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Interfaith Friendship Is the Boldest Way to Defy Extremists

Given the news headlines week-in, week-out, interfaith and intercultural relations ought surely to be a priority. Yet we struggle to find funding and support.
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Its Saturday night in Paris and a live band jams on stage, encouraging the audience to sing and dance along with their music. A quite ordinary scene, apart from tonight the lead singer is a Christian and his backing singers, two young men with their arms draped over each other's shoulders, one of them is Muslim, and the other is Jewish. As for me, I am a British Quaker dancing in the middle of an Orthodox Christian from Romania and a Pagan from the Basque country. And I'm grateful for the diverse globalized world which gives me nights like this one. But that Saturday night in Paris took place at the start of last November.

Since then, we have witnessed a very dark winter here in Europe. A steady rise in far-right nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments has led to violent attacks on mosques in Sweden and anti-Islam marches across German cities, meanwhile reports suggest that Antisemitism in Europe is higher than it's been in years. And now, in Paris, a horrific act of terrorism. In response to the Paris attacks, reports of grenades thrown at the city's mosques demonstrate the level of anger some feel towards these events. And it is perfectly natural to feel angry when faced with a situation one cannot understand. Yet when in the history of human civilization has a violent response to violence, of hatred towards hatred, ever created a wholly positive result?

I'm certainly not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out that the angry, hate-filled actions of terrorists and those of the far-right perpetuate the same response: division and deep mistrust. In a bitter-sweet and ironic turn the opposing actions of these two extremes continually add fuel to each other's arguments. The good news is that these extremes remain very much in the minority. There are over 4.7 million Muslims in France but four men were involved in Wednesday's attacks. And whilst a handful of French people have retaliated with violence towards Muslims, hundreds and thousands took to the streets of Paris and other European cities in a show of defiance; in a display of unity, togetherness, solidarity. Those who believe in finding a way to live together, side-by-side with our diversity, remain the majority. But we need to be a vocal majority; an active majority. Although we must also ensure that we are an inclusive, respectful majority, ready to explore our differences with mutual open-mindedness.

My personal response to the rise of extremism -- of all types -- across Europe is to continue to try and build bridges of understanding between different religious and non-religious communities; to find a way for each person to recognize our shared humanity, as first and beyond the other labels we take on and are given. The evening of music I describe above was the finale to the last interfaith conference I was involved in, and it took place in central Paris. There I met and worked with an incredible group of young French activists from the organization Coexister which works to create dialogue and foster solidarity between young people from different faith backgrounds. They are truly an inspiring group, working in a hostile environment and achieving incredible results.

The problem of extremism, I would argue, will never be solved by delegations of senior politicians at high profile conferences. Rather it is through the grassroots work of organizations like Coexister that individuals, communities and society will slowly be changed. But the interfaith movement in Europe sadly represents a rather small, under-resourced and critically under-funded group; non-the-less, a group with big ambitions. As one of a team of young leaders working alongside the United Religions Initiative (URI) in Europe, I'm helping to create a project which aims to develop and grow the interfaith movement by supporting other young activists in building their skills and resources, assisting them to become effective leaders who can make a positive impact in their communities and beyond. Given the news headlines week-in, week-out, interfaith and intercultural relations ought surely to be a priority. Yet we struggle to find funding and support.

A positive response to Paris would be to support organizations like Coexister and URI any way that you can. To join the interfaith movement -- which in spite of its slightly problematic name, is usually welcoming to people from non-religious, humanist and atheist backgrounds -- as a volunteer and an activist. To join and start-up appreciative dialogues on how we might best approach diversity in our contemporary societies. And most of all, share your good news stories of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds working together, having fun together, making music and dancing together, of interfaith friendship, love and solidarity. For these are the stories of a reality which extremism seeks to deny. Boldly creating and sharing these stories is surely the greatest response to hatred.

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