The Forum for Peace, the fourth forum for promoting peace in religious societies, has been held at the St Regis Hotel in Abu Dhabi (UAE), bringing together delegates from Muslim and non-Muslim communities around the world[1].

The executive director of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (UAE/UK), which runs the event, said its aim is to adopt an “iterative process” to “inoculate” against the extremist tendencies and misunderstandings of faith currently being experienced in Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It aims to do this through addressing the primary narrative of Islam, and reconciling the Islamic tradition with the world we live in today. He comments that current counter-extremist discourse tends to focus on creating counter-narratives rather than employing the use of theological concepts[2]. A similar theme was explored at a recent Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion symposium in the UK[3].

Attendants included political and religious leaders from Muslim communities, as well as other religious and non-religious communities, who came together to “confront hatred and bigotry” through interfaith engagement[4].

A variety of panel discussions were held as part of the event, with the overwhelming message appearing to be that education is important in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities in order to tackle issues of extremism and Islamophobia.

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The ‘Faith, Trust and the Common Good’ panel discussion brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims with the aim of “turning the other into our brother”[5].

Pastor Bob Roberts, the founding and senior pastor of the evangelical NorthWood Church, USA, was one of those on the panel. He discussed how evangelicals are the most hostile group to Muslims in the U.S., and so he was grateful for the opportunity to be invited to the conference to build interfaith bridges[6].

He said, “The biggest proponent of Islamophobia in America are the evangelicals … You cannot change their mind. The more you tell them that they’re wrong, the most they’re going to push back on you. But guess what? I’m an evangelical … and when they see people like me and [Muslim religious leaders] are close friends … and they see that ‘how can Bob be friends with all these Muslims?’ … it’s a game-changer. The biggest challenge we have is not how do we intellectually discuss the differences we have in religion, but how do we learn to relate to one another, how do we learn to love one another? … We must pray for the whole world … because we were all created in the image of God, and if we can’t pray because of that, then we’re just going to constantly fight”[7].

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‘The Fear of Islam: Causes and Contexts’ panel discussion discussed how in the U.S., discrimination against religious groups never goes away, people just become more embarrassed to do it. However, recent rhetoric in the U.S., legitimised by Trump, has meant people are less embarrassed to be discriminatory towards Muslims, leading to Islamophobia. However, there is hope the situation will change in the future[8].

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The ‘Religion, Identity and Violence’ panel discussion discussed how the Islamic world can help young Muslims understand what it is to be a Muslim in the West and how to negotiate their multiple identities through the medium of social media[9].

The UK context was discussed, with speakers commenting on the need for new strong religious leaders and institutions in the UK to fill the current ideological guidance gap which exists for young people. This gap is filled by Muslim youth through looking online, and this can lead to them interacting with extremist material and thus becoming radicalised[10].

Dr Qama-Ul Huda, the director of the Security and Violent Extremism Program at the Center for Global Policy, USA, commented on the U.S. context. He said the U.S. government cannot really fix these issues because it faces strong limitations on what they can say about and how they can engage with religious communities. However, it can think about the narratives it is producing surrounding these issues, and convene people together who can address the issues[11].

Dr Qama-Ul Huda later said of the conference, that it brings together people from many communities on the premise that we are one humanity who have to share the planet, and thus delegates “put a sense of a high level of urgency to all our work”[12].

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The ‘Islamophobia, the Media and Communication’ workshop discussed how Muslim communities need to tell their stories better and become more professional about publicising work within their communities, and inter-faith work, drawing on marketing expertise. Muslims know they are just like everyone else and how great their communities are, but this experience needs to be shown to non-Muslim communities[13].

One speaker drew on how Jewish organisations in America take delegations of non-Jews to Israel to immerse them in the Jewish religion and culture. She suggested that a similar programme could be set up for non-Muslims in Western countries, who can travel to Muslim countries and immerse themselves in Muslim religion and culture. The intended result would be to combat Western stereotypes about Islam, which are often employed and propagated by the media[14].

Muddassar Ahmed, the managing partner of UNITAS Communications, UK, also commented on combatting stereotypes in the media. He said it is important that Muslims in the West step out of their comfort zone and speak to people they do not agree with, and tell their own stories in person, in the media, and on social media[15].

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Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and president of Zaytuna College, USA, said that in the effort of achieving the conference’s aim, the Muslim community first has to look at itself and understand how much it has contributed to the Islamophobia. He comments that while he cannot deal with a lot of the factors that influence Islamophobia, “I can deal with my own attitude, and how I do things. And I think we have to look forward and stop looking back, and using the grievances of the past to fuel the grievances of the present, which just extends grievances into the future”[16].

Dr Amineh Hoti, the executive director of the Centre for Dialogue and Action, UK, said the conference is a really encouraging platform. She said it encourages peace-building in Muslim society and is a great first step for the UAE, which is the heart of Muslim societies. However, more needs to be done. Islam is fundamentally about peace, but there is a need to extend talking about this into action, strategy, and planning. This involves questioning, “how do we work in a concrete, strategic way as a global humanity, and particularly … the Muslim community, how do we work to revive a sense of knowledge, a sense of humanity, a sense of respect for the other?”[17]

Dr Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and podcaster for the New York Times, and the bestselling author of Adnan Story, echoed this, saying that the conference has modelled conversations which now have to be translated into the community, and that delegates must discover how to “live this message”[18].

It was announced during the conference that the Forum will be entering into a partnership with the United Nations which will “design a roadmap for advancing religious education in Muslim societies. We are signing a memorandum of understanding to work together in the planning of ten workshops in 2018 and 2019 across the Muslim world, bringing together schools, academia, and government representatives”[19].

[1] islamchanneltv, 2018; Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Forum, 2018.

[2] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[3] University of Birmingham, 2018.

[4] H.E. David Saperstein, Director Emeritus, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, USA, in islamchanneltv, 2018.

[5] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[6] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[7] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[8] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[9] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[10] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[11] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[12] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[13] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[14] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[15] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[16] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[17] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[18] islamchanneltv, 2018.

[19] islamchanneltv, 2018.

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Sources

islamchanneltv. (2018) ‘Forum for Peace ¦Conference Programme’. [online] (video) 28 February. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrggSjKQISA&t=1261s. [Accessed 12 March 2018].

Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Forum. (2018) ‘Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies’. [online] http://www.peacems.com/en/default.aspx. [Accessed 12 March 2018].

University of Birmingham. (2018) ‘Cadbury Centre hosts symposium on Islamic values and human rights’. [online] 27 February. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/ptr/departments/theologyandreligion/news/2018/Cadbury-Centre-hosts-symposium-on-Islamic-values-and-human-rights.aspx. [Accessed 12 March 2018].