Cultural Kinetics

Inter Faith Week – what, how and why?

“There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.” (Dr Hans Küng)

If you are living in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you may be aware that Inter Faith Week 2013 has arrived, running from Sunday 17th to Saturday 23rd November (in Scotland it will be Sunday 24th November to 1st December). This week of events and initiatives is relatively new in the UK, but as we will see, inter faith dialogue and action has taken place across the world for many centuries.

So what is ‘interfaith dialogue’? This term refers to the positive, cooperative and constructive interaction between people of different faiths and/or people of humanistic or spiritual belief systems. It is interesting to note that the use of the term “spirituality” has changed throughout the ages, and is in modern times often separated from Abrahamic religions.

Dialogue plays a key role in encouraging people of different backgrounds to enhance their understanding of different religions, in order to increase their acceptance of other people, and share (and often celebrate) the commonalities that exist between each other. It is not concerned with changing people’s religious beliefs, but is instead focused on promoting a theme of co-existence and peace within local, national and international communities. Throughout the world there are many local, regional, national and international interfaith initiatives, however examples of interfaith dialogue and action can be identified from across the centuries. For example:

The Emperor Akbar the Great encouraged religious tolerance in Mughal India, a diverse nation with people following many religions including Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity.

Since the first World’s Parliament of Religions meeting in 1893 (the first attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths), there have been a number of similar meetings often referred to as the ‘Parliament of the World’s Religions’.

Throughout the 1900’s the inter faith movement gained more widespread interest, and different religious representative bodies began publically working more collaboratively.

After the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11th 2001, inter faith work was given more prominence in the media and many bodies began engaging in inter faith activity with more urgency.

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(Congress of Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, 1893)

In July 2008, the UK Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government published a report titled ‘Face to Face and Side by Side – a Framework for Partnership in our Multi Faith Society’. This document was a presentation of the Government’s strategy for further developing inter faith activity in England, encouraging faith communities, the Government and groups from wider society to bring people of different cultures and religions together. As a part of the consultative process, the Inter Faith Network for the UK proposed that there should be a national Inter Faith Week, based on a similar type already held in Scotland, and the first official Inter Faith Week took place in 2009. This has been an annual event ever since.

According to The Inter Faith Network for the UK, inter faith activities “highlight the good work done by local faith, inter faith and faith-based groups and organisations; draw new people into inter faith learning and cooperation; enable greater interaction between people of different backgrounds; help develop integrated and neighbourly communities; celebrate diversity and commonality; and open new possibilities for partnership”.

This type of initiative can help to improve the level understanding between people that have religious or non-religious beliefs, increase awareness about different cultural and faith traditions, strengthen community relations and helps to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that lead to segregation and isolation within the community.

So in the days that follow, take a look for inter faith activities in your area, or simply make an effort to have a conversation with someone new. It may be your work colleague, neighbour or even a stranger on the street! No matter who it is, give it a go, and you may just learn something new, make a new friend, and make a difference to the world.

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Please don’t #BlameTheMuslims

Once again Muslims are being thrust under the spotlight. The tragic slaying of a British Soldier on the streets of Woolwich is both horrific and terrorising, but by simply listening to the political and religious rhetoric being shouted by one of the men responsible for this, we can see that his ideology is one not shared by the majority of Muslims.

These attacks are not because of Islam – they are because of a small group of disenchanted people who have been radicalised. Many people are talking about this like it is new but Britain has a history of this happening. The IRA, Animal Rights Militia, Angry Brigade, INLA etc have committed terrorist attacks in Britain because of political and religious ideology since the early 1970s. However, what is new is the savagery of the horror that took place, the public display of brutality, and the ostentation they showed whilst waiting for the police. It was so much more than a murder and according to the BBC, was “precisely the kind of attack that security chiefs have long feared could come”.

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already stated that there are “strong indications that this was a terrorist incident” and whilst only time will tell whether these individuals had any link to a particular extremist organisation, what is clear is they were two very deluded individuals with extremist ideas, which cumulated in a heinous murder. Their motivations were obvious as one of the men, after encouraging bystanders to film him on their phones, spouted:

“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

It is also believed that the victim was targeted because he was a soldier, in protest of British Army involvement in Muslim lands. And yet, for hundreds of years Muslim soldiers, sailors and airmen have served, fought and died as part of the British Armed Forces. This alone serves to highlight the fatuity of the culprit’s motivations.

