Beyond Dialogue? Interfaith Engagement in Delhi, Doha and London
John Fahy and Jan-Jonathan Bock reflect on concluding their research project on interfaith initiatives with a policy report, a conference and other launch events.
How do interfaith initiatives respond to the social and political challenges affecting relations among people and groups in an increasingly religiously diverse world? This question was at the heart of our research project over the past three years, which explored the complex urban contexts of Delhi, Doha, and London. The research centred around an examination of how the now global interfaith movement has emerged and developed in three urban sites, each with their own idiosyncratic traditions of pluralism, diversity, and coexistence.
Through in-depth ethnographic research, participant observation and interviews, we documented a range of initiatives engaging with the importance of faith for social relations and politics. In short, we found that official interfaith initiatives in Delhi rest on the laurels of centuries of religious coexistences, focussing on elite gatherings of leaders with high levels of religious literacy, while paying little attention to the everyday interfaith dialogue of ordinary Indians; in Doha, interfaith dialogue involves principally an examination of the role of religion in international relations, exemplified through top-level meetings of political leaders, diplomats, and think thanks, which similarly tend to neglect the situation on the ground; in London, such traditional types of formal, theology-focussed dialogue continue to exist, but grassroots groups are inventing new kinds of engagement, responding to mundane neighbourhood concerns and promoting greater equality and social justice.
The title of the report 'Beyond Dialogue?' therefore reflects debates within interfaith circles, where practitioners grapple with the question of how their groups can retain relevance in changing social climates. Pushing beyond formalised dialogue, which favours events that require high levels of religious literacy and theological interest, does not dismiss the significance of dialogue events, but rather highlights the changing aspirations of different generations and new forms of engagement. The focus on high-level diplomacy in Qatar, for example, also removes dialogue from exclusively religious circles and illustrates the importance of paying attention to religiosity in policy. With its focus on political elites, however, this approach to interfaith cannot demonstrate the relevance of interfaith engagement to wider society as a whole, and pays little attention to the everyday relations that shape lived religion as practised by numerous faith groups in Doha — one of the most religiously diverse cities in the region.
In late April 2018, we published the policy report, which details findings from the three case studies, through a series of events. To accompany the publication, we hosted a two-day interdisciplinary conference on the theme of 'Emergent Religious Pluralism(s)'. The event included a keynote address by Professor Nasar Meer from the University of Edinburgh, a leading thinker on the intersection of ethno-religious diversity and citizenship in Britain. We were joined by twenty experts from around the world to discuss how emergent kinds of religious coexistence necessitate new reflections on the meaning and practice of pluralism. Our discussions illustrated that pluralism means more than simply diversity: whereas diversity is the description of a social fact, pluralism goes beyond empiricism and demands the serious and open-minded engagement with difference in its varied manifestations. The conference paved the way for an edited volume with Palgrave Macmillan, co-edited by the two authors of this blog post and Sami Everett.
The final event of the conference on 'Emergent Religious Pluralism(s)' was the official presentation of our policy report, accompanied by the opening of a photo exhibition, 'Faces of Faith', at the Woolf Institute.
In addition to these events in Cambridge, we presented our report and key findings at Georgetown University, Qatar, which has been one of the partners in the research project. Following a presentation of the three case studies and our findings, we had a lively discussion with the audience on our findings and recommendations. Expectedly, the audience in Doha was most interested in the report's implications for managing religious diversity in Qatar, but the other case studies also generated interest, such as India's long history of religious tolerance and its implications for present challenges and the country's political landscape.
We hope that the report, and subsequent publications, including the edited volume, will contribute to and catalyse discussions on religious pluralism and its implications for social relations and policy. One of our key findings has been that interfaith initiatives still struggle to engage meaningfully with difference, and this occurs across the three sites. A somewhat forced emphasis on similarity and shared values often suggests that differences are a mere surface quality and do not demand serious attention. We suggest, however, that many differences in belief, worldview, or outlook are real and matter for the processes through which individuals and groups generate their identities. If interfaith initiatives want to be successful in reaching out beyond religious circles, they need to become better at approaching difference without fear of disharmony. Perhaps our report and related events can contribute to the discussion.
John Fahy and Jan-Jonathan Bock are Research Fellows at the Woolf Institute. John Fahy has also worked for Georgetown University in Qatar on the joint project, Assessing the Effectiveness of Interfaith Initiatives. The project was funded by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF).
To visit the 'Faces of Faith' exhibition, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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