When the Parallels Meet and Talk

In pluralistic contexts, interaction between the different communities and sides, notwithstanding their dominance or minority, is a basic social issue. Far from politics, individuals at their own levels or as groups need to learn about the tolerance of diversity, especially in a world that tends to be more and more communicative and open.

Moreover, the positive co-existence and
living together of people from different religious backgrounds requires the acceptance of each other and the understanding of what makes them different but also of what keeps them somehow similar; particularly when it comes to rights, needs and duties.

This state of mind is only possible via a serious willingness to connect with the other side and know more about it. The key word, then, is dialog.

Interfaith dialog has been possible thanks to many initiatives at national and international levels. In Norway, Nansen Academy is one of the predecessors in that matter. Their latest activity was in June 2012 and has seen the participation of 35 youth from Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

In an interview with TNP, Dag Hareide, Rector of Nansen Academy, tells us more about the academy’s work and contribution in gathering people from different religions.

What is the mission of your academy in terms of organizing interfaith dialog and what were the final recommendations for your latest event?

‘Nansen academy has been working with Religious dialog since 1980, in the beginning with adults in Norway, mainly. Then 3 years ago, we did an evaluation and noticed that in the official dialogs between faith communities in Norway, there were relatively few under 30 years old.

We then took the initiative to host two national dialogs for young adults in Norway, which were successful, and we were able to gather people from all major faith communities, including also “Human-Etisk Forbund” which is a non-religious life stance community. This may not be usual in other countries, but they have always been a part of this dialog, so we call it religion and life stance dialog.

Later, we wanted to broaden this experience to make an international dialog. We started with Europe. We co-operated with the European youth organization attached to World Religions for Peace, and later we decided to include people from the Middle East and North Africa.

About recommendations, we don’t do any. This is very crucial because our concept of dialog is not negotiation. In the beginning of the seminar, we defined four ways of talking together. The first is debate, where the objective is to win, even by using the weakness of the adversary. Sometimes we end up there but we had few debates. The second is discussion, this is used mainly in the academic world where we try to go into the facts of the matter, to identify concepts and look for empirical data to enable us to reach some logical conclusion. The third is negotiation, where the point is to reach mutual agreement. But we put our efforts into developing a fourth way of talking which we call dialog. It is basically about trying to understand the other, not only their opinions and dogmas, but also their personal history and feelings. This actually makes both sides, in a sense, relax. I can’t make a Jew become a Christian, this is not the point but I can try to understand the Jew, and he can try to understand me as a Christian. It’s also a bit dangerous because we all open ourselves in different ways. In practice, we work in small groups, each one tells the other about their personal faith and doubt stories. We encourage active listening. And this creates an atmosphere and a kind of human relationship that becomes very strong in this context. Some of the feed back from these seminars are more about an opening of our hearts.At the Nansen academy we use all four ways of talking but we believe that dialog is the key.

Concretely, what is the output of the seminar? What is the added value to the participants?

One result can be the change on an individual scale, but there is also the networking. I noticed when I visited Egypt, how little the Coptic and Muslim leaderships talk together. We do the dialog way of talking with our families and friends but if you want peace as Mandela says – you should talk with your enemies.

In the Nansen Academy, we have worked for almost 20 years with people from the war zones of the former Yugoslavia, we have arranged around 160 dialog seminars between different sides who were fighting each other during the war. We tried to provide a place where old enemies could meet and talk. The participants in these dialogs have formed 10 dialog centers in the Western Balkans. But still, it’s strange to see today in Bosnia for example, that we have, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats living in the same society but going to different cafeterias. They speak the same language, but still have schools that are divided at the beginning of the day: after the Croats leave then come the Bosniaks for their education sessions.

This reveals the importance of reconciliation before starting the dialog; does Nansen academy play a role in that sense?

The 10 dialog centers work in communities where you have had the worst atrocities in Europe since the second world war. It takes many years and generations to re-build peace – but some places we have seen do have break throughs, like when the Nansen center in Skopje helped to create the first bilingual integrated schools in Macedonia where they speak both Macedonian and Albanian for the first time in their history. The work is not done by Norwegians, but by people from the Balkan’s that attended the courses at the Nansen Academy. We have now formed the Nansen Peace and Dialog Center here in Lillehammer that works as a partner with the centers in Balkan.

“Ghettos” and cleavages in some pluralistic societies may live like blocs without real interactions, I would give the example of Lebanon where you may find a Christian who has never been to a Muslim area and vice versa. How can the interfaith dialog break these kind of social frontiers?

I don’t know so much about the Arab world. But I can say that when I visited Syria and particularly Damascus 2 years ago, I felt a lot of respect when I saw that the Christian minority has lived mostly in peace there for more than 1000 years. In the European tradition, we didn’t really have this kind of tolerance before modern times. For centuries, we did not treat the minorities the same way it’s done in Syria. But, I think that now we can’t go on just living in separate communities, doing some business, but not really sharing. It isn’t enough. Dialog is needed, it helps sides to come together, and by coming together we talk, we only use words nothing else, and by exchanging these words we accept a kind of equality: we should hear as much as we expect the other to listen. This is a basic principle of the dialog: what we want from the other, we should show it first to them.

Dialog is easy, let me say, but the real difficulties are before and afterwards. Before, in getting the right people to come, especially the ones who are key people in the society and the people who are hostiles who should be in the dialog. And secondly afterwards, because there is a possibility that people in a hostile situation may be considered as traitors after they have met their adversaries during the dialog.

