Engineering Meaningful Encounters Across Difference

By Ashley Crowson, king’s College London

Since the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris last month and the killings in Denmark last week in which a Jihadist gunman targeted those attending Copenhagen’s main synagogue, interfaith and inter-community relations have inevitably been in the spotlight.

With much of the media often keen to portray the relationship between Muslim and Jewish communities as one of out-and-out hostility centred on an irresolvable religious conflict, heartening acts of inter-community solidarity can often be overlooked. In response to the shootings in Denmark, for instance, a group of young Norwegian Muslims organised a ‘ring of peace’ around Oslo’s main synagogue. More than 1,000 people attended, linking hands to offer symbolic protection and friendship to their Jewish neighbours.

A paper by Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson in The Geographical Journal takes a look at similar forms of ‘meaningful contact’: “contact which breaks down prejudices and translates beyond the moment to produce a more general respect for others.” The authors argue that banal chance encounters with ‘difference’ in the public spaces of Western society have come to be regarded as an “unremarkable feature of everyday life”. They question, however, whether these “fleeting, unintended encounters” really work to bring about mutual respect and understanding.

Turning their focus away from the fact of encounter and, instead, towards the nature of contact, the authors investigate an interfaith cricket programme in a UK city, designed to bring about purposeful and meaningful contact between Jewish and Muslim young people. They found that, at the outset, many of the young participants held negative, stereotypical views of the ‘other’ group. One Muslim participant, for example, said that the only thing he knew about Jewish people was ‘that they are stingy’. Many Jewish participants thought that the Muslims would not be interested in listening to different perspectives because of a narrow focus on their own faith.

In the environment of ‘meaningful contact’ bonds formed around shared interests:

“[I]t was through sharing common interests in sports, video games, TV and films, that they often made connections. These non-religious interests, then, formed the basis for friendships… when they were ‘hanging out’ at The Project… they spoke of those things in their life which bonded them as young men.”

While the authors judged the scheme to be a moderate success, one area of weakness identified was the reluctance to address the intersection of religious and ethnic identities with class. Understandably, the organisers’ nervousness around this topic stemmed from an association of the issue with anti-Semitic stereotypes about the wealth of Jewish communities.

Discussing socio-economic issues, two young Jewish participants told interviewers, “we live on opposite sides of [the city] and so I don’t know if any of them [the Muslim participants] are going on to university” and “we’ve had quite different upbringings”. When asked if they had ever been to the part of the City where the Muslim participants live, both replied that they hadn’t.

It was these “geographical and social differences in the material circumstances of the young people” that, according to the authors, “hinder the ability of young people to influence wider community social relations, limit the sustainability and scale-ability of such connections.” Friendships made did not endure beyond the project and the authors found little evidence of the benefits of the programme’s meaningful encounters being transferred to the communities.

The paper highlights the benefits of and need for ‘meaningful encounters’ with ‘difference’, and also the need for those engineering such encounters to be mindful of intersectional approaches, taking into account the racialized, gendered, generational, religious and class dynamics of the ‘difference’ in question.

 Lucy Mayblin, Gill Valentine and Johan Andersson, 2015, In the contact zone: engineering meaningful encounters across difference through an interfaith projectThe Geographical Journal, doi: 10.1111/geoj.12128.

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