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We MUST remember that the actions and proclamations of these men have the intention to spread fear, anger and hatred in our society, and if people respond to this in kind then their twisted interpretation of Islam is fed. Our resolve must be to do exactly the opposite. According to Muslim scholars around the world, the Quran (the central religious text of Islam) preaches peace, and not the falsified representation of Islam that extremists proclaim. In response to the monstrous events in Woolwich yesterday, leaders of different communities once again called for calm, peace and restraint in the coming days and weeks, and the Muslim Council of Britain have pleaded that:

“This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn this unreservedly. Our thoughts are with the victim and his family. We call on all our communities, Muslim and non-Muslim, to come together in solidarity to ensure the forces of hatred do not prevail.”

And so we should. Fear and frustration are a key motivator for violence and hatred, and we must try to resist casting hateful, uneducated and inaccurate stereotypes across a whole religion because of the horrific actions of a few. There is no faith, no country, and no culture that is not left untouched by evil in one form or another, and so we must stand up to this together.

Please… don’t #BlameTheMuslims

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Defining Religion

The term ‘religion’ is something that frequently invokes an instant emotional response in the majority of people. Some will think of devotion, belief, dedication or commitment. Others will conjure up images of conflict, hatred, mistrust and misunderstanding. When discussing religion, it should help to define it so that we can understand what we are talking about from both our own standpoint (and that of others) but this is not easy to achieve.

Definitions of religion tend to either be too narrow (and so exclude many belief systems), or they tend to be quite ambiguous (thus suggesting that any belief in anything is a religion). For example, a common, and what I would deem ‘narrow’ definition of religion, would be “a belief in God” but this in its essence virtually excludes polytheistic religions, thus failing to recognise anything other than those that are monotheistic. It is noted here that the study and definition of religion is convoluted, difficult to understand and open to different interpretations, so this article purposefully falls short of discussing this in depth and instead aims to identify a definition which takes into account these areas of contention.

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Many definitions of religion have been offered over the years, some which are complex and some which are overly simplistic, and this can make it difficult to reach an unbiased understanding. In the book Archaeology of Religion, a number of historical definitions are discussed, highlighting the challenges and complexities in defining something that is understood, perceived and practiced differently in vastly different ways. However, it does attempt to overcome these idiosyncrasies by offering a definition from which to work:

“Religion is a system of beliefs that posits supernatural beings and resolves mysterious or unexplainable phenomena; it is a set of practices and associated trappings that allows believers not only to engage the supernatural world but also to demonstrate their devotion and faith in it. It is intricately intertwined with every aspect of culture that shapes social structure, while it also in turn is shaped by it.” 

This definition, whilst seeming “suspiciously broad and non-specific” is useful as it can be used to refer to all manner of religions, the ways in which beliefs are lived out and also recognises that religion and culture are intertwined and so cannot be separated. It identifies that “religion, in the past and today, permeates every aspect of how humans construct their social institutions – from art, to marriage, to politics”, and this brings us to today.

There is a vast lack of understanding about different religious beliefs and practices in our world. Living in multicultural societies, having a wealth of information at hand (thanks to books and the internet), and seeing various interpretations of religious belief through many different medias does of course mean that we now know more than we have ever known before. However, this wealth of information sometimes presents an inaccurate or skewed explanation of beliefs, and is open to different interpretations by different people. As a result, many people still lack true insight into what their neighbours, colleagues, friends and fellow citizens actually believe.

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In the book Religious Studies and Comparative Methodology, Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying that:

“If you read the Quran, you must read it with the eye of the Muslim; if you read the Bible, you must read it with the eye of the Christian; if you read the Gita, you must read it with the eye of the Hindu. Where is the use of scanning details and then holding up a religion to ridicule?”

In the spirit of this intuitiveness, Cultural Kinetics will soon be launching a Fortnight of Faith Facts. Over the course of 14 days, we will be discussing different religious beliefs in the hope that we can encourage others to question their own preconceptions, learn something new and challenge some of the stereotypes they hold about others. We hope that you join us on our journey…

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The Need to Re-think Muslim Stereotypes

“The greatest gift we can give to our children is to raise them in a culture of peace”

Louise Diamond

In the days following the heinous crime carried out at the Boston Marathon on 15th April 2013, the Muslim community was once again thrust under the spotlight. Boston, like London, Moscow, Mumbai, Spain, Baghdad, Oklahoma City, Kabul, Newtown, Columbine and many other places around the world has fallen victim to a terrorist act with tragic consequences. It is true that the two brothers responsible for what happened were self-identified Muslims, but before this news even came out many people had already decided that there was a link to Islam and that those responsible would be Muslim individuals.

