Universities: building understanding as hate speech proliferates


When an imam admits that he faces accusations of treachery from within his community simply for talking to a rabbi, you get some sense of just how dangerously divided our cities and countries are becoming. We face a real moment of crisis.

Wherever we look, the growing tolerance of differences that we had for so long taken for granted is being replaced by distrust and suspicion. Multiculturalism is in retreat across a wide front, with prejudice and a narrow populism on the rise. We see the result in a rapid increase in hate speech and acts of violence across Europe.

Countering this trend is made more difficult by the new uncertainty about knowledge. In this post-truth era in politics and the media, experts are derided while those who peddle simple black-and-white answers find an all-too-receptive audience. Emotions too often trump reason.

So how can academics play their part in cultivating trust between communities? Is there a role that higher education can play in lifting the growing shadow of ignorance and prejudice?

Finding an answer is at the heart of an international project run by the Woolf Institute, whose scholars study relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is taking place in communities in London, Paris and Berlin at the heart of the interplay of these divisive trends and pressures.

These are early days, but it is already clear how higher education can help to foster understanding and bridge divides. Two examples of the sorts of initiatives that can break through suspicion stand out.

First, bringing together people of different backgrounds and views to find common ground is, in our experience, more vital than ever. Higher education must continue to offer a place where lively but politically neutral debate can take place.

Over the past year, we have provided an opportunity for faith leaders to come together with those from their local neighbourhoods to discuss urban planning. It is an occasion where those from different religions, communities and countries could share experiences.

We heard from a rabbi in London who regularly hosts his local Bengali Muslim community to discuss how planning changes could improve their common community.

But we also heard from an imam in a Parisian banlieue who said that any discussion with a rabbi would open himself to suspicion and distrust. Their meeting, in a formal higher education environment, allowed for stimulating exchange to take place and a deepening understanding of shared challenges. A French national radio documentary was made about this meeting, which should hopefully inspire more people to bridge community divides and build trust.

Second, we have to work harder as institutions to make the knowledge and information that we have accessible to audiences beyond our fellow academics and students. Our response to “fake news” and “alternative facts” must not be to retreat but rather to work harder through new channels and avenues to counter the growing army of self-appointed experts in the media and on the internet.

The Woolf Institute utilises scholars with a deep understanding of the social, historical and religious dynamics of community interaction. We encourage our network of postgraduate scholars at the University of Cambridge to mobilise online. We share our knowledge and research, wherever we can – whether in the form of blogs, articles or social media. A wealth of material now exists to rebut the misinformation and lack of understanding that is too often presented to online audiences.

Higher education has an important role in healing divides based on a misunderstanding and distortion of religious beliefs. As academics, we must be ready to pick apart the crisis of knowledge around religion and intolerance, and piece back together a more accurate and tolerant picture of its positive role in our societies.

Author Bios: Sami Everett is a research fellow at the Woolf Institute, an independent institute working closely with the University of Cambridge. Ed Kessler is founder and director of the institute.