Beyond 9/11 horror, voices for the future

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The tenth-anniversary commemorations of 9/11 were somber, heartbreaking, and introspective — as was fitting and necessary.

But at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the anniversary weekend began on a forward-looking note: A videoconference on Sept. 9 linked youth voices from the United States, Lebanon, India and the United Kingdom. Small children when the attacks occurred in 2001, the participants are now high school and college students actively engaged in seeking understanding and respect across faiths, beliefs and cultures.

Joining me at the Newseum were recent graduates of Regis High School (a Jesuit institution in New York City). On the screen we saw and heard current students at Nehru World School (India), Beirut Baptist School (Lebanon), Coopers Coborn (U.K.) as well as other Regis graduates gathered in New York City.

Thanks to the miracle of technology, students from many of the world’s major religious traditions from locations thousands of miles apart spent 90 minutes learning from, with and about one another.

This was not a one-off event. All of the participating schools are part of a new initiative called “Face to Faith” — an international schools program sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation currently active in more than 400 schools in 17 nations. Through videoconferencing and online community, students ages 12-17 communicate directly with their peers around the world. They are able to address issues of global concern through civil dialogue with one another about their beliefs, values, attitudes and faiths.

During the Sept. 9 videoconference, students focused on their hopes for the future. After paying tribute to the victims, heroes and survivors of 9/11, they engaged one another in a discussion about the opportunities and challenges they face in a fast-changing and often dangerous world.

Students at all of the schools were emphatic about the need for more interfaith dialogue in a divided world. Understanding differences, they insisted, can lead to mutual respect, making diversity a source of strength rather than a point of weakness.

Of course, encounters across faiths and beliefs are not without significant challenges. Students at Beirut Baptist School (with a multi-faith student body that includes Christians and Muslims) spoke of the tensions that arise when one group seeks to convert the other — and when people of one faith disagree amongst themselves. One student decried the mixing of religion and politics in Lebanon, calling for separation of religion and government.

Students at Nehru World responded by talking about how personal encounters with people of different faiths and beliefs through Face to Faith had changed how they see others — and themselves. As one student in India explained, Face to Faith had “enabled me to question and dispel stereotypes … helping me to look deep inside myself and deepen my own faith.”

Near the close of the dialogue, “guest listener” Tony Blair praised the students for their willingness to engage one another in respectful exchanges that “give us a sense of common humanity and common space.”

“The more you study other people and their faiths,” he told them, “and the more you act with them, you see what it is that makes people of faith — which is most often not about proclaiming difference, but giving yourself for other people.”

After listening closely to students in honest and open dialogue with students of other faiths and cultures, I came away more convinced than ever that the best (if not the only) long-term response to training camps of terror and hate are schools of freedom and democracy.

By empowering student voices and promoting respect across religious and cultural differences, Face to Faith helps schools inculcate a commitment among young citizens to the rights and responsibilities that undergird democratic freedom.

Editor’s note: Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, is also U.S. lead adviser for Face to Faith.

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