World Interfaith Harmony Week 2016: an interview with Nivy Balachandran
UN Youth: What’s the main message of World Interfaith Harmony Week?
NB: First a very brief history of World Interfaith Harmony Week – it began when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution – proposed by the King of Jordan – back in 2010 that essentially recognized the imperative need for dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions of the world to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation amongst people. That was in October and the following February was designated as the world’s first UN Interfaith Harmony Week and that’s carried on since 2011.
Essentially the purpose of UN Interfaith Harmony Week is, for me at least, to provide a rallying point for celebrating a lot of the work that people do all around the world to provide space for people of different religions and cultures to work together for the common good. Sometimes the common good is as small as dialoguing amongst a small group of people and developing mutually enriching relationships and other times it’s working together to solve the pressing challenges facing our generation – whether it’s advocacy on climate change or providing a more welcome space for people seeking refuge or educating young people or empowering women. In many ways, it’s a week of celebration showcasing work that really takes place over 365 days a year.
How can people help spread the message?
One option is to dip your toe into World Interfaith Harmony Week – mainly by attending an event run during the week. Bringing it back to the Melbourne or Victorian context, we’re quite lucky to have a very strong interfaith infrastructure: Dandenong has a showcase event, Darebin has a showcase event and I myself will be speaking at an event happening in the western suburbs in partnership with the Brimbank Maribyrnong Interfaith Network. World Interfaith Harmony Week is a really great opportunity to attend an event that could be happening in your local area.
The second option could be to attend one of the places of worship tours organised by various interfaith networks across Melbourne, where you could go to another person’s place of worship – the Hindu temple or the Islamic Mosque or one of the Christian Denomination Churches – and you can attend and see what various places of worship are like. The benefit of this is simply to explore the diversity of your neighbourhood as well as demystifying, in a very personal way, what religion looks like to others and that can be a very interesting and fun experience.
Interfaith might at first not appear to be the most engaging of topics when you first look at it, but these things are usually very worthwhile and as a participant, you often get the chance to talk about, and hear others talk about, issues that are very close to people’s hearts and that bring out a side of themselves that they often don’t feel comfortable sharing in public. And in that way interfaith dialogue is a unique and deep experience – it’s definitely worth giving it a go!
Why is the week so important and what does it mean to people?
Like I said, it culminates and draws attention to a lot of grassroots community organizing that we do throughout the year and it gives people who work in this field the opportunity to feel recognition for their work and to provide a little bit of thought leadership for the year ahead – the start of the year is a really great time for people to start thinking ahead and get together with groups and networks who are doing similar work.
Because the UN General Assembly actually dedicated this week to Interfaith Harmony it gives interfaith work that global imperative and connection to something bigger than ourselves and reminds us that, even though in Australia where it could appear that religion isn’t as important to a lot of people as perhaps it once was, it is a strong talking point in world conflict and is very much relevant to people’s lives, and this week coming together connects us to our brothers and sisters doing good work overseas.
Do you think Interfaith Harmony week is more important this year than it’s been in previous years?
Interfaith work is so important, for so many reasons: it is a long-term strategy and vehicle through which we deepen our engagement with one another and instil a better sense of understanding, belonging, and social cohesion. When interfaith dialogues happen properly people feel heard, people feel understood and people feel informed. And those are three really important aspects of any dialogue surrounding any issue, I think. Interfaith is particularly important because it is a matter of such personal belief. We’re lucky that in Victoria there’s been such support for interfaith dialogue but there’s no point in denying that it feels like the stakes are higher this year, living in such a reactive climate where there appears to be a rise of religious extremists or right-wing and more conservative political and religious extremists. Ignorance is dangerous and where there is a gap in knowledge those with ulterior motives seek to fill that space with hatred. Interfaith provides a strong counterpoint to narratives of hate, and seeks to fill that space not with fear but with knowledge and understanding of the different beliefs and worldviews around us, and a connection to people from all different cultures and walks of life.
Would you like to add anything?
In terms of how WIHW is relevant to Australia, bear in mind that just because we are a multicultural country, it doesn’t mean we are an interfaith or intercultural country. The word ‘interfaith’ connotes a process or a journey; a willingness to engage, of meeting one another with an open mind in an understanding that learning about each other is an on-going process that we as individuals must take responsibility for.
I think World Interfaith Harmony Week is a terrific time to reflect on our work thus far and for the work that lies ahead and it’s also a terrific time to dip your toe in the water if you’re somebody who’s interested in learning a little bit more about different cultures but you’re not quite sure how to go about it – get involved! Even if you miss it this week, you’ve got the rest of the year and we’re always looking for more people to participate!