Representatives from eight different religious sects gathered together in Beirut last week to discuss “interfaith cooperation” in one of the large marble floored conference rooms of the Rotana Gefinor Hotel.
The Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), which helped to organize the conference, aims to facilitate discussion on radicalization and extremism prevention and to help resolve conflicts.
“People of different religions are living together more and more,” Mohammad Sammak, secretary-general of the National Committee for Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Lebanon, said following his presentation Friday.
“Now, if there is no culture of accepting and respecting differences, this means that whole community will face trouble and conflict. [The way] to avoid this is through a culture of accepting and respecting differences. We can do this by dialogue,” he said.
The conference was arranged by FDCD and Danmission, a Denmark based Christian NGO that focuses on poverty reduction and religious dialogue. Entitled “Danish Arab Interfaith Dialogue,” the event was organized to look at ways that discussion between people of different faiths and cultures can benefit them.
“Let’s say there’s a crisis again like the Mohammad cartoons,” Maria Lindhardt, regional representative for Danmission, said in reference to the controversy sparked by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten Publishing 12 editorial cartoons on 30 September 2005, depicting the Prophet Mohammad that led protests and attacks on Danish embassies.
“At a forum like this, we can tackle it and talk about which messages need to go both ways. And then these people can go out to their networks and explain in the right way, so there’s no other media [with] different agendas [getting the wrong message] out,” she said.
Such messages could go out through “high level” representatives, since the conference participants ranged from the leader of the Evangelical Church in Egypt to the advisor to the Lebanese Grand Mufti, Lindhart explained.
But for everyday citizens there’s also a reason to go out of one’s way to meet people who believe differently, she said.
“We have to learn about each other, dare to find each other and ask about the difficult things, so we don’t fall for – no offense – bad news and media who don’t do their work properly,” Lindhart said.
She admitted that measuring the real world effect of such interfaith dialogue was difficult, if not almost impossible. But she and her organization believe fervently in the power of discussion. And they’re not alone.
“I have been having ‘dialogue coffee’ with the people who’ve sent me hate mail for the past seven years,” Ozlem Cekic, a former member of the Danish parliament – one of Denmark’s first female, Muslim MPs – and an activist and public debater, said in the lobby of the hotel.
“I believe that if we are to change attitudes, then we have to talk to those who create the problems,” she said, of the people who had sent her hate mail “only because I’m Muslim, because I’m a woman, because they want me out of the country.”
Cekic’s work has been featured on the U.K.’s BBC as a way to build bridges in a society feeling increasingly polarized.
“There’s no alternative to conversation. The more we get to know each other and see the other human as a human, to feel his pain, the easier it is to talk about difficult things,” Cekic said.
Seeing each other as humans, as equals, also makes it harder for people to be violent towards each other, she said – and because “everything around Lebanon burns and half the population are refugees,” the time for talk in the country is now.
Lebanon-born and raised, Sammak said he was wary of speculating about the future. But said he takes some comfort in the particular qualities he saw as being exhibited by the Lebanese.
“We have a culture of inventing hope. It transcends optimism. We don’t have much to be optimistic about but we always have hope that we can overcome our problems in the future,” he said, with a smile.