Peter Riddell
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21 March, 2012

Peter Riddell
Peter Riddell
When I started working to build trust between British, Europeans and the ‘Muslim world’ nearly 40 years ago, the ‘Muslim world’ was ‘over there’. But now the ‘Muslim world’ is an integral part of Western Europe, and these countries are having to redefine their identities to incorporate a substantial element of Islam and other faiths brought by immigrant communities.

It brings to mind something that the Dalai Lama has been saying, that ‘The 20th century was a century of war and bloodshed. The 21st century must be the century of dialogue. Every problem can be solved by means of dialogue. This is what this century should show everyone.’

The theme ‘From Interfaith Dialogue to Multi-faith Collaboration’ reflects my own journey and the journey that I believe we all have to make. There are two progressions: from Dialogue to Collaboration, and from Interfaith to Multifaith.

In dialogue, we are facing one another. In collaboration, we are moving forward together towards common objectives, which sustains and deepens the dialogue. Similarly, ‘inter-faith’ means ‘between people of different faiths’, suggesting two separate sides; whereas ‘multifaith’ indicates a space where everyone is welcome, no matter what their belief tradition.

My personal dialogue with the Muslim world started in early 1973. I was selected to join a British student delegation visiting Egypt as guests of the Ministry of Youth. Largely illiterate in the history and geography of the region, I had no idea what I was going into. It was a turbulent time in Egypt; massive student demonstrations had left hundreds in jail.

The student leaders, who were our hosts, were not going to allow my historical illiteracy to go unchallenged. The 1967 war with Israel was still fresh in their minds – some had had fathers or uncles killed or injured in that war. Israel had committed the deed, Britain had created Israel, so my country was responsible, and the finger was pointing at me!

There were plenty of other grievances, such as the incident in the 1920s, when British authorities hung some Egyptian peasants after a pigeon shooting incident, and the time when ‘we’ put tanks on the palace forecourt to make it clear what we thought the Egyptian King should do! And the 1956 Suez invasion… It was a steep learning curve!

It wasn’t all grim though, and they accompanied us on boat trips on the Nile, and on visits to the riches of Ancient Egypt, and to examples of the Muslim and Christian traditions interwoven in their culture.

I made another fundamental discovery on that trip. The visit was arranged by the Initiatives of Change movement – then named Moral Re-Armament. Their teaching, which had been important in my spiritual life, was that the Christian moral values could be distilled, for beginners, into four standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and the search for the Almighty’s guidance. To my surprise, I found Muslims committed to these same values. This suggested a commonality at the deepest level and a solid foundation on which to build, because as you incorporate those values into your life, you become more trustworthy, and where there is trustworthiness, trust can grow.

However, it was clear from the resentment I had encountered that we would not be able to build on the commonalities unless the grievances could be healed. So ‘healing the past’ and ‘building on common values’ became the theme of this work. Although the grievances the Egyptians were expressing had been committed long before and by people long dead, to my hosts I represented everything that the British had done to Egypt.

I had to learn not to defend or justify, which were my instinctive reactions, but to listen and understand. An English civil servant, who on retirement went to live in Northern Ireland, wrote: ‘If your father dies and leaves a debt unpaid, it is your responsibility to repay that debt’. I came to the conclusion that recompense can only be made by serving.

Service is the antidote to imperialism. The imperial attitude which drew the boundaries which divided tribes and peoples without consultation was one of superiority. Service models the opposite spirit. It implies a stance of kneeling before those who have suffered as a result of actions of one’s own forebears, and a commitment to work together to rebuild. It means finding out what they think is needed and helping them to realise that.

One development which has given us the chance to put this into practice is through supporting Somalis living in Britain who launched a Somali Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy, devoted to ‘the reconciliation of Somalis among themselves and with their host communities’, and ‘enabling Somalis to return to Somalia to play their part in rebuilding the country’

This has been a very rich experience of multifaith collaboration even though there are people of only two religions involved, yet we are working closely together, only occasionally aware of coming from different world-views. And there is a palpable sense of ‘healing the past’ and ‘building on common values’.

Taken from a talk given to The Dialogue Society, Oxford, by Peter Riddell, Convenor of Agenda for Reconciliation at Initiatives of Change-UK. You can download the full text here.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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