The Need for Global Lessons in Religious Respect

Foundation Update

The Need for Global Lessons in Religious Respect

15 Oct 2014

The last few weeks have seen a significant shift in the global response to events in Iraq and Syria. Led by the US, more than 40 countries are now joined in fighting the scourge of Islamic State (Isis). This is a sensible decision, but it is not enough.

Because the issue is larger than terror groups like Isis, Boko Haram or Al-Shabab alone. There is a fundamental problem with radical Islamism. And it is imperative that we recognise the global nature of this problem, the scale of it, and from that analysis contrive the set of policies that will resolve it.

In an essay last month, I set out the seven principles of understanding that I believe should underpin this strategy. The reaction to this invariably boiled down to the question of intervention.

There is no doubt that force is needed to confront a group like Isis; it is a group of people who fight without hesitation, kill without mercy and die without regret. But left out of the analysis was one of the most important questions this generation of leaders faces: how we uproot the thinking of the extremists, not simply disrupt their actions.

Because unless we begin to confront the underlying causes each time we take on a group like Isis another will quickly arise to take its place. And in order to fight a warped and worsening ideology in the long term we need to recognise that education is a security issue.

That this issue is raised rarely in the debate of radical Islamism is both perplexing and alarming. Because each and every day the world over, millions, even tens of millions of young children are taught formally in school or in informal settings, a view of the world that is hostile to those of different beliefs.

That world view has been promulgated, proselytised and preached as a result of vast networks of funding and organisation, some coming out of the Middle East, others now locally fostered. These are the incubators of the radicalism. In particular the export of the doctrines of Salafi Wahhabism has had a huge impact on the teaching of Islam round the world.

I am not saying that they teach youngsters to be extremists. I am sure most don't. But they teach them to take their place on a spectrum of opinion based on a world view which stretches far into parts of Muslim society. They teach a view of the world that warps young and unformed minds, and places them in a position of tension with those who think differently.

The challenge we face is to show young people who are vulnerable to appeals from terrorists that there is a better path to having their voice heard; that the only future that works is one in which people are respected as equals, whatever their faith or their culture.

This issue is one I am tackling through my Faith Foundation. Working in schools in 30 countries as diverse as Pakistan, the US and Singapore, they have pioneered a schools programme for 12 to 17 year olds.

The young people in these schools take part in lessons that seek to increase understanding of the faiths and beliefs of others, the facets of identity and the requirements of global citizenship. They also take part in a video-conference with other schools in a global network, so young people from Lebanon or Indonesia can explore and articulate their values, as well as encounter those of students in Ukraine or the United Kingdom.

This can be a profound experience for the students. I recently visited an Islamic school in Jakarta, where children took part in a conference with predominantly Hindu children from a school in India. Watching these young people interacting and dealing with challenging issues around their faith and culture gave me a glimpse of what's possible.

Though they lived in very different countries and followed different religions, they came together and through a shared experience gained a better understanding of each other.

The results of this engagement are apparent - and they are overwhelmingly positive. But it is only foundations like my own and the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund that are even attempting such an endeavour.

We have reached over 100,000 students, which is not nearly enough when a tide of young people are taught a view of religion and the world that is exclusive, reactionary. In the context of a world whose hallmark is people mixing together across the boundaries of race and culture, it is totally contrary to what those young people need to succeed in the 21st Century.

So unless we tackle this question with the honesty and openness it demands, then all the security measures and all the fighting will count for nothing. As I have said before, especially foolish is the idea that we leave this process of the generational deformation of the mind undisturbed, at the same time as we spend billions on security relationships to counter the very threat we allow to be created.

We need at the G20, or some other appropriate forum, as soon as we can, to raise this issue as a matter of urgent global importance and work on a common charter to be accepted by all nations, and endorsed by the UN, which makes it a common obligation to ensure that throughout our education systems, we're committed to teaching the virtue of religious respect.

This doesn't mean an end to religious schools or that we oblige countries to teach their children that all religions are the same.

Catholic schools will continue to teach their children the virtues of the Catholic faith. Muslim countries will continue to teach their children the value of being Muslim. But we should all teach that people who have a different faith are to be treated equally and respected as such. And we should take care to root out teaching that inspires hatred or hostility.

This should be a common global obligation, like action to root out racism or action to protect the environment. Nations should feel the pressure to promote respect and to eradicate disrespect.

The work which my foundation does shows clearly the benefits of education programmes which teach young people about "the other" in ways which enhance mutual respect.

There is plenty of evidence such programmes work. We need to act on it. We need to sow the seeds as widely as possible so that they take root and therefore weed out the perversion of faith that has been growing unchecked.