The world needs a bottom-up approach to interfaith peace-building

Dr. Dino Patti Djalal

The world needs a bottom-up approach to interfaith peace-building

Dr. Dino Patti Djalal

Published in The Jakarta Post, Tuesday, April 4th 2023


Do you think we are any closer to a world of tolerance and harmony?

In 2016, PEW, a US-based research center, conducted a survey on how Muslims, Christians and Jews were treated around the world. The result was eye-opening: they found that Christians were harassed by the government and/or social groups in 144 countries; that Muslims were similarly ill treated in 142 countries; and so were Jews in 87 countries. The problem has gotten worse. The same survey three years later revealed the numbers have increased.

Clearly, bigotry is a global problem that is not going away.

There is plenty of bigotry among religions worldwide, but among the most persistent – and turbulent – is the one involving the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

The reality on the ground is this: despite the UN Charter, and despite the commitment of states to the norms of democracy, freedom of religion, rule of law, pluralism and diversity, bigotry is very much alive and kicking at the grassroots level in both the developed and developing worlds.

In many parts of the Muslim world, anti-Semitic sermons in Friday prayers are commonplace.

Conversely, in parts of Europe and the US, Islamophobia is growing. In the US, for example, Christianity Today reported that “most white Evangelicals don’t believe Muslims belong in America,“ and an ABC poll conducted a decade after 9/11 found that 61 percent of Americans had unfavorable views of Islam.

A big part of the problem is what we may call “inherited bigotry.” People despise other faiths because since they were born that is what their parents, their communities, and their schools taught them to do.

Indeed, in many instances, the harm that bigotry brings about is not readily apparent.

But we are dealing with degrees of sentiments: from mere apathy, to resentment, to intolerance, to irrational fear, to hatred, and finally to hostility so enormous that it translates into violent action. These sentiments can bring about various forms of harm: from discrimination, exclusion, harassment, oppression, hate crimes, persecution and, in their most extreme form, terrorist attacks with genocidal intent. The latter was clearly the case when families of suicide bombers attacked churches in Surabaya, Indonesia (2018) and Sri Lanka (2019); or when a lone gunman attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand (2019), or when another gunman shot two Jews outside a synagogue in Los Angeles (2023).

It is therefore important to understand that bigotry is a threat to security and a spoiler to development.

Meanwhile the problem of tension among the Abrahamic religions is spreading and growing in intensity, but there is no systematic global effort to address it. Even the statements of SDG (sustainable development goals) fail to mention the need for harmony, despite the abundant empirical evidence that in some countries, tensions among the Abrahamic religions have led to marginalization, unrest and instability.

Indeed, it seems that many governments have not been diligent enough in looking into why within and between countries religious prejudice and intolerance have continued to rise.

There are also structural gaps that stand in the way.

In the West, politicians and the general public tend to be a lot more concerned about racism and lately about LGBTQ issues but dismissive of religious bigotry. Thus, racist slurs against Asians or blacks will certainly spark a backlash, but provocative acts inspired by religious prejudice, such as burning of the Quran, which is extremely hurtful to Muslims, are regarded as exercises in free speech. Also, for historical and political reasons, Western governments are also generally more sensitive to anti-Semitism than to Islamophobia.

In the Muslim world, many do not make a distinction between the Israeli government and the Jewish people—they lump together the politics and the religion in a single package of hostility. In many countries, they recognize Abrahamic tension – the tension between the Abrahamic religions — as an uncomfortable problem best swept under the carpet.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the conventional inter-faith dialogue is not always effective. Former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla rightly said there were just “too many […] doing the same thing with little impact”.

Against this backdrop, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) has developed a more focused concept on interfaith peace-building.

We designed a program for Abrahamic religious leaders from different countries that would last three weeks (not one day), located not in conference rooms but in private space, with emphasis not on exchange of formal speeches but on personal bonding.

The first group, calling themselves “the Genesis Circle,” consisted of an Indonesian imam, an American rabbi, and a priest from New Zealand. (I know, it sounds like the intro to a joke) For three weeks, they traveled together as one group, and spent one week in each member’s hometown — in Denver, Colorado, the U.S, Christchurch and Jakarta. In each location, they lived in the house of a circle member, met with the family, shared meals and rides, spoke with the local congregation, participated in community work, enjoyed recreational activities (watched baseball, went hiking etc), and engaged in informal religious dialogues. They carefully avoided discussing sensitive political issues.

The approach worked. What happened to the Indonesian imam was particularly interesting. The Imam had confessed in a testimony that he “hated Jewish people”, because that’s what he was taught all his life. Joining the circle allowed him to meet a Jewish rabbi for the first time in his life. Three weeks of traveling with the rabbi and the priest not only created personal friendship between them, but also shifted his prejudice to respect, all the while strengthening his faith in Islam. Still in his 30’s, the imam teaches at a madrasah where he now shares with his students his Abrahamic journey and the merits of mutual respect among religions. For the Indonesian imam, it was a life-changing experience. That’s one score against bigotry at the grassroots.

Since then, FPCI has conducted five more circles — supported by the governments of Australia, Denmark and an Indonesian minister (who wishes to remain anonymous) — all with the same effect on all those who participated: new friendships, changed perceptions, and a surge of mutual respect.

I would highly recommend this methodology of inter-faith “personal bonding” to push back against bigotry. This brings into play a creative bottom-up approach that focuses on religious leaders with strong following at the grassroots, one at a time.

Empirical evidence suggests that in the past 2000 years there has not been a century when the followers of the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism globally and totally lived in peace with one another.

We still have time to write a different history for the 21st century.


* Chairman of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and Founder of 1000 Abrahamic Circles program.