The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) aims to bring religion into the global conversation by putting religious and secular leaders in dialogue with one another. Dr. Jeffrey Haynes aims to bring the goals of the UNAOC, what exactly they're doing to enhance life, and how to measure that enhancement, into conversation with his students by focusing on it during his long-running, but adaptable, Religion and International Relations course.
What was your Enhancing Life course about, and how did you choose the topic?
The course is Religion and International Relations. I’ve been doing it at my present institution for… eight years? The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations—the UNAOC—is a body geared toward bringing cultures together. Not religions per se, but cultures, religions, and civilizations are very closely linked. So, to bring in the UNAOC to this course was to highlight a potential for improved dialogue, and to work on the idea that the United Nations organization, for the first time, is bringing religion into the conversation. In the past it hasn’t, because the United Nations has got a suspicion of religion, due to sort of a memory of the past—a load of wars were caused by religion. So the course is looking at the UNAOC as a source for cooperation rather than conflict. The focus on the UNAOC is a new one, which I began last year.
What did you have the students do during the class?
It’s usually an interactive lecture which will feature not just my “words of wisdom,” but also short videos from the UNAC website, showing how the UNAOC actually functions, which is lots of diplomats talking to each other. And students then talk about whether they see this as a useful way to develop dialogue—it’s very top-down, very official, very formal. Some say, well, it’s elites talking amongst themselves. Others say, no, this is how the message of cooperation spreads, by religious and secular elites actually being seen to observe the benefits of dialogue. That then leads into the question of whether faiths can work together. And that always causes a lot of debate, but always in a very polite way, which is good. So we have this sort of interactive session, and then we have a quick Q&A, and then we have a session at the end where we sum up what we now know. And I think the main thing that comes out of that is many people say, I didn’t know the United Nations did anything like this, it seems to be a very good initiative, let’s hope it comes to something.
Did the students come to a consensus during the course about questions such as the usefulness of the UNAOC as a way to develop dialogue?
Not really, because there’s no way of measuring its success or failure. There’s no sense of auditability. One of the most general critiques of the UNAOC is that they don’t seek judgment, and students pick up on this very quickly, and so they say, okay, this is a good initiative, how do we know if it makes a difference? How do we know it works? And that’s a question which is one I’m trying to ask the UNAOC when I interview them.
What is the public relevance of this material?
I think the UNAOC take on this would be to say, the more (especially) young people are brought into contexts where they can talk to each other, learn from each other, understand that they’re very similar, they realize that they may have different cultural backgrounds but they’re similar in many other ways. That is a highly useful and publicly relevant development.
What were your goals for the class, and how were they related to the goals of the UNAOC?
There’s lots of good going on, and the fact that we don’t notice it is largely linked to the media’s obsession with conflict, violence, disaster, outrage—good news doesn’t sell newspapers, doesn’t make people go to websites. That’s the major thing, really—to try to strike a balance, to try to explain that we don’t have to start from the premise that religion’s involvement in international relations will always be violent and conflict-ridden and will always lead to outcomes we don’t like. It’s a very simplistic message, but you’d be surprised by how hard it is to get across when people have got a very entrenched idea that’s either “all religion is bad” or “their religion is bad.”
What was surprising about teaching the course?
The biggest surprise, and it’s a recurring one, is what a diversity of backgrounds people come from. They could be the son or daughter of a refugee from Somalia, they could be an Orthodox Jew from London. And it’s always a surprise to me that there is this diversity, but also that the diversity encompasses an awful lot of similarities between people. This is both one of the things that I see among the social group, and one of the things that I want to project in the teaching—similarities, in a way, outweigh the differences that we see.
Were there any debates during the past class session that were particularly noteworthy?
The refugee crisis in Europe has brought a different dimension to how we see the material. It’s something that isn’t about religion, it’s about migration and people fleeing persecution. On the other hand, it’s people of different religions. And that’s been a really important dimension to it, one that I hadn’t really brought in before in the same way, but one that the students are incredibly interested in. Because there’s a big sense that these are people of different faiths, but that otherwise they could be me. I have to say that we’ve come to the conclusion that the refugee crisis doesn’t show Europeans in a very good light. It’s not characterized by humanitarian understanding of other people’s plights. Yet, you have also the sense that there are almost unlimited numbers of people trying to get into Europe and that’s clearly going to be a social issue as well—so that’s been crucial to discuss. But I realize that my own understanding of it, my own ability to say “here’s the answer”, isn’t well-developed, so that’s been challenging, but interesting.