Over 60 participants across different faiths and none from diverse backgrounds, age and professions came together for an inspiring evening to celebrate Interfaith Week.
This year’s event was hosted via Zoom, giving a unique opportunity to engage and connect with participants from the UK, Africa and eastern Europe. They were joined by remarkable panellists aged between 16-25, as they spoke profoundly on the theme of ‘Hope – A Youth Perspective’. All the speakers were asked to share how COVID-19 has impacted their lives and how their faith and belief have given them hope at a time of real despair in many parts of the world.
Head of Sustainable Communities Programme, Amina Khalid, opened the evening with a powerful passage from The Quran which reads: ‘O mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and divided you into peoples and tribes that you may know one another’, a verse which emphasises the importance of building relationships across all divides.
In the spirit of making connections, the keynote speaker Maqsood Ahmed OBE who was the first Muslim Advisor to HM Prison Service, and CEO of CDE Acumen, reaffirmed the significance of reaching out to others as part of an Islamic duty to connect with all God’s creation. He spoke briefly on the need to understand and respect – not tolerate – those who come from different religious perspectives. ‘Interfaith is respect for the path you have taken and a kind of mutual respect for living in the society as it is; as a beautiful and complex as it is,’ he explained.
Complex is a descriptive common ground for most of the youth speakers who shared their unique insights into interfaith engagement. Becca Brown, who has no religious tradition, pointed out that especially with COVID-19 forcing people to only interact on social media, its ‘so easy to just spend time with people who think the way that you do… so it’s important to have your views challenged.’ With social media algorithms contributing to a narrow perspective, it is more difficult to find credible and inspiring sources that connect youth to other religious views.
Yet, this is not as hopeless as it might seem, according to Becca. ‘I think that having experiences like this are really helpful for everybody because it makes you feel more involved, and able to ask more questions,’ she said. ‘The more conversations you have, even if you disagree, will disintegrate the walls and the barriers between us.’
Dumisani Mjojo, a young Christian leader and musician, echoed Becca’s thoughts when he remarked that ‘I think that everyone needs to be heard and must be heard. It’s important because it gives people a chance to understand your point of view, and it gives us also a platform for us to be able to have a conversation.’ Even with the complexities of navigating life, university, and relationships in a pandemic gripped world, the need to have open conversations between people of different faith remains.
This has only become more the case with the prevailing attention that has come with the Black Lives Matter movement and the increase in racially motivated violence across the globe. 16-year-old Lina Kacimi, a youth leader and activist who leads and participates in community events, offered that big topics, like Black Lives Matter, ‘pushes people to help other people, to show those who are suffering that they are not alone, to show that we are all here to support each other and to help one another.’ If other complex and important topics have the potential to bring people together and help identify what values they have in common, then why not do the same with interfaith gatherings? My Islamic faith reminds me the need to reach out to everybody, no matter who they or where they come from. Where there is faith, there is hope, she added.
With many of the world’s religious traditions having festivals or holidays, those days are opportunities for hope and interfaith connections to be made. Pre-pandemic, Manasi Vashi who is a Hindu, would invite her non-Hindu friends to celebrations as a way of creating a friendly shared experience. ‘Raksha Bandhan is a celebration of brothers and sisters,’ she told the group. ‘Even if you are not brother and sister, you still celebrate with whoever’s around. So, it educates as well as makes them feel included, even if they don’t necessarily have a faith or religion, but it also gives them a bit of hope, too.’
Despite there being several issues, traditions, and faiths that on the surface make us all different, the speakers during this event all reinforced the need to have conversations on faith. With social media and a global pandemic creating barriers and misinformation, it is up to the youth to bring hope and light to the topic of interfaith cooperation.
Imam Ashafa, who was unable to join because of technical difficulties, sent a voice message that captured the prevailing need as he spoke about religious figures who triumphed over despair; ‘On this day of hope, we shall all plant the seed of hope and reap the fruit of hopefulness, inshallah. I wish you all the best in this world, may we all be safe and healthy, living in hope that the future we shall overcome.’
The event was a special opportunity for participants to engage with different faiths, celebrate diversity, and share experiences; especially as the pandemic continues to present a challenge to ‘normal’ chances to explore faith and human connection.