A Discussion with Stephen Shashoua, Coventry University and New Horizons for British Islam

With: Stephen Shashoua

August 30, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Melody Fox Ahmed conducted an interview with Stephen Shashoua, who is is the strategic advisor to Rising Peace Forum at Coventry University and to New Horizons for British Islam. Shashoua discussed his work with the Three Faiths Forum, universities as important centers for exploring faith and engaging in dialogue, and the complex interplay between interfaith work and efforts to counter violent extremism.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

After more than 10 years steeped in interfaith as director of the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), I recently founded a consultancy called Plan C Culture and Cohesion, working around helping people and organizations such as universities, foundations, and NGOs in strengthening their engagement with other faiths, beliefs, and cultures through training, programming, and facilitating direct encounters. Much of this is about shifting attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions within organizations and in their output—which goes into their own policies and practice.
I am also a strategic advisor to the Rising Peace Forum, a product of the Centre of Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. I use an interfaith and intersectional lens to develop content around culture and conflict that tries to bridge academics, practitioners, and policymakers. Through Plan C, we are working with a couple of different Muslim organizations on strengthening both their interfaith and intrafaith engagement, particularly around dialogue and programming.

How do you define interfaith service?

In everything I do, my main aim is either to add a faith lens or strengthen relationships across faith lines. Over the years, my definition of interfaith has become somewhat blurred. I see interfaith within the wider piece of social relations, but without replacing it. In this, interfaith is a necessary lens in an intersectional and therefore highly complex relationship between people and groups. Interfaith service is a person-to-person and group-to-group engagement in social action primarily along faith lines.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

I was dealing with interfaith from a fairly young age. I am of Iraqi-Jewish background and was born in Montreal, Canada. I grew up in secular Christian schooling with a multicultural demographic. While my grandfather had become Baha'i before marriage, we were basically secular traditionalist Jews that were part of the Iraqi-Jewish community. We went to Orthodox synagogue on high holidays, but we ate bacon at home. So the multiple parts of my identity and the context I was in were always swirling in my head. I did constantly see the silos and racism within communities, and because I had a foot in so many different communities, I naturally saw myself a bridge-builder and was able to connect with different members. This knowledge of diversity and fostered empathy was invaluable when I started working at 3FF.

Can you share some highlights from your academic and professional background? In your opinion, what is some of the most important work you have done in terms of interreligious studies or efforts?

One of the best things has been getting to know a wide variety of individuals and communities and learning from people. Individual and communal perspectives are a lifelong gift that I have gotten out of this work over the past 11 years. More specifically, I think it’s the programming that we developed at 3FF that has been really important. From Faith School Linking, to educational programs in schools, to the ParliaMentors University leadership programme, to our work with arts and culture, all of the programs have seemingly filled a gap and are ongoing. For example, working with 40 faith schools on sustained bilateral linking is necessary when they don’t have much interaction with the outside world. The relationships developed between students, teachers, parents, and communities are the result. This is important in a multicultural society like the one we have in the United Kingdom.

I feel proud that 3FF and our programming has been part of a new wave of innovative interfaith projects and organizations in Europe (Coexister, Muslim Jewish Conference, the Feast, New We, Tony Blair Faith Foundation, etc.) and the United States (Interfaith Youth Core, Tannenbaum Foundation World Faith, Project Interfaith, etc) which challenge and question the way that interfaith was done traditionally. For example, the things we did around arts and culture helped make interfaith seem cool to a more young professional audience who are kind of scared of religion.

Lastly, the most rewarding part of this work is to have a hand in the shifts in perceptions and attitudes in individuals and groups, leading to genuine and sustained relationships and stronger resilience and cohesion.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects? Tell us a little more about your work with higher education institutions.

Higher education institutions have a massive role to play, and I feel that we are only scratching the surface. The fact that universities themselves are a place of exploration of faith, belief, and identity (including race and gender) should be capitalized on, and these themes should be core to the university experience—not simply an add-on. Where else can we find such a place where people can be safe for this kind of dialogue, to question and explore things such as interfaith relationships, power dynamics, international issues, etc.?

Having just been part of a fellowship at Yale called the Yale World Fellows, I saw both the need for cohesion on campus and in the local community. Within a few days of being in New Haven, I realized that it is a very divided city between “town and gown.” Racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically, there are problems, and New Haven has a lot of literacy issues. I heard one statistic that 30 percent of adults in New Haven have basic to below basic literacy levels, which was shocking to me. That this could happen in a mecca of learning like Yale, which has one of the biggest endowments, and is a center of such knowledge, but still allows this type of poverty and lack of literacy occur in its own backyard, seemed to be either bad management or inhumane. I started working on a campaign there around literacy because I saw injustice, bad management, and low levels of cohesion occurring. Interfaith service has a key role to help address the imbalance of power.

While I was at Yale, protests around institutional and racist incidents occurred. While the university has since addressed some of the issues, the reality is there has been no place for healthy dialogue and practical training around race, belief, and gender on campus. This is something all universities can learn from interfaith. We need to use the power of the university community better to shift and challenge issues and make academia and students do more to engage both their own diverse community as well as the wider community more fully. Dialoguing through an interfaith lens is a great way to do this. We are not asking necessarily for an academic approach, although it can be. We can use the faith lens because it gets beneath the surface and pushes for more authenticity and deeper dialogue, which connects people further.

At 3FF, the ParliaMentors program, which has been running for 10 years now, works with 50 university students each year, placed in groups of four. They are mentored by a member of Parliament while they work on service projects. While we hope their service is successful, much of the experience has to do with the act of service rather than the output.

I think that such experiences should be mandatory and be institutionalized. I know in the United States there are certain opportunities for university credit, but we don’t have this in the United Kingdom.

What kinds of support have you receivedfrom your government, friends and family, institutions, organizationsin pursuing interfaith service related work?

I have received help from the amazing connections I have made worldwide that have enabled me to find a community that made it clear that I was not just in a box thinking this alone, but that there are others who think the same way. I think there is something special about the connections that can be built across people and organizations. Of course, funding is very important because without that initial trust, it is very difficult to get things off the ground. It started with government grants and built upon that. I also received training for skills ranging from how to write good press releases, to media engagement, to facilitator training, and even to scriptural reasoning. The kind of help I have received all has been really helpful and definitely the podium to get these ideas out that people can connect with and relate to.

What have been your greatest challenges regarding peacebuilding and interfaith/intercultural dialogue and cooperation?

Sometimes is seems that there are barriers to genuine dialogue because people, groups, or institutions are not willing to be vulnerable and allow authenticity to occur. To me, these have been some of the bigger challenges. Interfaith work is hard, and it is an uphill battle. When a teacher says that it’s a blessing to do suicide bombing, how far does that set us back? Sometimes the people in leadership positions are the ones pulling us back and making our work that much more difficult. While necessary, policies around countering violent extremism (CVE) have negatively affected interfaith since 9/11. They have unfairly problematized one group. At times, interfaith is seen through a security lens rather than a cohesion, integration, and equality one. The golden age of interfaith has been the past 15 years since 9/11, and our movement has to find better ways to deal with racism and inequality through policy and grassroots engagement. The high levels of funding and attention given to CVE efforts should actually be transferred to the interfaith movement. CVE is an important but separate piece, and only through better cohesion can one see where violent extremists are.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

My engagement with other people and ideas.

What is one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

I want to see this being taken seriously, less media and public relations stints, and more authenticity and engagement.

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