Generally, this is what we try to do, we start with the basic things such as: listening, talking and making groups. In the Norwegian seminar, for instance, we made different groups from different environments, we asked them to take 1 to 2 days to find the most important questions they wanted to ask, they let others prepare and then we took one day sitting all together to answer those questions. In our everyday lives we use too short a time between questions and answers. Our methods are very simple but efficient.

What is your role in the dialog: a Monitor, a coach, or a peacemaker? And how do you design the common ground where the different sides would meet and communicate?

We play the role of a facilitator. A facilitator helps the process but decidesnothing about the result. About the common ground, we discuss the structure of the seminar before having the groups and getting them to come together. We cooperate with the other organizations. We choose our methods togethersuch as sharing personal stories and asking questions, but also we choose topics for in depth presentations. For the June seminar, we talked about “the Arab Spring”, “Finance Crisis” and “Extremism in Europe”. The most important issue is to give the opportunity for everybody to speak. We all sit in a circle to make participants come together and interact optimally. Our main task as a facilitator is to make all the people speak as much as possible. Besides, we also organise cultural evenings, sports and we do a kind of “walk and talk”. This is an occasion for people to go for a tour together, socialize and do some physical training. Thus, they learn to know more about each other in a myriad of ways.

How can participants reproduce this kind of dialog in their respective societies?

I think they are already doing it. Some countries have a longer dialog tradition than Norway, I think about England and Lebanon. The latter country has a long story of conflicts and war and they have therefore been forced to talk to each other. I don’t know if we have so much to teach them. What I understand from the feedback of participants, is that they get a space for expression, and have been able to relax and feel good with people from so many different backgrounds.

Do you think change can be made in the way communities are interacting, without the support of local authorities and good will of the politicians?

I do think so. Let’s say something about the Norwegian seminar, people who come together are not always leaders. They meet and start to know about each other through dialog and not debate.

For some critical situations, like the case of the drawings of the Prophet, I think we handled it better in Norway than in Denmark. One of the reasons might be that religious dialog was more intensive in Norway.

For the Yugoslavian example, we started with young people, and some of them are now leaders, they have seen each other and have discovered that it’s quite possible to talk together. We have not aimed at the top level. We are now working with the local leaders in the communities. In the example of Srebenica, which has seen the worst crime in Europe since the 2nd world war, the mayor said that he didn’t need a dialog and did not want contact with our people just three years ago. Now he has supported the new dialog center. Generally, we work with people at community level, we talk with mayors, directors of schools, teachers, key bureaucrats and editors of newspapers etc. This way, we feel that we can reach some concrete cooperation. As you know, building peace is a work of generations, while creating war takes a matter of days or weeks.

Norway as a platform for the interfaith dialog, what role for this Nordic country at the international level but also at the local one with the increasing flow of immigrants?

It’s not about nations but about individual’s actions. If you look at these places where Norway come to do something like Guatemala or Sudan or even the Palestinian and Israel conflict, you’ll find that this come after one or moreindividuals has taken part in this peacemaking activity for years. Norway as a government don’t really try to have a specific role as a peace mediator, their role comes later to support individual initiatives. I consider that this role should mainly be assigned to the UN, it has the authority for it. Moreover, religious dialog is the task of civil society that is more independent from the state.

About interfaith dialog in Norway, I was the coordinator of the first national interfaith dialog in 1999. This event saw the presence of 24 different faith communities that selected among their leaders 100 participants. This national dialog was done in cooperation with Samarbeidsrådet for Tros og Livssynssamfunn. This organization gathers all the main religious organizations in Norway including the non-religious Human-Etisk Forbund. So the foundation for dialog is there. But, it is true that there is still a lack of such dialog with youth. After the two national dialogs at the Nansen Academy, the young adults created a network called “Young Dialog” that meets regularly in Oslo.

A Final word!

Our experience in interfaith dialog has shown that the differences between individuals within the same faith community may be bigger than the difference between the faith communities.

About Dag Hareide

Dag Hareide (born 24 February 1949) is the Rector of Nansen Academy in Norway, the Norwegian Humanistic Academy. He has been director of other folk high schools, chairman of the Namibia Association of Norway from 1980 to 1984, rehabilitation coordinator for United Nations Emergency Office during the famine in Ethiopia (1985–1988), researcher on preparedness systems for famine, general secretary of Friends of the Earth Norway (1980–1985), coordinator of the 5 year National Disaster Preparedness Plan in Ethiopia (1986–1987), and chairman of Nordic Forum for Mediation and Conflict Management (2002–2006). He is author of several books and has served as vice chair of the National Value Commission (Verdikommisjonen), and member of the Commission that formulated the objectives for the Norwegian School system (Bostadutvalget).

Nansen academy was founded in 1938 on the inheritance of humanism. The academy’s central themes are democracy, human rights, sustainable development and peaceful conflict management. The Academy has worked with dialog since the 1980’s.The Nansen Academy received Honourable Mention of the “UNESCO Prize for Peace Education” in 1998.

Nansen center for peace and dialog was established as a separate part of The Nansen Academy Foundation in 2010. It works with dialog, peace education and reconciliation projects based on experience and knowledge about ongoing conflicts, mainly in Norway and western Balkan region as well as the Middle East.

Feedbacks about the seminar:

Rouba from Lebanon :

“What I learnt the most is that I left the Academy knowing that with dialogue the most awful thing can be fixed, some people would find it insane and say nothing can be done without war, it is hard to change people. That is true, but once you have put your heart into something and change your inside I believe everyone would look at things from a different perspective. I have also learnt a very important thing, we have common things though we come from different cultural backgrounds and places or religions, if we work on this I think humanity and mankind can achieve wonders more important than any technological achievement!”

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