Religion has been blamed for many conflicts and wars for centuries, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Throughout history religion has been used as a driving force, or excuse, for some of the world’s worst atrocities. In recent years, it has been blamed for acts of terror sparking a rise in Islamophobic rhetoric. So what is the key to a peaceful co-existence? Joanna Andrews caught up with Dr. Edward Kessler, an academic who specialises primarily in contemporary Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.
Fear of Faith
Dr. Edward Kessler, whose education includes stints at Harvard and Cambridge University, is the co-founder and executive director of The Woolf Institute (named after Lord Harry Woolf, Patron of the Institute). It is a charitable company with an objective to make a significant contribution to the inter-faith encounter through teaching, research and public education in the encounter between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Dr. Kessler is also a Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and he has penned numerous books, most recently ‘Jews, Christians and Muslims’ which was published in 2013.
Dr. Kessler, who is considered one of the most prolific interfaith figures in British academia today, says there is a lot of fear in the world right now when it comes to social, political and inter-faith issues. “It’s not just a Western phenomenon. I think it is a global phenomenon,” he says. “It is a fundamental fear about ‘the other’.” But who or what is ‘the other?’ “The other could be anyone, it could be another faith, it could be another nationality, it could be another culture it could be another social economic class,” he adds.
The fear peaked in the West since the recession but globally post 9/11, according to Dr. Kessler. The solution, he says, is that people need to build up a level of trust, understanding and respect when it comes to inter-faith dialogue. “But it can’t stop there,” he warns.
We are living in a world eaten up by its obsession with faith. Islam is too often inaccurately portrayed by the mainstream media feeding pre-existing prejudices and stereotypes. Most of the public discussions on Muslims in Britain tend to focus on extremism and violence while ignoring their important contributions to inter-faith dialogue. Sensationalised anti-Muslim headlines are regularly splashed across the media.
Islamophobia is no doubt one of the major challenges facing the West today, Dr. Kessler points out. He says society is anti a lot of things right now, but anti- Muslim rhetoric is arguably the largest. “It is the xenophobic attitude, whether it is racism, anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti ‘the other’ or antimovement in general, but Islamophobia is probably the largest of these, and that needs to be tackled face on.
“When it comes to Islamophobia, it is far more effective if Jews and Christians say ‘this is wrong’; when it comes to anti-Semitism it is far more effective if Christians and Muslims stand up and say ‘this was wrong’ because each of us, obviously if we are targeted, are always going to say ‘this was wrong’ when we are under attack. That’s where the collaboration and the reaching out and relationships are absolutely vital, whether it is at the most senior level or whether it is grass roots.”
Dr. Kessler says that unfortunately the loudest voices are often the most shrill, and they tend to represent radical branches of different faiths traditions. “That is true in the Jewish world if you look at some of the settlements in the West Bank, and that’s true in the Christian world when you look at some of the Southern parts of the United States, and that’s true in the Muslim world when you look at some of the radical extremists. They unfortunately have a much louder voice and are heard more than the vast majority of us who are people who want to get on with their lives and get on with other people, and that’s a problem.”
Engaging the Youth
At an inter-faith conference in Doha in March Ibrahim al-Nuaimi, Chairman of the Doha Centre for Inter-faith Dialogue said that young people are the key to the advancement of any nation, and he called on the youth to engage in dialogue on the religious diversity across the world.
Dr. Kessler agrees that education is a key component to ensuring a healthy society, “But it is not enough on its own,” he adds. “The most educated society in the history of the world in the 20th century was Germany, and look what happened in the Second World War! Education is not enough, but it is a prerequisite.”
Dr. Kessler believes that change starts at home. “Just because the Pope says something doesn’t mean 1.2 billion Catholics agree with him, likewise for the Archbishop of Canterbury or Jewish leaders or whoever they might be. Leadership is often local, located at the home of your local Muslim leader, your local Rabbi, you local Christian minister who has more influence on your thinking than someone in Lambeth Palace or in the Citadels of the Vatican or wherever he might be."
The Human Encounter
Much of Dr. Kessler’s work has been examining Scripture and exploring the significance for Jewish-Christian relations of sharing a sacred text. He has identified a common exegetical tradition, especially in the formative centuries. Many of his writings have focused on the encounter with Islam and contemporary relations between the three Abrahamic faiths. Dr. Kessler proposes approaches for managing difference, which he argues is vital in forming a positive identity as well as sustaining communities. “It is important that we manage difference as a positive and not as a threat,” he says.
“No matter what a person’s belief system, whether you follow the teachings of Christ, Buddha, or the Prophet Mohammed, it undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression on one’s mind,” Dr. Kessler says. Through the Woolf Institute, he aims to break down barriers between people of different religious beliefs and further relations between their faiths.
“What I have discovered in the 20 years that I have been devoted to studying and engaging with interreligious conversation is that essentially it is about a human-to-human encounter.”
He goes on to say, “It is much harder to engage with somebody else if you don’t understand what they believe, what they think, important moments in their lives, in their history, in their cultures, so education is vital but it has to be alongside practice. It’s no good being brilliant if you are going to be evil.”
In the darkest corners of human history there are many examples of tragedies that are difficult to understand today, where one group of people have experienced catastrophic hardship that was generated by another group of people – like slavery and the Holocaust.
While those tragedies are not in the living memory of the youth today, they are a harsh reminder of the potential danger of religious or social indifference. Acceptance is perhaps a pre-requisite for a peaceful world. Is it too much for people of all faiths to apply the basic values needed for a just society? Perhaps! If only we could set aside our differences and instead use our time and energy to work for the good of all mankind so we can live in a world with peaceful co-existence. As Martin Luther King once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”