Strengthening Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue through Knowledge Sharing

July 10, 2018

United Nations Headquarters, New York  

The recent event, Strengthening Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue through Knowledge Sharing: Opportunities and Challenges, organized by The United Nations Alliance Civilizations (UNAoC) and the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), was an opportunity for diverse actors to share their thoughts and their work on the status of interreligious and intercultural dialogue(IRD/ICD) in the world today.  Specific focus was given to knowledge sharing and educational platforms.

The event received support from the permanent missions to the UN of Austria, Spain, and Saudi Arabia.  Five experts in IRD/ICD shared their work and insights on the theme.

The meeting began with a statement by Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.  He noted that violent extremism, xenophobia, and discrimination are on the rise and affirmed the need for of dialogue in promoting a culture of peace: “We are all too aware that the absence of dialogue between and among civilizations strips everyone of the benefit of new cultural experiences. Segregated and inward-looking communities fuel mutual ignorance and prejudice. They also breed social exclusion, intolerance, and serious violations of human rights. Promoting genuine dialogue is an essential feature of inclusive societies.”

Representing KAICIID, Ambassador Alvaro Albecete spoke on the need for the international community to recognize the commitment of religious leaders and communities to the fields of reconciliation, social cohesion, peace, and development.  He declared a pressing need for dialogue between policy makers and religious leaders through building online knowledge platforms.  The need to combat the voice of extremists online was also addressed and became a common point of concern throughout the event.  He concluded: “The fruits of dialogue are difficult to measure, but we know that the lack of dialogue leads to misunderstandings, tensions, confrontations, and, eventually, clashes.”

A statement from Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN,  highlighted Islam’s  compatibility with multiculturalism and  its peaceful coexistence with all religions.  He stated that no country in the world possesses linguistic, religious, or cultural homogeneity, suggesting that IRD/ICD is necessary for both national and international peace and security. Reaffirming Saudi Arabia’s view that social media should be constructive, not destructive, he emphasized its value as a tool for intercultural dialogue, but also the danger it creates when giving a voice to violent extremists.  He concluded by sharing the success of various Saudi initiatives in combatting ideologies of hatred and extremism.  These initiatives primarily seek to  raise the level of community awareness.

Philipp Charwath, representing the Mission of Austria, reaffirmed the on-the-ground success that knowledge sharing platforms are having, but also raised the problem of quantitatively measuring this success.  He reminded participants that earlier this year UNESCO published its first survey on Intercultural Dialogue, confirming that, among member states, intercultural dialogue is seen as essential for peace, the prevention of violent extremism, and the promotion of human rights.

Ms. Belen Alfaro, Spain’s Ambassador at Large for the Alliance of Civilizations and for Interreligious Dialogue, stated that “our role is to ensure that culture and religion are not part of the problem, but part of the solution,” going on to affirm that intercultural and interreligious dialogue do address the underlying causes of conflict.  Shining a light on the problem of religious prejudice, she noted: “Violent extremism and terrorism cannot and should not be linked to any one religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group.  This is not a clash of civilizations, it’s a confrontation between civilization and barbarism.”   Emphasis was placed on a values-based educational system, as well as working with young people, women, and religious leaders to spread understanding.

Presentations on the work of the organizers of the event, UNAOC and KAICIID, followed.  Both  operate numerous programs establishing IRD/ICD with a particular focus on education, media, migration and youth. One example is KAICIID’s Peacemap, an online, crowd-sourced database, which documents existing tensions and conflicts alongside the numerous actions of people who seek to bridge differences through IRD.

The meeting continued with presentations by six women from civil society, all experts in the field of IRD and ICD.  Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, stressed the importance of balancing a data-driven approach with the un-measurable, human element that is at the heart of religion and culture.  Her work pairs data with robust individual interviews, satisfying policy makers' need for measureable statistics while highlighting the more intangible religious/cultural contribution.  She notes that dialogue between policy makers and religious/cultural leaders is much more difficult than between the religious/cultural leaders themselves. 

She also highlighted the inextricable link between development and IRD/ICD touting the importance of initiatives encouraging dialogue at local and regional levels instead of focusing only on a global level.  As well as being Executive Director of the World Faith’s Development Dialogue, Ms. Marshall helped establish the G20 Interfaith Forum.  She notes a lack of “religious literacy” on the international stage—there is surprisingly little understanding of how religious institutions function and what they offer to the international world.  She  ended with a profoundly simple statement: “It is important to have the complexity and richness of religious knowledge reflected in the discussions of the global agenda.”

Annamaria Olsson, founder of Give Something Back to Berlin, spoke on  the organization’s  work for community integration and intercultural dialogue within Berlin’s diverse migrant population.  Aiming to show that everyone has something to give and contribute,  the group brings native and immigrant populations together in community service, partners with local NGOs and runs projects in art and trauma therapy, music, language learning, cooking, and job coaching.

Samira Luka represented the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), a major development movement in Egypt that has established an influential forum for intercultural dialogue.  She echoed many of the previous speakers’ concerns, notably that policy makers are often far from the on-the-ground reality of the average citizen.  CEOSS places civil society and policy makers in direct conversation.  This has led to some significant successes. For example, dialogues were initiated with grassroots groups during the drafting of the Egyptian constitution, and some of the articles adopted reflected these important conversations.

Sara Zaini, the founder of Emkan Education, an education consultancy based in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, spoke of the importance of changing the mindset of educators.  Online courses, targeted specifically to Arabic-speaking educators, promote diversity and knowledge of other cultures and religions beyond one’s own.

Velma Saric is founder and president of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) which is dedicated to restoring a culture of peace in the West Balkans. She emphasized the power of storytelling, historical remembrance, and truth-seeking.   In addition to extensive research and outreach, the PCRC develops multimedia tools and platforms to inspire social activism and educate viewers, particularly youth.  Documentaries produced by the group have reached over 370 million people worldwide.

The meeting concluded with a call for interfaith education in national curriculums, Surprisingly, this is absent in both secular and religious nations.  A final statement by High Representative Al-Nasser reiterated the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation in establishing a culture of peace—noting that the vast majority of religious leaders support this and can help bring it about.

The full video of the event is available here

More information about the event is available here.