engage with ongoing changes to demographics?
Diversity in the UK has been shaped by different waves of immigration, in particular those regulated by the 1948 British Nationality Act, the 2001 Central and Eastern Europe A8 accession, and the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. The current refugee crisis is described by some as the greatest movement of forcibly displaced people on record since World War II (UNHCR). These demographic shifts have created a richly diverse population in terms of race, culture, ethnicity and religion. This diversity also generates anxiety around resources, employment and pressure on public services, particularly during periods of cuts in public spending. How can we best manage this tension?
- What about rising inequality?
Inequality has been rising markedly since the 1980s. Oxfam estimates that the richest 1% will own over 50% of the world’s wealth by the end of 2015. In UK the top 10% of households own 44% of the wealth, and the bottom 50% own just 9.5%. And as inequality grows, status anxiety and insecurity undermines people’s willingness to share with others, particularly those who belong to pre-existing ‘out groups’ such as ethnic and faith minorities. This picture presents serious challenges for faith communities who will need strong moral leadership around the economy in order to bring people together to counteract inequality.
- How can we harness the positive aspects of new media technologies?
The average weekly internet use in the UK has more than doubled in the last 10 years and 86% of people now have access to the internet anywhere. Facebook now has 1.5 billion users worldwide (in 2005 it had 5 million). By contrast, the circulation of The Sun (Britain’s largest paper) was 3.4m in 2005. In 2015 it is 2m. However, although the rise of digital media provides an opportunity to improve the quality of information and reporting about faith and belief, prejudices, falsehoods and conspiracy theories about different religious groups flourish online. The media landscape will keep changing, and intercultural approaches may need to change with it.
- What is the place of religious faith in a secular society?
Generally, there is poor public discussion of the place of religious faith in our secular society, despite the presence of religion in public life. Furthermore, teachers are anxious to have conversations about religion for fear of having to report what students say in line with government legislation. It appears that only ‘moderate’ faith groups are invited into conversations in the public sphere with other voices marginalised. How can we give due respect to different religious faiths whilst also respecting the need for plurality and the expression of non-religious belief?
These five broad issue areas (along with others) contain ingredients for designing agendas around which we can convene those of different faiths, beliefs and cultures. The links between community relations here in the UK and the horrific attacks by Islamic State are complex and contested. But we would do well to keep our eye on the long term need for continued, meaningful dialogue. To make sure we redouble our efforts to establish the conditions for positive and lasting relations between those of different faiths, beliefs and cultures. This includes the crafting of appealing agendas. Whatever the outcome of the commons debate on military action, it is those of us working at the sharp end of community relations upon whom the longer term goal of positive peace depends.