post by Kaleem Hussain, Honorary Fellow
The UK Government (MHCLG) has recently appointed Colin Bloom as the Faith Engagement Adviser (FEA) whose remit is to lead a review into how best the government should engage with faith groups in England. The FEA will also be looking to make recommendations on how the government can best celebrate and support the contribution of faith groups, break down barriers and promote acceptance between faiths, and promote shared values while tackling cultures and practices that are harmful. At the heart of the remit includes ensuring that there is fair and equal treatment of faith and religion in politics.
At a time when political discourses have become more toxic through narratives of hate, nationalism, extremism, racial and religious bigotry which lead to violent and catastrophic ends, the role and importance of faith and faith groups in deconstructing and dispelling these toxic narratives is critical as more often than not, the tools of religion are being misconstrued and used to provide ammunition and succour to fuel the ulterior motifs and divisive narratives that such individuals and groups seek to espouse.
I for one feel that in order to address the toxic narratives of hate and bigotry and its multiple manifestations at a racial or religious ground, Faith Literacy Initiatives (FLI) need to take place and be introduced at our schools, colleges, universities, public and private sector organisations. The FLI needs to feature theologians, faith leaders, teachers, experts, and professionals who are well versed in the modalities of the various faith traditions in their contextual settings including those who are living and practicing these faith traditions as part of their daily lives across a range of sectors and organisations. The resulting impact of such an initiative is that it helps the recipients who are receiving the messages and teachings from the respective faith traditions connect at a human level, draw inspiration and the same time help dispel and root out the distorted understandings and misrepresentations of faith traditions that often lead to destructive outcomes at an individual and collective societal level.
An initiative that I feel proud to have been a part of recently is the Encountering Faiths and Beliefs (EFB) workshops pioneered by The Faith & Belief Forum. Through these dialogue workshops, individuals of different faith traditions convene together to share the experiences of their own faith journey with young students at a primary and secondary school level. I have had the honour to speak at a range of schools from different faith denominations in the West Midlands about my own faith journey but at the same time learn about the issues, critiques, challenges, and opportunities that young people face with respect to faith, identity, politics and the media through the interactive dialogue workshops and questions and answer sessions. I very much feel that the benefits of the EFB workshops are reciprocal as for myself I was able to gain a pulse of young people’s viewpoints, share a panel with representatives of different faith traditions to learn about their faith journey and for the young students as they had the opportunity to hear at first hand the faith journey and experiences based on the speakers’ own faith background and unique perspective.
The EFB workshop is an example of how barriers can be broken through education, understanding and acceptance of different faith traditions. Initiatives such as these and I am sure there are many more innovative offerings in this space I feel are critical especially for young people. If at a young age, firm grounding and understanding is provided not only with respect to one’s own faith tradition and culture, but that of other faith traditions and cultural norms; this helps foster better racial and religious harmony and assists in rooting out the toxic narratives of hate, extremism, racial and religious bigotry that have become more vividly prevalent and unduly normalised across mainstream discourse in recent times.
The Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion (ECC) has been playing a pivotal role since its inception in 2014 to enhance the public understanding of religion regionally, nationally, and internationally through distinctive, strategic, innovative, impactful, and engaged interdisciplinary research. Another example of the FLI drive that I have alluded to in this piece is the Faith Leaders Training Initiative (FLTI) delivered by ECC that seeks to empower faith leaders with the confidence and knowledge to meet the changing needs of their congregations and communities which has received positive reviews from those that have engaged with the programme.
The FLI drive is critical to the future discourse in enhancing the public understanding of religion. For such initiatives to have a meaningful legacy and impact, it is imperative that they are autonomous and independent from the dictates of government whose role should be to support and facilitate such initiatives and are able to evolve organically bottom up from the grassroots where faith-based institutions, educational providers, public and private sector organisations are empowered to deliver the FLI core teaching, values and principles in a proportionate manner that caters to the religious needs and cultural sensitivities of their respective constituents.