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A number of significant events such as the 9/11 and 7/7 tragedies, and Muslim reactions to the Gulf War and Salman Rushdie controversies, have reinforced negative stereotypes about the Muslim community and Islam itself, and have fuelled far-right groups in their hateful spewings. In response to the events in Boston, some people quickly chose and continue to choose to vilify or shun members of the Muslim community, often placing the blame directly onto them. However, the danger here is that humans have a tendency to stereotype instantly in order to make sense of something with which they are unsure, and in highly emotive situations this process is even stronger. Jeff Greenberg, a Psychologist from the University of Arizona commented after the bombings that “when death is percolating close to consciousness, people become more ‘us vs. them’ – they become defensive of their belief system, positive toward those they identify with and more negative to those who espouse a different belief system”.

Whilst stereotyping may be something that humans do instinctively, we must be conscious that stereotypes can be (and often are) completely inaccurate and damaging to the lives and communities of others. In a recent BBC report, Khaled Beydoun from the UCLA School of Law suggested that “a white terrorist will be framed as an individual aberration [whereas] a culprit who is an Arab, Muslim or black American will vilify an entire community of people”. This view has some substance. It is simply not right to stigmatise an entire community because of the immoral and barbarous actions of a few. However, quite often the stereotypes and associated emotions that are raised in people can be so strong that they end up omitting or censoring information that may counteract this, such as this stark piece of information:

Islam forbids terrorism.

Surprising? It probably is to some because those who scapegoat Muslims for any terrorist attack are undoubtedly lacking a full understanding of Islam. Time and time again leaders from within Muslim communities declare that this kind of act is not permissible under Islamic Law and is in no way justifiable, but this often does very little to change people’s views. A common argument often given is that ‘Muslim’s do show support for terrorism’ but this is nonsensical because Islam, just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and every other faith in existence, has individuals who have, do and will interpret scriptural and practical teachings in their own way. Indeed, Muslim scholars from around the world have repeatedly declared that the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, preaches peace and not the hatred that is sometimes misconstrued.

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The borders that exist in our world are no longer as stark as they once were. The communities in which we live are no longer unblended. Our lives are no longer untouched (in one way or another) by someone from a different cultural origin, background or belief system.

Whilst some in our society attempt to divide us, we must strive to never allow another’s hate to turn us into haters. No matter what our differences are, we are united by a common humanity, and we should take inspiration from those who try to heal communities, who try to promote peace at a both a grassroots and a global level, and who refuse to shun those whose cultures or beliefs are different from their own.

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Culture – an iceberg analogy

Culture is not something which is always easy to understand. Because of this, I am often asked what it is, what defines it and how it can be sufficiently explained. When asked, I usually pick up a pen and start drawing something like this:

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In 1976, Edward T. Hall (an American anthropologist) developed the iceberg analogy of culture. Hall reasoned that if culture is an iceberg, there are some aspects which are visible and can be seen (above the water), and a larger aspect which is hidden beneath the surface (below the water). Let me explain this in more depth…

The external conscious part of culture is what we can physically see (i.e. the tip of the iceberg). These parts of culture are those which are often encountered first when emerging yourself into a new country or culture, such as architecture, food, art, music, dance, religious practices, types of dress, language or greetings and more. This includes behaviours which you can see such as people kissing as they greet others, shaking hands, queuing, holding eye contact or hand/facial gestures.

The internal unconscious part of culture is beneath the surface of what we can see (i.e. below the water line). These parts of culture are those which are related to or cause those parts which you can see, such as beliefs, values, motivations, world views, gender roles, etiquette, social or familial rules, importance of time, concepts of self and many more. These patterns of thought underlie the behaviours which can physically be seen.

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So there you have it! It is a nice, quick and simple way of explaining culture, and one which I often use at the start of training sessions to help people think about what culture is. Try this and you will usually see a few surprised faces in the room! Why? Well many things that we take for granted on a day to day basis are simply facets of our own culture, and yet, we do not always recognise them for what they are. Culture is a fascinating thing…

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Religion vs Culture – one and the same?

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On many occasions when teaching, training and leading discussion on intercultural topics, I have found that people often think of religion and culture as two separate entities, failing to realise that they are actually very much interlinked. If we look at definitions of culture, we can view it as being the traditions of a group of people, the shared values and beliefs of that group, and the behaviours which are seen as acceptable within it. Religion, just like culture, also consists of patterns of values, beliefs and behaviours followed by people practicing that religion (i.e. belonging to that group). In both religion and culture, the manifestations of these constituents occur regularly in their manner, are expressed in a number of ways and are shared by a wide group of people.

