By Joel Salmon
“This event would have been unthinkable in St Andrews five years ago”, commented one member of the panel, to broad agreement.
It has been a tense few years for interfaith relations. A student was expelled for anti-Semitic abuse; the Christian Union was de-affiliated from the Union; and a protest against the Jewish Society and AEPi charity ball was threatened – all within the past year.
However, this year, the Jewish Society has sought to build up positive relationships with both the Islamic Society and Christian Union. After months of planning, we had St Andrews’ biggest ever interfaith event – a conference entitled ‘Coexistence in the Middle East’.
Set in the iconic Parliament Hall (once the location of the Scottish government), over 80 people attended. We heard from a variety of speakers, beginning with Professor Mario Aguilar who happens to be a biographer of Pope Francis and a buddy of the Dalai Lama. The day continued thematically with two history speakers talking on how Jews and Muslims approach the Quran and how Jewish and Muslim philosophy is highly intertwined. It was fascinating to hear how Maimonides was inspired not jonly by Aristotle, but also by Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and how his thought permeates later Islamic scholarship.
A more political discussion then took place, with Jerusalem the case study. The speaker Francesco Belcastro framed it both as a ‘city of war’ and an ‘open city’, a contested space and yet one that is shared. Both are narratives, and so both should not be taken at face value.
In the afternoon we heard from three faith speakers. Sheikh Hamza from Dundee Central Mosque spoke on how we should use Mohammed as a role model for interfaith and he gave some moving stories from scripture to demonstrate. Dr Mia Spiro, a Jewish Studies lecturer from the University of Glasgow then gave a unique presentation on how clothes have been used by Jews to both separate but also to include. We then heard from the University Chaplain Reverend Donald MacEwan who took us on a photographic journey of religious sites around the world. It really showed the dichotomy of the beauty and barbarity of humanity.
We rounded off with a panel discussion, chaired by Jewish Society President Joel Salmon, where concluding thoughts on coexistence were discussed This was followed by a delicious Middle Eastern dinner. Conversation continued long after the conference had finished and it was a beautiful sight to see people of completely different backgrounds schmoozing over falafel and humous.
We may not have solved global conflict between peoples, but the fact that we had such a conversation is testament to the desire of people to come together when it matters and to build a platform from which to deal with difficult issues. We hope to build on the success of this conference and further develop the relationships between the societies. Perhaps in five years, such an event will be commonplace.