ABU DHABI // Universities must lead the way in fostering dialogue between faiths, academic and religious leaders say.
The academic world has "a premier role in confronting these challenges in the Arab region", Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, president of Zayed University and Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told an interfaith symposium.
He said the university had to carry on the work of the late president, Sheikh Zayed, who he said believed firmly in peace and tolerance.
Zayed University's new Islamic Centre, scheduled to open this year, will host events and seminars to promote dialogue between faiths.
Sulaiman al Jassim, vice president of the university, said education was "an effective force for understanding, progress and stability", although it had its opponents. "The voices of extremists and external forces … work very hard in instilling doubt and disrupting the community's stability," he said.
Al Habib Ali al Jifri, head of the Tabah Foundation for Islamic Studies in Abu Dhabi, called on the UAE to host interfaith conferences such as those at Yale and Georgetown universities in the US.
With Isaac al Anba Bishoy, pastor of St Anthony's Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Abu Dhabi, alongside him, Mr al Jifri spoke out against extremists and religious leaders who incite them. "It's not enough for me that Islam disapproves of extremism," he said. "We must go a step further and actively promote the true understanding of our religions and go to the extremists and bring these arguments to them."
The speakers were taking part in a symposium at Zayed University last week, entitled "15 Centuries of Love And Affection".
In June 2009 the US president Barack Obama addressed Muslims worldwide in Cairo, talking of the need to bridge the gap between Islam and the West through education.
He called for more exchange programmes and scholarships "like the one that brought my father to America". Beyond that, he promised to encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities and to "match promising Muslim students with internships in America".
Dalia Mogahed, director of the new Gallup research centre in Abu Dhabi and a former adviser to Mr Obama on Muslim affairs, says universities are where students of different faiths often come together for the first time.
This is especially true in the UAE, whose student population includes individuals from myriad countries and faiths, she said.
"Combining free thought with a platform for exchange makes universities the ideal place to explore commonality," Ms Mogahed said.
She said the next step was for students not only to talk to each another, but to work with other faiths to foster true understanding.
She used as an example the Interfaith Youth Corps project in the US, in which students volunteer in the community to gain a greater understanding of the many different types of people around them.
She said there were challenges, such as that many parents from traditional backgrounds feared that their children's identities were threatened by such interfaith initiatives, but if the stress were placed on education, as opposed to proselytising, the exchange of ideas could be fruitful and lead to harmonious dialogue.
The American University of Sharjah held a series of events this month to promote peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The programme was opened by Sayyed Ali al Hashimi, Sheikh Khalifa's adviser on judicial and religious affairs, who said the Prophet Mohammed had "warned against mistreating non-Muslims".
Ahlam al Zahawi, an Arabic professor at the university, said academics had a duty to instil tolerance in their students. "When I taught my students in the beginning, I would talk about our non-Muslim brothers and the students would ask why I called them brothers, saying they are not our brothers; but they are our brothers in humanity, I told them," she said.
Universities have long been venues in which people of different faiths work and play together.
In addition, university societies help students keep in touch with their faiths as they begin new lives, often far from home.
The National University of Singapore’s Interfaith Society regularly hosts students from all religious backgrounds at its social events and debates, with a goal of dispelling misconceptions about religious faiths.
In the US, the University of Seattle has a church, mosque and synagogue in every dormitory, with active groups such as the Muslim Students Association and the Jewish Students Association.
The university’s Interfaith Coordination Team organises events such as EcoSangha, a weekly Zen-based session that focuses on Buddhist stewardship of the environment.
The group seeks to foster both Buddhist practice and serious reflection on the religion’s teachings.
The University of Washington’s Interfaith Council stages events including lectures with titles such as “Understanding Mormonism” that enable students of all faiths to observe religious rituals such as fasting and meditation.
In the UK, most universities are host to an array of societies catering to the country’s many denominations, from Islam to Hinduism.
Imperial College London’s Hindu Society organises arts, sport and cultural activities for Hindus and non-Hindus alike.