However, not all religions and cultures are homogenous, as the meanings and principles of them are subject to different interpretations by different people. This is why, for example, there are so many different denominations within the Christian faith, and why in some countries there are cultural differences between those living there in their attitudes, habits, cuisine, language and more (such as those living in Northern and Southern Italy). To illustrate this, the following infographic we found online is made from words that describe the culture of differing areas of Italy:

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The relationship between religion and culture can influence many aspects of life including values, beliefs, social issues, educational practices, political systems, dress, cuisine, architecture and public holidays. For example:

Good Friday is a religious holiday (a religious practice) observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary, and across the UK as a whole it is an annual public holiday for all (a cultural practice).

In some religions specific foods are prohibited, such as pork among Muslim and Jewish adherents (a religious practice), and so the provision of pork dishes in Pakistani or Israeli restaurants would be rare as dietary guidelines are strictly observed (a cultural practice).

In India the caste system (a system of social classification) has origins in Hinduism (a religious practice), from which the tradition of allowing sons and daughters to only marry someone from an equal or higher caste is still prevalent in India today (a cultural practice).  

Whilst these examples are useful in providing some real life insight, it is important to note that the relationship between religion and culture is never as simple as this, because many different influences come into play. Individual freewill dictates that not all members of a particular group will adopt the same values and beliefs or behave in the same way as others. In addition, the dynamics of living in a multicultural society can also influence the extent to which traditions and customs are either retained or lost. More to come soon…

In the meantime please feel free to comment and discuss, and if you have any examples of your own please let us know!

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Culture – a fishy explanation!

It is often quite difficult for people to grasp the concept of culture and fully understand what it is, so to help offer a different approach to explaining what it is, here is an alternative (albeit slightly fishy) explanation.

Think about a tropical fish tank. Can you picture that in your head? All those beautiful tropical fish? That’s great.

Now imagine you are watching the fish swimming around, hiding behind the plant life, darting in and out of the little ornaments.

Red fish, blue fish, green fish, orange fish.

Big fish. Small fish.

Spotty fish. Stripy fish.

It’s a beautiful scene – with so much diversity! But what does this have to do with culture? Well, culture is just like the water we have in a fish tank, and we (human beings) are the fish which the water surrounds. Culture is dynamic and ever-changing, and is made up of the shared values and beliefs that we hold. It is also made up of the traditions which we (often unthinkingly) abide by and the etiquette we should follow (which behaviours are accepted and which behaviours are taboo).

In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox discusses English values which we shall use here to provide some explanation to this. Values can be viewed as being principles or standards of behaviour, such as playing fair or being courteous to others. Traditions can be defined as being a mode of thought or behaviour which are followed by people from generation to generation, such as May Pole dancing or Guy Fawkes Night. Finally, etiquette sets out what behaviours are regarded as correct or appropriate in everyday life, such as saying please and thank you, or not burping out loud.

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Okay, so back to the fishes.

Forget the tropical tank but instead imagine a cold water tank. The breeds of fish are different. The temperature is different. The type of plant life may be different too. So is either one of these tanks better than the other one?

Of course not! They are just different environments that different fish live in. In this sense, we humans are the same. Different people live in different environments (i.e. cultures), with different values and beliefs, traditions and etiquette.

Think it sounds simple? Well it’s not…

Just like fish in a tank surrounded by water, we too are completely surrounded by our culture. However, most tropical fish cannot be kept in cold water (and vice-versa), and so it would be hard for them to understand how life is for the other fish, as they have not experienced the “culture” in which the other lives. In us humans, when exposed to other cultures it can cause us bewilderment, confusion and distress (often termed Culture Shock). But it’s not all bad news!

Betta fish (also known as Siamese Fighting Fish) are just one breed of fish that are able to survive the transition from tropical to cold tank environments. And once again, us humans follow suit. When exposed to other cultures, we have an innate ability to adjust and when we do, our lives are often enriched by the tapestry of cultural delights that await us.

So the next time you are going abroad, due to work with someone from another culture, or have a chance to make a new friend, remember this little fishy story to ensure that your cultural encounter goes errrrrrrrrrm… swimmingly.

(Sorry – I just had to make a fish pun).

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