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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.