Interfaith initiatives are common, and without a doubt, there is a dire need to encourage better understanding between communities and traditions. However, interfaith initiatives have become an economy of their own, with numerous high level events and large conferences around the world. While it is often tempting to confuse impact with a large or high level gathering, this article by Ceren Zeytinoglu*, makes the opposite case: interfaith initiatives that last and have deep impact on participants and communities are those that happen at the grassroots levels. Ceren draws from her research on two initiatives, one in London and one in Diyarbakir, Turkey. All opinions expressed are that of the author. All opinions expressed are that of the author.
Interfaith dialogue has gained pace in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to address the tensions between different faith communities. Yet, a crucial question remains partially answered; what kind of interfaith dialogue actually work?
I searched for answers to this question while doing field research on two different interfaith dialogue initiatives, in two very different communities.
The first study was done on the London Interfaith Centre in February 2014. Located in the ethnically diverse borough of London, Brent, the centre brings together people from Zoroastrian, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faith traditions through activities such as storytelling, silent meditation, factual discussions, visiting holy places and community work.
The second study was on the Council of Forty, located in one of the most diverse cities in Turkey, Diyarbakır, in June, 2015. The Council of Forty is Anatolia’s first interfaith council that brings together 46 opinion leaders and clergy from all communities to promote dialogue and sustain a fruitful engagement. They include diverse ethnic backgrounds like Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Assyrians and faith traditions like Alevis, Sunni Muslims, Yezidis and Christians.
Unlike high level interfaith dialogue projects, both of these initiatives were community based, grassroots initiatives that were created by people living in very close proximity. The London Interfaith Centre is based in an old Christian chapel. The Council of Forty organised their monthly meetings at the Surp Giragos Church, the oldest Armenian Church in the region.
The major difference between the two interfaith groups was their ‘purpose’. The London Interfaith Centre mainly aimed at strengthening community bonds between different faith groups. Factual discussions, visiting holy places and text reading activities aimed at erasing misconceptions and facilitating the desired notion of learning about other faiths, from the people of those faiths.
While The Council of Forty also aimed to erase misconceptions and contribute to the dialogue culture of their community, their main purpose was to make sure that a culture of reconciliation that the Kurdish Peace Process set gained local support from their communities in Diyarbakır. Therefore, they aimed for a larger political change, but also highlighted the importance of not mixing political discussions with faith-based ones.
Even though their ‘purposes’ were slightly different, the ‘best practices’ and ‘success criteria’ strikingly resonated each other. One key principle that all of the people working on interfaith initiatives united around was the importance of these initiatives to be locally-generated, by people who are regarded as opinion leaders on faith matters by their own respected communities.
They were informed of interfaith initiatives happening at both the national and international level. Agreeing that these ‘were also required to normalise the dialogue culture’, they criticised the unavoidable generalisations that some of the large-scale interfaith initiatives cannot but fall into.
Members agreed that participating in interfaith activities took the passive act of tolerating one step further, and showed the importance of trying to learn from each other’s religious practices, which ended up enriching their own spiritual experience.
Assessment of both cases showed that interfaith initiatives are most successful, if not valuable, within the limits of local communities, working from the bottom-up to bring about sustained engagement between and within different faith groups. Their success depends on their long-term commitment to continue engagement, and demonstrate maturity in handling real differences in beliefs and political views.
Ceren Zeytinoglu is a researcher with a focus on Turkey. She worked for the Turkish think-tank TESEV, and coordinated the anti-corruption project SELDI. She is currently finishing a Masters degree at the London School of Economics.