Interfaith dialogue: prose or poetry?

Aviva Dautch, Senior Policy Officer for Interfaith Issues at the Board of Deputies of British Jews,

Last night I attended the launch of a government consultation on creating a framework for inter faith dialogue and social action. Secretary of State for Communities, Hazel Blears, stated that its intention is ‘to find out how Government can best support dialogue between faith groups and the circumstances in which inter faith activity is helping to make a positive difference to communities around the country’ as ‘faith groups are a key part of the way we respond to the challenges we face.’

The consultation’s twenty questions on the structures and impact of interfaith should stimulate some thoughtful analysis by faith leaders from a variety of religious communities and geographical areas over the next few months, and last night I was intrigued to hear the initial thoughts of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams spoke about the way faith is often perceived by society as ‘exotic’ and something that makes someone ‘other’ to the mainstream community, or as ‘poetry’ – far-removed from the experience of the ordinary man. He urged us to challenge this perception and speak about faith in the language of prose, something that is part of the daily experience of the ‘man or woman on the street’ and intrinsic to many people’s identities.

As a Jew who works in inter faith education, I agree that both faith and interfaith discourse should be accessible and take account of ordinary lives, but believe that to do so in a useful way it needs to more closely resemble poetry than prose. Once, poetry was the language of the masses, an oral tradition whose music filtered into memory, extending and reinforcing identity. Poetry is concentrated and powerful, as inter faith dialogue has the potential to be, and teaches us to frame words carefully.

In poetry the white space is as important as what is written, highlighting the poem’s place in its environment and the interaction between writer and reader, encouraging us to listen with acuity. The space for eisegesis and exegesis in theological terms, or ‘reading into and out of a text’ is essential because it encourages a dialectic approach.

I am currently steering a piece of research about Jewish involvement in interfaith activities and many of the respondents describe their motivation as ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘anti-Semitism’. This is both understandable and valid, but if the sole prompt for inter faith engagement is fear of ignorant prejudice from the other, then there is a danger that what it will lead to will be a monologue - as the impulse is to tell one’s own story and listening to others’ stories becomes a secondary concern.

I would argue that ideally inter faith encounters should be dialogues where speaking and listening have equal weight, so that the connections created have depth and trust.

Finding the appropriate structures for interfaith engagements depends on both internal and external resonances. The title of the government consultation is Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side and is taken from the work of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has written a great deal over the past few years exploring different structures for inter faith. The Chief Rabbi posits two main models: ‘face-to-face’ direct encounter and ‘side-by-side’ working together in joint projects and social activism; recently he seems to be leaning more towards side-by-side joint activism to recreate society as ‘the home we build together’.

As the consultation progresses over the next twelve weeks it will be interesting to see what forms and structures other faith leaders and religious communities favour and how they believe interfaith dialogue shapes and is shaped by British society.

Aviva Dautch is Senior Interfaith and Education Policy Officer for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She is also a Creative Educator for the British Library where she leads workshops about Sacred Texts. She is a trustee of the Inter Faith Network, the Inter Faith Youth Trust and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage