Intercultural work has developed greatly over the past years. We are well beyond just “dialogue”.
Most people would probably agree that trying to establish better relationships between people of different faiths and beliefs is very desirable, in particular in today’s multifaith, multiethnic society. We have all seen what happens when those relationships are not working, with everything from inter-communal tensions to religious and far-right extremism rising to the surface. But fewer people have any concrete suggestions about how to actually go about improving the relationships. Intercultural work is a vital part of the solution, if it is done right.
The days when intercultural work was all talk are long gone. Many organisations and projects now place emphasis on generating shared action between people from different communities – at all levels of society.
Dialogue in the classical sense is still important, and we obviously want to see more religious and community leaders involved in intercultural initiatives – but we will not stop there. It is not uncommon to find projects working with teachers and pupils, with artists, social entrepreneurs (like ADR), doctors and lawyers and other professionals, political leaders, university students, etc. It is also important to try to involve as many different people as we can from the religious to the non-religious.
While opportunities to meet people from other cultures are increasingly common, meaningful learning doesn’t always follow and they don’t necessarily bring about positive shifts in attitudes and real social change.
Instead of going the well-trodden route of sloganising the promotion of intercultural harmony, it is essential to act in order to bring about the wider change we need to see. Good intercultural engagement often begins by increasing people’s understanding of what others are like – by not just teaching the facts about what they believe, but instead by creating opportunities to meet and explore questions together. Single events often lead to positive changes in attitude. Yet, they have proven in many cases to be less effective over the longer term and are more likely to reinforce
stereotypes because they don’t allow enough time to truly understand other people’s stories. Sustained programming, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to develop deeper relationships based on trust.
To create a successful encounter, it is essential to use a neutral or shared space to serve as a “safe space”. Within this framework, the participants develop ground rules. Maintaining this environment will enable the participants from each of the groups to cultivate feelings of respect and understanding.
Intercultural work, at its best, allows people to break through their old prejudices and get to know something of the actual person behind the stereotype. This is above all a humanising process, where people discover similarities with those they previously saw as fundamentally different to themselves. And even when there are substantial differences of opinion, people often discover that these are not real obstacles to co-operating and getting to know each other. And they are certainly not a reason for hostility.
If done well, we will see attitudinal change, but it is a long process to really extend these changes into communities and society at large.
This type of work – call it intercultural, inter-communal, inter-faith or whatever you wish – should really be part of the culture of each country. If we want to see a real improvement in community relations it’s not enough to just wait for things to get better. Interaction between faiths and cultures has to be actively encouraged and facilitated at the outset – until it becomes a natural part of everyday life. The cost of doing nothing is too high.
We don’t pretend that intercultural work is a panacea for all of society’s ills. There are tensions and problems between communities that can’t be solved by more inter-cultural understanding. But by getting over the negative attitudes that keep us divided, we are in a better position to work together to deal with the real issues at hand.
Promoting understanding and co-operation between our diverse communities is a crucial step towards building a more united society, free from hate and intolerance. That is why intercultural work is needed today more than ever.