The topic of this final ‘Making Dialogue Effective’ discussion considered an issue which had surfaced in a number of previous discussions. Dialogue practitioners across the board wrestle with the challenge of bringing dialogue and its potential benefits to those to whom it might be most helpful: isolated groups, and people hostile towards those who are different. Four distinguished panellists considered the conundrum: Prof Ian Linden of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation , Canon David Porter, Director for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, Stephen Shashoua of the Three Faiths Forum and Alison Seabrooke of the Community Development Foundation.
Various practical approaches to getting people in the room were discussed. Ian Linden noted that the Faith Foundation’s schools-based projects target young people in a situation in which they cannot avoid engaging, reaching children of a range of attitudes, including those wary of other communities. Outside the classroom, incentives are important. Stephen Shashoua noted that effective incentives can appeal either to an individual’s ego, duty or humanity, or a combination of the three.
Alongside incentive, Stephen Shashoua identified trust as a key component of engaging harder-to-reach groups. It is important to learn about the target group’s hopes and fears, and to get to know the influencers within the group. Building the relationship takes time, persistence, complete transparency and the suspension of judgement.
As Alison Seabrooke noted, an ongoing process of research, programme delivery and evaluation, as exemplified by the Community Development Foundation, (a former Non-departmental public body which has become a social enterprise), can produce the understanding and sensitivity needed to engage with a range of target groups. CDF’s experience and research has helped them to reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ when managing major community development budgets. The background of staff in grassroots community development has also helped the organisation to make opportunities more accessible to different groups. Simple steps, like ensuring that funding application processes are not complicated, can be crucial, and a small amount of carefully targeted funding can go a long way. Research and experience secures the knowledge and sensitivity to reach less confident, isolated or marginalised groups.
It is important to knock on the door of such ‘fringe’ groups, and it seems not to happen very often. The initiative to do so may be greatly appreciated once the inevitable work of establishing trust is accomplished (Stephen Shashoua).
Additional challenges are faced when attempting to engage those who are actively hostile. Dialogue with such people requires a great deal of preparation. David Porter spoke of a ground-breaking meeting which he helped to organise between evangelical Protestants and Sinn Féin representatives in Northern Ireland in 1995. At that time, most of the gathering felt so much anger against the Sinn Féin leaders that in other circumstances they may have been attacked. Only years of relationship-building, beginning with faith communities and their leaders, and careful management of media and of security, made the meeting possible. Peace, or lasting community cohesion, may depend on making colossal efforts to engage with those you find most difficult to talk to. David Porter noted that in peace-building efforts in Northern Ireland, many saw the ‘moderate middle’ as the Holy Grail. However, as political dialogue on hard issues, including decommissioning, advanced, this ‘moderate middle’ seemed to disappear. Nothing could be achieved without involving people of relatively extreme positions on both sides, and giving both respect and influence to people who bore responsibility for great suffering. Peace came at a high price.
Sometimes, engagement with closed, extremist, ‘takfiri’ elements of our own community is at least as difficult as engagement with different cultural or religious groups. As Ian Linden noted, such groups exist within almost all religious communities. A guest from the Islamic Society of Britain expressed how very difficult it is to engage with Muslim groups who she felt had caused so much harm to the British Muslim community. Panellists agreed that the challenge of difficult intra-faith engagement deserves further attention and efforts. Sidelining ‘hard-line’ groups marginalises them further, making them feel betrayed by their own community and taking us further from an inclusive dialogue.
Ian Linden noted that challenging such groups on the interpretation of Scripture can be a good line of engagement; by questioning their interpretation of a source that they consider totally authoritative you can question extremist attitudes towards other groups in a manner that has legitimacy according to their worldview. David Porter used this approach to engage the evangelical Protestants of his own community in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s. He and others challenged them to follow Christ’s example in the Gospels, and to love their enemies.
In seeking dialogue in challenging contexts, courage and persistence are key. Engaging groups who have no interest in dialogue, or who entirely reject it, is inevitably difficult. But it may also be indispensable to the building of a peaceful and truly cohesive society.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society