Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Face to Faith: An opportunity for dialogue and expression | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Several months ago, my colleague Sally and I took on the challenge of introducing Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s ‘Face to Faith’ program to Egypt’s schools and teachers. Face to Faith is a global education program for 11-16 year olds which enables young people of different religions and cultures to learn from one another directly using video conferencing software and a secure website, in order to build understanding and respect between different communities throughout the world.

We were the perfect team to represent the program: an Egyptian Muslim and an American Christian, both of whom had engaged in extensive travel, cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. We knew the benefits of the Face to Faith initiative, and truly believed in the program based on our own life experiences.

In light of recent Christian and Muslim tensions in Egypt, marked by the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s day 2011, we knew it was an important time to spread the idea of inter-faith dialogue, but we were also nervous that the idea would be too controversial; too much of a risk; and that many school directors would not be keen to participate.

As we started meeting with school principals and directors, we realized we had been too fearful. Principals, directors, teachers, and others welcomed the Face to Faith initiative warmly and enthusiastically. Many schools we met with said they had been trying to introduce similar programs, on their own, or were looking for a program such as Face to Faith to get their students engaged in cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. Just a few minutes in to one of our meetings, a principal we met with asked us, “Where have you been! We’ve been waiting for a program like this.”

Before we knew it, we had nearly 75 teachers signed up to attend our first two workshops – one in Cairo and one in the Menofia governorate, which is located in a rural area of Egypt in the Nile Delta.

As we were making preparations for our March workshop, Egypt was rocked by the political events of the January 25th revolution. The revolution eventually forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Schools shut down for an indefinite period, a curfew was put in force limiting working hours, and an air of uncertainty (and hope!) grew over Egypt and the region. Once we were able to use the telephone and internet again, we began discussions with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation about whether or not it was the right time in Egypt for a workshop like this.

We were determined to continue our plan to hold the workshop; if there was a perfect time for tackling Egypt’s sectarian strife, it was the present.

Maybe it was the hope in the air; having just witnessed a revolution and series of events we never thought we’d see in Egypt. There was a renewed sense of optimism amongst the Egyptian people. Despite the hurdles ahead of us, we decided to push on.

At the beginning of March – just in time – schools reopened, and we were once again able to get in touch with directors and teachers. The week before the workshop we finalized all of the workshop details and RSVPs. March 11th came quickly, and before we knew it we were meeting the Face to Faith Teacher Trainer -Ian Jamison – on his first night in Cairo.

We were joined the next morning by Ruth Turner -the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, who attended the workshop. The workshop was held at Edu Systems International – a firm that consults with schools in Egypt and also manages Egypt’s Future Schools. Already by 9am we found the room filling up with teachers, excited to get started and learn all about Face to Faith. We had a near- 100% turnout on our first day!

While the idea of Face to Faith was new to Egypt, it seemed as though it was something many teachers had been waiting for for ages. As the workshop went on, we anticipated the tough questions, and they came. In Cairo, a few teachers raised concerns that their students were too young for the program and lacked sufficient knowledge of their own identity and religion to engage in dialogue with those of other identities and religions, without compromising their own beliefs.

Before Ian could respond, hands shot up around the room, and other teachers began to speak out. I worried that the concern had spread around the room, that others felt the same way. To my surprise, it was the exact opposite: those who raised their hands were eager to respond to the teacher’s concern, to tell her that engaging in interfaith dialogue would strengthen her students’ beliefs; that cross-cultural and inter (and intra) faith dialogue was an essential tool to give to today’s youth, so that they could become tomorrow’s leaders. One teacher responded: “We can’t keep our students sheltered; we can’t limit what they see, who they talk to, what they do, outside of the classroom. But in the classroom, we can facilitate the dialogue, we can guide them. That’s why this program is so important. We can create an environment where they can learn about others and themselves.” Only a few hours in to the first day of the first workshop, teachers were vehement in their support for the program.

The rest of the Cairo workshop was a great success. Similarly, in Menofia, a rural area in Egypt with far fewer resources in schools, there were tough questions about religion, and participants were skeptical, believing that there were ulterior motives to the program. Once again, others in the room spoke up, some in hushed one-on-one conversations on the sidelines, and others who dared speak to the crowd. Many were in support of the idea, and were eager to learn how to set up a video conference. Despite a few power outages, the workshop went on as planned, and teachers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the idea.

Although there were challenges due to the political environment, we were very glad that we were able to run the workshop on time. Since the revolution, there has been a renewed sense of enthusiasm about opening minds to new ideas and initiatives. Egyptians are demanding change and progress right now, and many of them – teachers, educators, IT staff, principals, directors – found this in the Face to Faith program. Since the Cairo workshop, we have received several emails from colleagues and friends of the participants, asking us how they too can get involved in the program, and when the next workshop will be.

As coordinators, Sally and I are happy to be bringing more opportunities to Egyptians for empowerment. Face to Faith builds students’ and teachers’ capacity in engaging in dialogue, a skill that is important for inter and intra-faith dialogue, but also imperative during this period of political transition. Without a voice for over thirty years, now so many Egyptians are discovering what it means to engage in many different types of dialogue, mostly between themselves. These skills are transferable, and students will be able to put them to use during this important time.

Post-workshop, we have been working with schools and teachers to ensure that the Face to Faith program is sustainable in Egypt. We are planning for more workshops and info sessions next year, and our goal is to have thirty schools registered on the program and actively participating in video conferences and the online community.

As the school year winds down and students look forward to summer break, we have been encouraging teachers to inform students about the Faith Shorts competition, a global film competition organized by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation that gives young people between the ages of 14 and 18 the opportunity to express what their faith means to them in their own words and take this to the global stage by winning the chance to see their film premiered at British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).Amr Khaled will be one of the program judges, which we are excited about, because having his support shows how important this issue is right now and how relevant it is to Egypt. As this year has been so big for Egypt, we are hoping that an Egyptian contestant will take the prize!

Despite the acts of interfaith cohesion we saw during the revolution, lately we have continued to see sectarian violence throughout the country, especially in Upper Egypt. The country is transforming and growing, and Face to Faith can help students get past interfaith obstacles. A healthy democracy cannot function if it is plagued with sectarian unrest. This truth was clear in our Menofia workshop when a teacher pulled me aside to say: “Teachers here need this program. We want to open the eyes of our students, we want them to learn from others in the world, and most importantly, we want others in the world to learn from us. Please, come back and do more workshops here, bring Mr. Ian back.”