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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 12:24 GMT
How do Jews and Muslims talk?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Political crises in the Middle East can spill over into the realm of faith
Against a backdrop of international antagonism and fears of terrorism, what's being done to get Jews and Muslims to talk to each other?

It starts with something simple: "Hello, my name is Joseph." "Hello, my name is Mohammed."

The simplest introductions can be the hardest, especially if your community, in the media's eyes, is in a constant confrontation with the other.

Peace is back on the Middle East agenda. But whatever happens between the Israeli and Palestinians, there is the vexed question of how you get ordinary Jews and Muslims to talk.

There are people who spend their time trying to find the answer - and Mehri Niknam, director of the Maimonides Foundation in London, is one of them. It is named after a Jewish philosopher born in 12th Century Spain - a Golden Age of co-operation between the two religions.

This month the inter-faith dialogue organisation celebrates its 10th anniversary. Ms Niknam herself was made an MBE in the New Year Honours in recognition of her work.

Education and cultural ties

"Inter-faith dialogue is a long process, it cannot be truly achieved in a lifetime because it is something that has to be constantly worked at," says Mehri Niknam.

If you make a child aware that children with a different skin or faith are just as loved that their lives are as valuable, then hopefully they will grow up to relate to one another as human beings rather than people with different faiths
Mehri Niknam
"But both Judaism and Islam believe that human beings are put on this earth as vice-regents of God, to carry out God's will for the benefit of all humankind.

"To desist from creating this peace is a negation of one's duty as a religious person."

The Maimonides Foundation's focus is almost exclusively on educational and cultural projects in the UK, although it is also taking books to children in the Palestinian territories in March. Its UK schemes include working with school children though to university discussion groups.

It's business is the delicate art of creating good citizenship between people of different backgrounds, using what they have in common to remove what sets them apart.

Mrs Niknam points to the lessons we still need to learn from the Holocaust for why both communities need to do more to approach each other.

"You have to look at what happened in some of the countries most affected by the Holocaust, such as Poland or Latvia," she says.

"Although there were well-established Jewish communities, which had existed for centuries, there were very few genuine contacts between the different communities. So when the Jews were taken away by the Nazis, many of their neighbours were not personally involved enough to find out why.

"If you make a child aware from the earliest age that children with a different skin or faith are just as loved by their parents and that their lives are as valuable, then hopefully they will grow up to relate to one another as human beings rather than people with different faiths."

Separate lives

The Home Office has spent a lot of effort since the summer 2001 riots in northern England trying to get to the bottom of how to improve ties between people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Last year, 150 children took part in Maimonides' football programme
Its most recent piece of research, quietly published in January, found trust between neighbours can erode if an area's ethnic diversity increases.

So if people don't know how to trust outsiders, how does this affect their own community and the rest of society?

"Once one creates a geographical 'ghetto', it inevitably has a psychological effect upon the people within it," says Mrs Niknam.

"In the worst circumstances, people can become inward looking and then the differences with others become magnified."

So are the British kidding themselves that we have a well-functioning multicultural society, apparent in areas such as London's East End?

"There is contact there but whether it's at a deeper level, I'm not so sure," says Merhi Niknam.

"And that is why there needs to be encouragement; inter-faith dialogue needs to be taught because it does not necessarily happen spontaneously."

Football without barriers

The trick says Mrs Niknam, is to create dialogue without lecturing people. In one programme, the Maimonides Foundation uses football to link Muslim and Jewish children - a model shown to have worked with Catholic and Protestant boys in Belfast.

Award: Mehri Niknam gets her gong
The children must relate to each other as goalkeepers and forwards, rather than as Muslims and Jews. "They come every week and learn that their team-mate is Mohammed or Joseph," says Ms Niknam.

And that principle of recognising you can work with people who appear different is the key.

"What we are trying to teach these young people is that it's up to them to carry the blueprints of a cohesive society."

"One way of doing this is to see your own cultural heritage as something that is inclusive of the elements of multicultural society, rather than an exclusive and monochrome culture."

This may be of special importance to young immigrant communities in the West. And in this regard, she argues, Jewish communities have a great deal to offer Muslims in finding cultural feet and social voice: they themselves have been there already.

"To be fully integrated into society, a community needs to engage completely with others. This does not erode their identity, it does the opposite - it gives them an opportunity to be fully appreciated by others in society."

"And so what we must never allow, whatever happens elsewhere in politics, is a divide to open between the different faiths in this country."

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