Last Saturday was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Scotland. It was the day of the National Interfaith Youth Conference we were planning since last September. The conference had been planned and hold in cooperation of Interfaith Scotland with the student run Coexistence Initiative at the University of St Andrews. The theme of the conference was “Radicalisation and Reconciliation” and about 80 young people from different regions of Scotland came. In total eight speakers had been invited to the conference in advance and, a bit surprisingly for our planning committee, agreed to come. So we had a very full programme with very interesting talks. After each of the talks there was time for questions and answers and some kind of discussion. Some of the speakers also asked questions to the crowd, while others were mainly giving their presentations.
Here are my personal experiences and thoughts about the speeches:
- Dr Leah Robinson
After the official welcome to the conference through representatives of Interfaith Scotland, the Coexistence Initiative and the university chaplaincy Leah Robinson, lecturer in Practical Theology at Edinburgh University was speaking. Her talk gave a very good frame for the following day and provoked thoughts I had in mind when listening to the talks of the other speakers. I mainly remember that she stressed that real reconciliation “is much more than drinking tea together” and itself a very radical act. People that in the popular mind are icons of reconciliation, such as Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela were actual very radical in their positions themselves and have only been “domesticated” by the popular mind to quote givers for Social Media posts. Her speech was a strong pledge to reclaim the word “radical”, so that it does not describe terrorist but those who are campaigning and fighting for more justice and love in the world.
- Imam Usama Hasan
The next speaker was Imam Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies at Quilliam International, a counter-extremist organisation. Having been a “foreign fighter” against Communist forces in Afghanistan in the beginning of the 1990s he could tell about his own radicalisation process. I found it in particular impressive to hear how the experience of racism when growing up in London “radicalised” him and how he while still studying in Cambridge in his holidays could go to Afghanistan and fight the “Jihad”. From my point of view it was important at a conference with this theme to hear someone with his own story of “radicalisation”, who went through this process in a time, when he was about the age of most of the participants at the conference.
- Mahrukh Shaukat and Gigha Lennox
Before the lunch break we heard the story of two young Scottish women, who participated in the Interfaith youth exchange programme with Rwanda last year. I had heard presentations about this programme before, but in my opinion it was special to hear them in this setting at the youth conference. Besides facts about the exchange programme and the Rwanda genocide especially the stories about how they met survivors and perpetrators and how both groups are working together in the process of reconciliation was highly impressive.
During the lunch break people were mingling with each other, so this was not only time for food and drinks, but also for informal dialogue and networking.
- Jane Bentley
The session following the lunch break was a very special one. It was not mainly a talk, even if there was some input about what dialogue is, but a music session where everyone at the conference participated. Putting such a session into the programme of an otherwise relatively academic conference was a kind of a risk but it worked out really well and the people enjoyed it very much (according to my impression at the conference and the feedback they gave afterwards). It shows that dialogue is not only happening through thinking and talking (even if those are my two favourites of doing it), but also through creating something together.
A short impression of the session can be found here.
- Mike Jervis
The following speaker works with an organisation called the “Active Change Foundation”. They work with radicalised people to reintegrate them into society, as well as with their families and with perpetrators and victims of gang violence. Their approach is a very practical one but they also advise a lot of governments. He described very clear and powerful how the process of radicalisation/recruiting (whether for gangs or for terrorist organisations) is going on and gave insight into some of the cases his organisation has worked with. The insight into this praxis was really helpful to understand a bit better how (young) people from privileged backgrounds are seduced to join those kind of groups.
- Ameed Versace
This talk was one of the biggest surprise for me. Ameed, who grew up in Glasgow and is part of the Shia community here, talked about how his father was killed in a hate crime many years ago and how he is dealing with this without hating himself and so letting the hate win.
- Andrew Marin
Andrew is a former advisor of President Obama and a current advisor of the United Nations in Iraq and on the same time a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Having started his carrier with social work in Chicago, he talked about his experiences with the process of reconciliation. From my point of view fitting very well together with the talk of Leah Robinson in the beginning of the conference he said thought provoking sentences such as “we don’t have to agree in order to love” or that victims and perpetrators need to work together for sustainable social change, even if they maybe can’t forgive each other. Especially for the often very harmony seeking people in the field of interfaith religions in my opinion it was important to stress this point that cooperation is possible, even without the ability to forgive and that reconciliation is a process.
- Stewart Weaver
As the last speaker of the conference the project “Place for Hope” was presented shortly. They do important work of facilitating reconciliation processes between individuals and/or faith communities.
For me this conference was a really positive experience because of three causes:
- The speakers were in all their different approaches very thought provoking. Having left university three years ago myself it was great to hear challenging speeches and to re-think some ideas.
- The conference was organised by young people (the Coexistence Initiative) for young people and therefor it were the questions and ideas the young people were interested in, that were the theme of the conference. It showed again very well, that young people know very well what they are interested in and that those are often the more “radical” themes than those maybe the older generation would suggest for a conference like this one.
- Personally it was very good for me to have one important project during my time here, where I’m involved in all the planning, then experiencing the actual event and even the evaluation of the event.
Thank you very much for everyone, who was involved in making the conference a success!