27.05.2016 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

UNESCO conference highlights good practices in intercultural dialogue to prevent extremism, with the Delegations of United Kingdom and Lithuania

On 19 May 2016, the Conference on “An Alternative to Extremism: Cooperation among the Communities of Different Religious Faiths in Multinational Cities” was held at UNESCO, co-organized by the Permanent Delegation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to UNESCO, the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Lithuania to UNESCO, the Woolf Institute, Cambridge (UK).

The conference brought together scholars, expert stakeholders, and representatives of non-governmental organizations: The discussion was moderated by Prof. George Joffe, Research Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, with the participation of H.E. Mr Hatem Atallah, Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation; Dr Valdas Mackela, Assistant Professor  in Catholic Theology; Ms Radia Bakkouch, President of the Interconvictional Movement of the Young "Coexister”; Dr Shana Cohen, Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute and Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre.

Mr Qian Tang, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education highligthed the importance of cities as spaces for multiculturalism and intercultural encounters to learn to live together. The Permanent Delegate of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, H.E. Matthew Sudders underlined the relevance of such meetings, bringing together people of different faiths and scholars, to better understand the issues at stake in the current international context. The Permanent Delegate of Lithuania, H.E. Arunas Gelunas, highlighted violent extremism as a major obstacle for building cohesive societies, in a vicious circle where attacks and violence fuel hatred and prejudices towards specific communities or faith.

All participants highlighted the need to foster education of global citizenship and to build a more comprehensive and strategic approach for intercultural dialogue, building the new “cultural literacy” to equip young people with the skills they need to interact in societies today. Cooperation and dialogue between faith communities play a important role in today’s multicultural cities. The extent to which community organization and grassroot social action encourage constructive interaction across individuals and groups of different beliefs was also discussed.

The Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation, Mr Hatem Atallah, argued that the most influential factor in violent extremism propaganda today is the absence of a counter- narratives demonstrating that cultural diversity and cultural exchanges are at the roots of all civilizations. Dr Valdas Mackela raised the issue of intolerance among religious communities in Lithuania and the related deficiencies in the adaptation and recognition of religious diversity. Rather than tolerance, however, the concept of “active coexistence” was proposed by Ms Radia Bakkouch, as a relevant alternative response to extremism.

The Conference focused on innovative practices experienced in London and other relevant projects in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Delhi and Doha. Dr. Shana Cohen from the University of Cambridge shared the results of a study on alternatives to extremism. She underscored the need to develop a much stronger dialogue between citizens on one hand, especially community and religious leaders, and political elites on the other hand. “Lack of communication and cooperation creates exclusion and fuel prejudice, misunderstanding at the heart of religious and ethnic conflicts.” she said.

A second project was presented by Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine (London), who focused his intervention on one practice of a broad-based community-organizing initiative in Great Britain. He highlighted the importance of learning from best practices and of having a pluralist and inclusive conception of community-organizing, which offers valuable opportunities to upscale interfaith and interreligious cooperation and to counter extremism on a more solid basis.   
The conference concluded with a round table discussion on the previous presentations and offered valuable insights relating to innovative ways of reinforcing social cohesion and mutual knowledge amongst religious communities.

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